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LOWELL — The president is terrifyingly inept, some in his circle seem determined to dismantle government, the GOP is hell-bent on uninsuring millions and slashing taxes for the rich, Congress is utterly despised, and the country is hopelessly divided.
So why is congresswoman Niki Tsongas so darned sunny?
“I think it’s important not to be captive of the presumption that, just because there is this intense partisan atmosphere in Washington, that you can’t get things done,” Tsongas said, sitting in her office in a converted mill by the Merrimack River on a recent sunny morning. “There’s a system in place to help us right this ship.”
Could’ve fooled me. Perhaps Tsongas feels this way because she is on her way out. The Lowell Democrat recently announced her retirement, after 10 years in office. Nostalgia can distort one’s view of a soon-to-be-former workplace.
But, no. Tsongas insists that her view of Congress is based on experience.
Her House is a place where women are rising, and increasingly powerful.
And where bipartisanship is a fairly commonplace thing. It doesn’t hurt that she sits on the Armed Services Committee. The military is one of the few subjects left where members of both parties agree on enough to actually get stuff done.
Together with Ohio Republican Mike Turner, Tsongas has done plenty, especially for women in the military. Legislation they authored over the years forced the military to take claims of sexual assault more seriously; it guaranteed confidentiality and access to legal counsel for sexual assault victims; it expedited transfers for victims so that they would not have to continue to serve with those who assaulted them.
“I’ve been happy to have her as a partner and a friend,” Turner said. “A lot of work gets done in Congress, but people don’t hear about the good stories until there is a retirement.”
Sure. But it’s still pretty ugly there, particularly now, when the president has made enemies not just in Tsongas’s party, but among Republicans as well — several of whom have announced their own departures in recent weeks.
It looks better from the inside, though, Tsongas says, with hearings, votes, and constituent services creating a sense of order that might not be obvious to those looking on in abject horror. She took comfort in the bipartisan effort — with near-unanimous votes in both chambers — to tie President Trump’s hands on Russia sanctions.
Tsongas insists Trump’s ascendancy was not a factor in her decision to retire: At 71, she says, she wanted to spend time with her growing brood of grandchildren. But what if Hillary Clinton were president?
“I can’t say for sure, but my guess is I still would have come to the same conclusion,” she said.
She’ll leave Congress feeling cautiously optimistic, but there’s one thing she won’t miss — the hours spent asking for campaign donations.
“To not have to spend time fund-raising, that is a weight lifted,” she said. It’s a different world from when her late husband Paul was in Congress 40 years ago. A picture from 1976 showing his campaign headquarters on Central Street hangs on a wall. “We needed so little money then,” she said, wistfully. Also, his Congress actually got big things done, no matter who was in the majority.
They’ll do it again, Tsongas believes. She says she has seen this before, when the nation was sorely tested amidst the traumatic divisions of the Vietnam era. Tsongas, the daughter of an Air Force colonel, joined the anti-war movement, and campaigned for Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire in the winter of 1968, knocking on doors for the man who challenged the sitting president of his own party over Vietnam.
“The process changes things, slowly,” she said. “The system gets tested, but we are able to move ourselves through it.”
Some will find less comfort in that particular historical lesson, though.
A few months after Tsongas campaigned for McCarthy in New Hampshire, her candidate’s clock was cleaned at the tumultuous 1968 convention. Richard Nixon became president, and we got seven more years of senseless war.
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