Why I love Congress (sort of)

Obama_Health_Care_Speech_to_Joint_Session_of_Congress

I love Congress.

There, I said it. Man did that take a weight off my chest.

I’ve been hiding it for at least three years. It’s not “cool” to love Congress.

To clarify, that doesn’t mean I’m in the 14 or 15 percent of  people who actually approve of the job that the institution is  doing. Congress is notoriously becoming a big ugly building filled with gridlocked do-nothing Washington elites who get paid to bicker all day and espouse extreme views on biased cable news, all under the guise of “representing their constituents.”

But I’ve realized something while serving as The Daily Tar Heel’s State & National Editor and taking an upper-level honors course this spring: Congress is fascinating.

On the first day of that class, my professor asked us, “Raise your hand if you like Congress.” No one moved a muscle. “So,” she said, “then why are you here?”

Three months later, “Legislative Politics” has become my favorite course this semester. When the 15 of us enter Graham Memorial every Tuesday and Thursday, we spend more than an hour in non-stop discussion. We talk about parties, elections, committees, bipartisanship (or not), the role of the media in politics. We talk about our nation’s two-party system and what implications it has for representation and productivity.

Today, we talked about polarization. Is the American electorate moderate, or is it becoming more polarized? And if we are moderate, why are we electing extremists with no interest in compromise who only push a staunchly socialist or anti-Obama agenda? Some political watchers suggest that a third party in the mix might set Congress straight. Of course, that’s virtually impossible in a first-past-the-post electoral system.

As we neared the end, one of the class’s conclusions was something along the lines of “this new era of polarization and people hating Congress is all the media’s fault. … Oh wait, sorry Sarah.” I laughed.

Still, I’ve been thinking about it all afternoon since then — is the news media why people hate Congress?

Today, all of the ugly aspects of Congress are circulated widely, thanks to a 24/7 news and media cycle and an Internet that makes off-the-wall remarks or eleventh-hour policy drama go viral. So as far as explaining why, exactly, public approval of Congress is so low, I haven’t found a better answer than the media.

In trying to publish an “objective” story, we journalists generally try to give both sides of the issue the same weight. That’s especially true in political writing. There is a proposed change to current U.S. policy, and there are people for it and people against it. We’re accused of bias if we don’t offer both angles an equal voice.

The way journalists cover it, there’s inherently a conflict over every legislative bill — which always causes partisan gridlock, which halts productivity, which further worsens Congress’ reputation. It’s a lot easier as a journalist to sell stories of the most extreme aspects of Congress, marketing elections as a two-horse race and floor debate on key proposals as a game of tug-of-war.

But sometimes, that isn’t completely fair. We only write about what goes wrong in Congress on major policy matters — a narrow, cherry-picked view of the institution itself. If there are success stories of bipartisan compromise on smaller, less prominent issues, journalists don’t tell them. The public therefore only sees the ugly aspects of creating laws (also known as sausage-making). And they see a lot more of it in this age of digital media and 24-hour news networks.

Congress and I have a weird relationship. I see the stubborn lack of agreement. I see the nasty attack ads and obscene amounts of political campaign spending. I see politicians go on the record and say some really dumb things (oh Michele Bachmann, how we miss you). On the other hand, that conflict, that reality-TV-esque drama — that’s an easy way for journalists to sell a story. Given that I’m going to be looking for someone to pay me for journalism in the incredibly near future, that matters to me.

At the same time, I’m aware that the stories I’ll be telling might misrepresent some aspects of the institution and the people in it.

No, I don’t like the job Congress is currently doing. But it’s sure made me think deeply and critically about American society, about politics and about the role of journalism in covering it. The institution not only has a fascinating history, but it’s also important. It matters. A lot.

That’s why I love Congress.

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