Eighth in a series
WASHINGTON — Rick Nolan fondly recalls his first days in Congress. He played basketball with teammates Al Gore and Dan Quayle, joined scrimmages against the Russian embassy staff, and signed up for a baseball team called the “Knee-Jerk Liberals.’’
Back then, in the 1970s, Nolan brought his wife and four young children from Minnesota to live with him in Washington. He and his family even spent weekends with congressional colleagues camping, hiking, and attending bipartisan barbecues. After three terms, Nolan left Congress in 1981, retiring and going back to farming.
Flash ahead three decades: Nolan, who party leaders saw as having the best shot at unseating a Tea Party-backed Republican incumbent, soon found himself back in Congress. He now holds the record of the longest gap between two terms in congressional history. The Democratic representative jokes that it is as if he took a 32-year nap. His staff calls him “Rick van Winkle.”
And just as in the tale, he no longer recognizes the world he has found himself in.
Washington has become an increasingly dysfunctional place. There may be no better way to see the shift than through the eyes of Nolan.
He sees a Congress that does not meet as often, where few members linger on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers jet in and out of the city’s airport on a dizzying weekly schedule. Representatives pass in hallways but do not know each other’s names. Raising campaign money requires more time than actual legislating — which, anyway, is mostly limited to naming bridges, approving post offices, and participating in the occasionally sharply divided votes on a bill that is doomed to fail in a partisan black hole.
“It’s quite dramatically, profoundly different,” Nolan says. “In big ways and small ways.”
Emblematic is a small change that has become one of Nolan’s pet peeves: The House dining room, where he fondly remembers sitting at all hours of the day with his congressional colleagues, now closes in the early afternoon. Lost is an opportunity to make the personal connections that today’s Congress so sorely lacks.
Nolan compares himself to an uncle who notices that his nephew has changed significantly in the years since the last visit, identifying things a parent might miss.
Old guard returns
Not only did Nolan — who is 69 years old and no longer sports the beard and long hair he did in his youth — return after a long gap, he brought four staffers back from his past.
Steve Johnson, his press secretary then and now, laments over how the 24-hour news cycle has changed the media and information environment. Jim Swiderski, his legislative director, deplores how partisan the Capitol now feels. In earlier years, he says, there were more opportunities to cut deals. Northeastern Republicans were willing to work with Nolan more often than Southern Democrats. That meant coalitions would form along regional lines, and the party line votes that are so common now were rare.
Legislation often percolated up through committees, rather than being predetermined by top leadership. That meant committees met so frequently that staffers and lawmakers were forced into relationships that often led to more compromise and better legislation.
“It’s . . . months into the calendar year and I still don’t know the names of the majority staff on the committees we serve,” Swiderski says. “I have to look it up.”
“There was this amount of cordiality that was kind of surprising when you first got here,” Swiderski says. “Coming off a campaign where the Republicans were the evil people trying to do you in, it took a while to downshift to now you’re in public office and Republicans have ideas just as much as Democrats. ‘Let’s work together’ — that was the prevailing mood.”
Now, he says, “It’s warfare. Warfare’s probably a harsh term. But it’s not collegiality. It’s competitive partisan politics. That’s just not healthy.”
One of the biggest differences, Nolan says, is the money. During his last campaign, in 1978, he and his opponent combined spent about $255,000, or around $900,000 when adjusted for inflation, according to Federal Election Commission records. There were no outside groups involved in running ads.
The 2012 campaign could not have been more different. Nearly $13 million was spent on the race, only about one-fourth of which was spent by Nolan and Chip Cravaack, the Republican incumbent. The rest of the money came from well-funded outside groups. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and its Republican counterpart each put in about $2 million. A conservative group, the American Action Network, poured about $1.7 million into the district, while a liberal group, House Majority PAC, put in $1.5 million.
Almost immediately after new members got into office, Nolan says, the DCCC began coaching them on fund-raising. A schedule from that session showed that they should spend four hours each day asking for money – more time than any other activity and more than twice the amount of time they should be spending debating issues on the House floor or hammering out legislation in committees.
Nolan says he understood the impulse — the candidate with the most amount of money typically wins — but he was taken aback. He says he’s been reprimanded by Democratic leadership for not raising enough money. He says he has not set foot in a call center that the DCCC set up near Congress, where cubicles are lined up so that congressmen can come in and dial their donors without using congressional resources.
“It helps dictate the ultimate decisions around here. We have a saying out in the country, ‘Who pays the fiddler gets to pick the tune,’ ” Nolan says. “Not only does it take away time from governance, but it has an equally adverse tendency to corrupt and pervert the public policy process.”
Nolan says he holds around one fund-raiser each week, but still has no plans to use the DCCC’s call center.
“I find it distasteful,” he says.
Standing against the tide
As the world around him has shifted, Nolan acts as if nothing has changed, even though he knows everything has. He wants everyone to be his friend. He wants bipartisan deal-making to be encouraged. He is eager for open and messy debate on the House floor.
But he keeps bumping into a new reality every day: a constant stream of cable news, often with partisan viewpoints that attract like-minded viewers and harden positions. Politician after politician come forward to appear before the cameras on their favorite networks. Consultants and political operatives try to win the moment on Twitter. Ubiquitous, low-cost campaign ads sprout online.
It all feeds a toxic atmosphere that makes it hard to get anything done.
One recent analysis of congressional voting records found that the last Congress was more polarized than ever — at levels higher than before, during, or after the Civil War. The analysis uses voting records of members of each party, determining how often they vote strictly with their party.
“They’re the most dysfunctional group of political leaders the United States has had since the 1850s,” says Keith Poole, a professor at the University of Georgia who helped develop the system to measure polarization in Congress. “All I can say is the country is in really deep trouble. Much deeper than people realize.”
Nolan himself seems an illustration that Congress may not be able to backslap its way to compromise.
On a recent weekday, Nolan’s schedule is crammed full of activities, meeting with constituents, going to a reception sponsored by the National Pork Producers Association – oh, and a few votes mixed in.
But the middle of the day is the third annual Hot Dish Contest, where every member of the Minnesota delegation is expected to bring a dish, supply the recipe, and be judged on its taste.
Nolan’s office shuts down for the affair so all the staffers can attend out of support.
As soon as Nolan enters the room, Michele Bachmann cries out, “Rick! It’s good to see you!” They exchange a kiss and a warm embrace.
Bachmann corners Nolan. Did they used to have a hot dish cookoff when he served 32 years ago? (No). What was the shape of his district? (He draws a map with his hands in the air).
Nolan motions toward his “Real Deal Ranger Hotdish,” which includes venison, wild rice, onions, and maple syrup.
“I shot the deer,” Nolan tells Bachmann. “We butchered it in the garage.”
“Oh, great!” she exclaims. “You should win for that alone!”
At one point, a Nolan aide leans over to a reporter. “Bringing people together,” he whispers, “one hot dish at a time.”
But politically, Nolan and Bachmann’s friendly exchange is no more lasting than a mirage. It is hard to imagine Nolan — a liberal Democrat — and Bachmann — a conservative Republican — agreeing on any political issue in these hyperpartisan times.
Indeed, they have joined together as sponsors on one piece of legislation. The topic? To name a post office after a police officer who was killed in a town in Bachmann’s district and close to Nolan’s.
Outside, about a dozen high school students from Nolan’s Eighth Congressional District in Minnesota sit on the US Capitol steps and Nolan comes out, removes his coat, and begins a civics lesson.
“Getting together in every respect is fundamental,” Nolan says. “With your lover, your spouse, your job, your community. If people can’t come together, we can’t fix problems. That’s what we’ve gotten away from.”
On this day, the House is scheduled to vote on renewing an environmental bill that would makes it easier to develop hydropower projects. After opposition began to build for one provision in the legislation, House leadership decided to allow an amendment to change it.
Nolan is giddy over the possibility of an amendment. During his first tenure, Nolan says, legislation was frequently crafted in committees. There was rigorous debate among lawmakers, and then it would move to the House floor. More amendments would be offered, in a process that could become drawn out and tedious but also displayed how willing the party in power was to change legislation to garner more support.
“I could count on one hand the number of amendments we’ve been able to add on the House floor,” Nolan says. “Back in the day, we’d deal with 50, 100 – I remember as many as 250 amendments.”
So Nolan is thrilled at this brief return to the old ways.
After he votes, in favor of both the amendment and the legislation, he emerges from the House floor. The bill passes overwhelmingly, 416 to 7, and is awaiting action in the Senate.
“There was cheering and grunting and hooting and hollering,” he says. “It was like a real Congress!”
“Wasn’t that great?” he says. “I talked to several new members. They said it was the most exciting moment since they got elected!”
During the last Congress that Nolan served in, from 1979 to 1980, the House enacted 735 laws. During the 112th, which lasted through 2011 and 2012, Congress enacted only 284 laws.
The fact that a rare amendment was recently allowed was a good sign, Nolan says.
Back in his office, he lets his legislative director know.
“It passed?” Swiderksi says. “All right. Wowww. . . .”
A familiar feel
The sun is setting on Washington, and Nolan is heading away from the Capitol. He is going to We the Pizza, a restaurant a few blocks away, where a group of freshman congressmen are planning to meet. It is the third time that the group — Republicans and Democrats — gathered for a social occasion.
Nolan, and others, see hope in this new class of 84 lawmakers. Many of them view their mandate from voters as one to compromise, in a response to the negative, uncompromising ways of the past several years.
They concede they have little to show for it. They are newly elected members, and many are still learning the voting process on various issues, much less how to craft legislation.
“We’re not Pollyannaish; it’s not like a dinner or two can change it overnight,” says Representative Matt Cartwright, a Democrat from Pennsylvania who helped organize the dinner. “But we think we can make a difference.”
“It’s not like we’re all going to sing “Kumbaya’ and save the planet,” adds Representative Luke Messer, a Republican from Indiana. “But hopefully we can get together and have a dialogue.”
On the second floor, tables are filled with plastic forks and knives, pans of pizza, and cups of beer.
“Can we help you eat this pizza?” Nolan asks a group of congressmen in the corner. He pulls up a chair and engages in small talk, about what committees they’re on, about sports, about their plans for the weekend.
“Who’s your bride, Rick?” Representative Randy Weber, a Texas Republican, asks in his Southern drawl.
“Mary,” Nolan answers, in his Minnesota accent. “What’s your bride’s name?”
“Brenda,” he answers.
Weber pulls out his Blackberry phone. He asks for Nolan’s cellphone and e-mail, which he punches in.
A few minutes later, Nolan leans over and smiles.
“That’s how it used to be,” he says.
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org