Memo to Congress:
Welcome back. We hope you had a nice vacation. And now that you're presumably rested and ready, I have an idea for you.
This may sound radical, but how about using the few weeks that remain of this session to govern rather than position. Positioning -- figuring out, in connection with most major issues, what position you will want to have taken on these issues when the 2000 election rolls around -- may seem to you a useful exercise, but it doesn't much get the country anywhere.
What's developed in our politics over the past several years isn't just the much-decried "partisanship"; it's deeper than that. It's a now-ingrained habit of thinking, a short-term sense of self-preservation. You members of Congress are fortunate that while the public is pretty aware of how our presidents, the current one in particular, have come to rely on polls for deciding their policies, it hasn't yet caught on to the extent to which you've begun to do the same thing. They don't realize that you don't rely on pollsters and political consultants simply to get elected but that you keep them virtually by your side between elections -- that they are as important to you, if not more so, as your staff advisers. They don't know the extent to which you, individually, or the respective party caucuses in the House and Senate -- not to mention the party leaders -- pick positions according to the advice you get from outside.
As one political consultant said to me as we discussed the changes in Congress over recent years, "We've always had lunkheads, and we had exotica, but they were talented. They used to have ideas. Now you have a whole set of politicians whose guiding idea is, `Where's my pollster?' "
The job of the pollsters and consultants, who include some very estimable and thoughtful people, is to get their client reelected; it isn't their job to think long term, or about the country as a whole. So the advice they give you is skewed toward the short term. They're just doing their job.
Your increasing careerism -- perhaps reflective of much of the rest of society -- is also part of the problem. In fact, it's changed the very nature of the House and the Senate. As my friend the consultant said, "In the old days you had to have some convictions. Today we have hyper-democracy, based on polls and money. If you can get the money it propels you into the House, and then, whether or not you have anything to recommend you, you go to the Senate because it's the next step."
Now, nearly half the Senate is composed of former House members who have brought with them the House's more fractious ways and tactical thinking. I know that this bothers some of you: "There are too many former House members around here," a Democratic senator said to me in despair. A lot of people attribute the increased fractiousness of both chambers to Newt Gingrich, but you and I know that Newt is only part of the story; the Democrats who have come to the Senate from the House are just as combative and tactical as their Republican counterparts.
This isn't to say that the old days were golden: The system was far more closed than it is now; women and minorities were virtually shut out electorally.
But there were more people, on both sides of the aisle, who saw their job as governing, as finding compromises to advance the national agenda.
Therefore, it's no wonder that when the Senate in July considered HMO reform -- an issue of great importance to millions of Americans -- it abjured the compromise that was at hand, and instead both sides positioned. The result was a bill, passed on a party-line vote, that, as everyone knew, the president would have to veto. It's why there is little hope for reform of Medicare or Social Security before the next election (which will, of course, be followed by another election). It explains why the outlook for this fall is for a series of fights over the budget, and there's even talk -- glory be -- of another government shutdown. (Clinton won the positioning fight on the last one, during the Christmas season of 1995, and might be tempted to stage a rerun.)
Given all this, it's not the least bit surprising that the public is turning off of politics and tuning you out. This is where my idea comes in. If you tried a little more governing -- more solving problems rather than exploiting them for your short-term political goals -- the people might come to feel that you have some worth after all.
Elizabeth Drew's most recent book is "The Corruption of American Politics; What Went Wrong and Why."