07/18/2012 11:29 am ET | Updated Sep 17, 2012

Capitol Hell

When the power to declare war was added to Article 1 of the Constitution, our founders hardly intended for Congress to use it to declare war on itself. Yet as hostilities among congressional Republicans and Democrats continue to escalate, and the level of discourse plunges to new depths, it is now clear that the asylum has been wholly surrendered to the inmates.

The 112th Congress is a strident, shameful lot that has slowly eviscerated, brick by brick, one of our most treasured institutions. Sure, there are earnest statesmen and pockets of decency here and there. But the few remaining voices of reason in the House and Senate have been shouted down by the bands of self-righteous ideologues that have commandeered the Capitol with their singular devotion to one and only one objective -- winning the next election. Those with differing political views have been branded by these holy warriors as sworn enemies of righteousness. Governance has become an afterthought.

For those of us who were once members of the Capitol Hill community, this self-destruction has been heartbreaking to witness. An institution that so many have been so proud to serve has become irrevocably tarnished. Employment on the Hill was once revered, an honor badge we wore on our sleeves. We eagerly shared our work with our families and friends back home, revealing our bit parts in the legislative process and sharing, in confidence, little-known tales of the many larger-than-life icons who filled the House and Senate chambers. It was a special pride that only those who worked on the Hill can understand.

Those memories seem so distant now, a forgotten era. The futility and toxicity of Congress today and the deafening prattle from Republicans and Democrats alike make former Hill staffers feel a bit like those who leapt from the doomed Titanic as she descended beneath the waves, eternally thankful to have escaped in time. We grieve for those left below decks, and watch helplessly as Richard Lugar and Olympia Snowe desperately swim for the lifeboats only to be crushed by falling smokestacks.

We'll soon be approaching the autumn months, a time when the most critical and contentious bills were typically completed on the Hill. The better parts of October and November were once marked by frenzied negotiations, brokered cease fires and deal cutting that enabled Congress to adjourn for the year and focus on the campaign trail and reelection efforts. It wasn't the most virtuous of incentives, but it moved Congress along, and the country with it.

Today, there is little need for Congress to break away from Washington for the campaign trail; Congress has become the campaign trail. So preoccupied with election strategies, fundraising and demonizing adversaries, Congress is now hopelessly mired in a static trench warfare.

The mantle of responsible governance as envisioned by our Constitutional architects has
vanished, leaving behind a shell of an institution crippled by self-inflicted wounds and consumed with self-interest. There is little hope today for reconciliation among congressional Democrats and Republicans, many of whom are little more than ideological gladiators who have forsaken moderation and progress for rigidity and sanctimony.

Partisanship has been an enduring trait of our political system since Congress first convened in New York in the late 18th Century. Few were above it; the presidential election of 1800 featuring two of our most revered founders, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, was perhaps the most virulent in our nation's history. Jefferson described Adams as a "blind, bald, crippled, toothless man." Adams produced a flyer calling Jefferson a "mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." So much for domestic tranquility. I can hear Adams now. "Really, Mr. President, Bain Capital? That's it?"

Back to the founders. Article I of the Constitution and the rubrics of the House and Senate have built Congress for dissension. Even high school students (OK, some high school students) understand that the House and Senate were engineered by James Madison and his contemporaries to be both deliberative and quarrelsome. Congress was to be a national legislature comprised of earnest, respected citizens responsible for managing our fiscal affairs and preserving our general welfare. It would represent geographical diversity and reflect a variance of vocations and perspectives. Our founders anticipated philosophical disparities within, but also envisioned institutional tensions, positioning Congress as a check on the ambitions of the executive branch, perhaps the most vital of its obligations.

Notwithstanding the observations of failed Constitutional historian Harry Reid -- we'll get to that shortly -- James Madison et al sought healthy deliberation, not utter dysfunction and paralysis. They hardly imagined congressional leaders furtively patrolling the corridors of the Capitol, pillows in hand, ready to smother any Member with the audacity to reach across the political aisle to find compromise or consensus.

American politics has never been for the faint of heart. As distasteful as we may find it, we now expect the records and life histories of congressional candidates to be scoured for political and personal vulnerabilities. The information age has made opposition research a flourishing cottage industry. While this much is now expected in the digital era, the savagery and acerbic discourse we see today appears to know no bounds. This was not always the case.

In 1993, the year I arrived in Washington, Capitol Hill was a welcoming environment. Pre-dating the Oklahoma City and the 9/11 attacks, the Hill was virtually an open campus other than direct entry to the House or Senate and neighboring buildings. You could walk or drive freely among the office buildings and even toss a football on the Capitol lawn. Today, security threats have required most of the adjacent streets to be fenced off and lined with ominous concrete barriers and hardened guard posts. Workers and tourists alike stroll amid a heavily-armed police presence that saturates Capitol Hill. The hospitable atmosphere of yesteryear has been pushed aside by a bunker mentality, owing itself as much to the relentless intra-congressional brawling as the threat of a terrorist strike.

Many of us who cut our teeth on Capitol Hill in the 1980s and 1990s can remember when Members and staff of opposing parties could openly forge working relationships and personal friendships. An era when politics could take a backseat to substance, when Republican and Democratic staffers worked side by side, collaborated when possible, and even socialized together. We were rivals and competitors, not blood enemies.

Back then, it was not uncommon for Republicans and Democrats to set aside their political differences and build alliances. It wasn't often, but it was not yet verboten either. But as the 1990s came to a close, the institution that I had revered years earlier was beginning to crumble. Somewhere along the way, amiable, deal-making leaders on both sides had given way to angry, unbending standard bearers.

The rank and file of Congress had always included a handful of bombastic, fringe individuals, from Bob Dornan to James Traficant. These figures were so buffoonish and outlandish they could hardly be taken seriously. Yet in recent years the congressional leadership had moved closer and closer to these outer edges of sanity, embracing an increasingly sharp-elbowed and downright viperous style. First, the mild-mannered Bob Michel gave way to Newt Gingrich. Then Tom Delay became an even more belligerent Tom Delay. The Bob Doles and George Mitchells stepped down from the Senate, supplanted by lightweights Trent Lott and Tom Daschle. The beat goes on.

Congress has picked an inopportune time to kneecap itself. Our nation is plagued by budget deficits, with the government spending more than $1 trillion more than it takes in every year. We have a staggering $16 trillion federal debt, the bulk of which is held by our foremost foreign adversary. Changing demographics have made Social Security and Medicare, programs that have lifted millions of older Americans out of poverty and poor health, simply untenable. And we continue to face ominous threats from overseas, with unforeseeable events shaking out in Iran, Syria, North Korea, Pakistan and elsewhere.

The central question is whether Congress is willing to end what one Senator has referred to as its "steady march toward abject ineffectiveness" and claw its way out of the partisan quicksand. There seems to be no eagerness to do so. With political fortunes driving the congressional agenda, legislative failures and filibusters are now the end game, spun into badges of courage by Members of Congress with Don Quixote complexes. There is little appetite for collaboration between the two parties, and thus a scarcity of personal relationships between Democratic and Republican staff. Most staff members view their counterparts across the aisle as little more than faceless obstacles to electoral objectives.

Perhaps there is hope for Congress, but who will step forward to lead this institution back to its rightful standing? It won't be the current Senate leaders. Majority Leader Harry Reid deflected the blame for the intransigence, suggesting it is the Senate's destiny. "It's because of the Founding Fathers," he argued, "that's the way they set up this country." That is brilliant, Harry, because if there is one thing our Constitutional framers lacked, it was foresight. Reid's counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, went a step further, impersonating the young cadet in Animal House who assured a stampeding mob that all was well while chaos ensued behind him. "It might look like dysfunction," McConnell recently told a group of former colleagues, "but it is our dysfunction... it not only works, but it's the glory of the republic. And none of us would change a thing about it."

While those who agree with McConnell's self-delusional "glory of the republic" remark are limited to his senior staff and some high school students (OK, no high school students), his final observation may be accurate. There are only two paths to reversing the self-destructive course that Congress has charted for itself. First, we send Katniss Everdeen to Congress as a tribute. Second, and perhaps even more implausible, is that voters start holding themselves accountable for their actions on Election Day. How different would Washington be if that which is demanded of Congress as a whole -- integrity, civility, earnestness, and simple human decency -- were demanded equally of the individual candidates each voter chose to support? The 1994 and 2010 elections proved that throwing the bums out, and trading them for more shrill bums, is not the answer. Our founders deserve better, as do those of us who once faithfully served this vital institution.