The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congress is as terrible as it seems, according to someone who would know

President Obama talking to a sea of greedy faces? So says one anonymous congressman in a new book. (The Washington Post)

Greedy. Self-obsessed. Jaded. Power-obsessed. Influenced by no one — except, of course, the cash-carrying lobbyists and super PACs.

That’s how Congressman X, the anonymous lawmaker who allegedly spilled all to magazine writer Robert Atkinson, describes his job and colleagues in a new book, "The Confessions of Congressman X: A disturbing and shockingly frank tell-all of vanity, greed and deceit.”

As you can probably tell from the title, the book is overwhelmingly cynical about Congress’s ability to effect any real change for real people. Instead, it portrays a shadowy world where constituents take a back seat to lobbyists and power.

As much as this guy (and Congressman X does seem to be a guy; my best guess is that he’s a moderate Democrat with some seniority) appears to hate Congress, polls suggest Americans agree with him.

Seventy-eight percent of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing, according to the latest Gallup poll, from early May. (That’s actually an improvement from the 86 percent disapproval rating in November, but you get my point.)

So is Congressman X right? Has an irreparably dysfunctional Congress lost all sense of moral decency? The Fix talked to a not-anonymous congressman, Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who has been in Congress more than a decade, to get his take.

In between doing laundry and mopping, Cole chatted with us by phone this Memorial Day weekend as we ran by him some of Congressman X’s more provocative statements about the way Congress works.

To summarize his takeaway: No, Congressman X does not have it right. This person is seeing things through a very narrow, very cynical lens. Cole’s longer answer is below in response to snippets from the book. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

CONGRESSMAN X: “You know why I want to keep my seat? I like the power and recognition. The opportunity to be at the center of things. To make my mark on history and mold the society in which I live.”

COLE: You don’t have that much power as an individual congressman. You’re not like a governor, you’re not like the president of the United States. You’re one of 435. You’re one-half of one-third of the federal government. Congressmen are mostly pretty obscure, and they’re not nearly as powerful.

The one thing I would agree with what Congressman X talked about is you do get a unique privilege to be at the center of things. You need to recognize you’re usually in the Greek chorus — you’re not the star on the stage — but in the entire history of the country, only 10,883 people have ever served in House, of all the hundreds of millions of Americans. That is pretty amazing to me.

CONGRESSMAN X: “How ironic that most of us in Congress run against Congress and the culture of corruption we perpetuate. ... Insincerity from the heart. It’s just another component of politics as usual.”

COLE: Depends on what kind of corruption we’re talking about. If he’s talking about bribes, well, since I’ve been in office, there have certainly been some people go to jail. But you’re really stupid if you engage in corruption in Congress. There are over 200 FBI agents at the [Justice Department’s] Public Integrity Section, which focuses solely on Congress.

If he’s talking about money in politics, people usually contribute to people they already know see the world in the same way. It’s no big surprise that a Republican representing a conservative military district would be getting a lot of contributions from defense contractors, or a person that represents an oil and gas district would be getting contributions from an oil and gas contractor. You’re probably respecting their interests already, because it’s also in the interest of the constituents you represent, and it’s what you believe in.

Plus, you’ve got to reach an electorate of, say, 700,000 people, and most Americans don’t like taxpayer-funded elections. Running for office is about building support and attracting people to your side and persuading them.

CONGRESSMAN X: “I flatter constituents with birthday greetings on gold-embossed congressional stationery. ... It’s all a crock, but happy people mean more votes at the polls. And that’s what it’s all about.”

COLE: Somebody asked me once: What do you do the most of? Listen. That’s what you do at a hearing. That’s what you do when constituents or an advocacy group come to your office. That’s what you do at a town hall. You spend more time listening than talking or doing anything else. And you learn a lot. I’m amazed at the number of things I now know are going on around me in my district I had no earthly idea about when I first ran.

CONGRESSMAN X: “The average man on the street actually thinks he influences how I vote. Unless it’s a hot-button issue, his thoughts are generally meaningless. I’ll politely listen, but I follow the money.”

COLE: People are not naive. They’re not that easily manipulated. They generally pick phonies out and get rid of them. And you just don’t last very long if you don’t really care about your constituents, and they don’t believe you care, and you don’t work on their behalf. You should — they’ve given you an amazing privilege. I’m a very lucky guy to get to do the job I get to do, and when you cease feeling that way, then it’s really time to quit. There will be a line of people happy to take your job.

We asked members of Congress whether they'd vote for "House of Cards" character Frank Underwood, or a real presidential candidate. Here's what they said. (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

CONGRESSMAN X: “There’s a rising resentment and loss of faith between the American people and their government. They don’t believe we really understand their problems. ... America’s on an irreversible decline, and no one in Washington seems to care.”

COLE: It’s sad that this cynicism is there, but it is. Let me offer two conflicting views. First, let's talk about this Congress (the one that started January 2015, the 114th). It’s actually been a pretty productive Congress. This is the first Congress since 2001 where both the House and Senate agreed on a budget and lived by it. The first time since 2001 or 2002 since we overhauled education. … I could go on. (Editor’s note: He does.)

It’s true it gets harder and harder to work across the aisle. But that really reflects the reality outside Congress. The last couple of years, the most conservative Democrat is more liberal than the most liberal Republican, and vice versa. So, you think, where does that come from?

We’re still in an era where two different Americas show up at the polls: The America that shows up in 2008 and elects the president and gives him huge majorities in Congress. Then two years later, an America shows up that strips him of his House majority and creates the largest, most conservative Republican majority since the Second World War.

The next America comes back in 2012 and reelects Obama, then in ’14 takes away his control of the Senate and adds to the Republican House majority.

So if you’re on the outside looking in, you think, Why can’t you get anything done? But if you’re on the inside looking out, it's, Why can’t you guys make up your mind?