By Dana Milbank
Friday, May 12, 2006
Alan Simpson left Congress only nine years ago, but he is already of a different era.
The former Senate majority whip, in town this week to give a couple of speeches, could hardly recognize his old home.
He was shocked to read that House Republicans wouldn't pass a mental-health bill because it had Democratic sponsors. "You've got to have rocks for brains to do that," the Wyoming Republican complained. "We never had that kind of thing. We just didn't do that to each other."
He was sad that lawmakers had forgotten how to compromise. "The phrase which is now prevalent here . . . is 'Don't get mad, get even,' " Simpson, now 74, told a small group at a Library of Congress lecture. "Those who say 'Don't get mad, get even' are sick, in my mind. They're not productive legislators; you have to learn how to compromise on an issue without compromising yourself."
And he was chagrined that the paralyzing partisanship had found its way to the Senate. House members, he said, "began to run for the Senate and they brought the venom from the House to the Senate."
Not that the new breed of haters -- "seethers," as he calls them -- will pay any attention, but Simpson thinks he has a solution. Together with other Senate old-timers, Republican Warren Rudman and Democrats Bob Kerrey and Bill Bradley, he's starting a new push for taxpayer-funded elections.
Even in his day, Simpson recalled at the National Press Club yesterday, he would schedule a late-evening vote and find a line of "people from both sides of the aisle, like children in the fourth grade, saying 'I can't be here tonight -- I've got to be in Detroit for a fundraiser,' 'I've got to be in Scottsdale,' 'I've got to be in Miami,' 'I've got to be in New York.' " Meanwhile, he continued, "there are 10 calendar items on the floor of the U.S. Senate that aren't being addressed because everybody is out raising bucks."
Now, of course, the money chase is far worse, and lawmakers have even less time in town to pass legislation or to form the kind of bonds that would transcend party. The House is on pace to set a modern record for fewest days in session, and the overall output of Congress is at a historic low.
That's no coincidence. "America has observed a deterioration in the capacity of Republicans and Democrats to work together, and no small contributor to that is the money that's needed to run a campaign," Kerrey said yesterday, joining the Simpson event by teleconference. Congressional campaign committees, the Nebraska Democrat said, have "become vehicles that are used to campaign against a colleague."
It was pretty heavy stuff, particularly for Simpson, who, in the first of two events, was supposed to be giving a lecture at the Library of Congress about "Humor in Public Life." And, in fact, he reprised some of the better aphorisms collected during his legislative career. "About 15 percent of the people in America are screwballs, lightweights and boobs," he said, "and you don't want people like that not represented in the Congress."
With Garrison Keillor delivery and G-rated material, he trotted out the old dinner-circuit one-liners ("Of all the introductions I've ever had, that was the most recent"), the jokes about his post-Senate scholarly work ("I never graduated cum laude; I graduated thank-the-laude"), the one about the two prisoners talking ("The food was better here when you were governor") and an atrocious pun about a barefoot, frail Gandhi with bad breath ("super-calloused fragile mystic hexed with halitosis").
But the closer he got to the current state of politics, the more anger crept in. "In politics," he lectured, "there are no right answers, only a continuing flow of compromises among groups, resulting in a changing, cloudy and ambiguous series of public decisions where appetite and ambition compete openly with knowledge and wisdom."
The chuckles had stopped and the audience was still. "Had enough humor yet?" Simpson inquired.
Simpson cast blame widely for the current "lack of civility" and growing humorlessness in Congress: television in the chamber, political correctness and a coarsening culture. "The Anglo-Saxon word uttered by Dick Cheney once can be heard 50 times in a PG movie," he postulated.
He admitted to his own occasional losses of civility, such as his grilling of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas debate ("I lost my marbles," he explained). But he was almost ostentatious about his bipartisan working groups and his cross-aisle friendships. Spying Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, a former Democratic congressman, Simpson called out "Now watch this!" and gave him a big hug. He singled out two former senators in the audience, Bennett Johnston and Paul Laxalt, "one Democrat, one Republican" -- sitting next to each other .
Simpson's recollections of the wittiest in Congress were similarly evenhanded: Bob Dole and Arlen Specter for the Republicans, Ted Kennedy and Mo Udall for the Democrats. This doesn't bode well for the lighthearted: Kennedy and Specter are two of the oldest members of the Senate, Dole is retired, and Udall is dead.