In the final stages of working on my memoir, one thing stands out: I got better at my job over time. Some of the accomplishments of which I am proudest came after I had served in the US House of Representatives for more than 20 years. For most occupations, saying that would seem neither surprising nor controversial. But today, illogically, some people argue that experience on the job is somehow a disqualification for service in Congress.
I share the dissatisfaction that is prevalent with the way in which Congress has been functioning recently. But the notion that the way to fix this situation is to treat service as a negative factor, regardless of the record of the individual in question, is flatly wrong. Having a very good understanding of how to do the job; knowing your colleagues, and their interests, talents, and motives; and being familiar with the ways in which the executive branch functions and how best to influence its actions are good things.
It is not the case that the inability of members of Congress to work together constructively is a result of them having been in office for too long. I encountered during my 32 years in office only a handful of cases in which people who were admirable members in their first two or three terms became undesirable members after eight or nine.
It is important to note that total gridlock is a recent phenomenon. In 2009 and 2010 Congress worked with President Obama to adopt health care expansion, financial reform, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and increased protection for women facing job discrimination. In 2008 a Democratic Congress cooperated with George W. Bush to deal with the financial crisis, and there were significant legislative accomplishments in the first six Bush years. I voted against No Child Left Behind, and I did not agree with the tax cuts, or the Medicare drug program in the form in which it was adopted, but these are hardly evidence that Congress could not act.
The reason we have seen a breakdown since 2011 is a political phenomenon, not an institutional one. People were elected in 2010 who do not believe that government has a constructive function, and resist efforts to make it work. For 15 terms I was able to cooperate on a number of issues with Republicans. By 2011, I was not able to do that, not because having served 30 years destroyed my capacity to do this, but because I confronted a Tea Party-dominated Republican Party which had no interest in making government work.
Rejecting Massachusetts Representative John Tierney because he has been in Congress for 18 years not only ignores his excellent record of advocacy both of national issues and the needs of his district, it will do nothing to induce House Speaker John Boehner to break with the Tea Party to reach the kind of compromises that were the hallmark of congressional leaders before him. The notion that a freshman Democrat will somehow be better able to persuade the right-wing dominated Republican Party suddenly to eschew the rigid ideology and harsh partisanship in which they have engaged is fanciful. I have spoken to a number of freshman Democrats in the current Congress. Without exception, they report dismay at the inflexibility they encounter from the dominant Republicans.
This notion that significant experience in a complex job somehow converts decent, well-intentioned officials into self-serving hacks is particularly wrong in Tierney’s case. Unusually, he has been allowed by the leadership to serve as the lead Democrat on two separate subcommittees. This reflects appreciation for his creativity and expertise both in the field of education and in challenging excessive military spending. He has also been an effective advocate for his district, a fact of which I am particularly aware because the fishing communities of New Bedford and Gloucester have similar interests. Listening to complaints from fishermen about the arbitrary and abusive way in which law enforcement treated them, he almost single-handedly forced the administration to admit that great change was needed.
The return of hundreds of thousands of dollars to fishermen who had been unfairly accused of violating complex and sometimes ambiguous rules governing fishing would not have come about had Tierney been a first or second term member.
Knowing what you are doing — as long as you are well motivated — is as much a positive in Congress as it is in every other area.