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'What Good' Does Congress Do? Don't Ask


The U.S. Congress doesn't win any popularity contests. Approval ratings for the legislative branch run the gamut from dismal to embarrassing. Nine percent at their lowest, and all the chaos and discord in the 112th Congress have distressed a lot of its members too. Democratic representative Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri called the last-minute deal to raise the debt ceiling, quote, "a sugar-coated Satan sandwich. If you lift the bun, you will not like what you see."

Well that not-so-small zinger is among many that appear in a new book by a reporter who essentially embedded himself in Congress after Republicans won control of the House of Representatives. That new book is "Do Not Ask What Good We Do" by Robert Draper. Mr. Draper, a correspondent for GQ and a contributor The New York Times Magazine says it all started in a Washington, D.C. steakhouse.

ROBERT DRAPER: This is January the 20th, 2009, the night that Barack Obama had been inaugurated earlier that day, and 15 Republicans, most of them members of the House of Representatives, gathered really I think just to kind of be among friends to sort of drown their sorrows. A number of them had been at the inauguration. They'd seen that spectacle of 1.8 million people out on the Mall and they thought: we're at an all-time low, how do we dig ourselves out?

And in the course of that four-hour meal, they began to strategize, and what they ultimately came up with was a plan to attack the president's agenda, say no to everything and stick together.

SIMON: Mr. Draper says the strategy worked. Republicans won the house in 2010, including 87 freshman - many of whom had Tea Party support - and they believe intensely in cutting spending to reduce deficits. The new members would drive a bitter showdown with both House Speaker Boehner and President Obama over raising the debt ceiling. A Republican consultant, Frank Luntz, met with the new class during freshman orientation and talked strategy.

DRAPER: And he just took an informal poll amongst the 87 freshman and said how many of you guys will vote to raise the debt ceiling and four freshman raised their hands. And this displeased Majority Leader Eric Cantor who knew that really the debt ceiling would have to be raised, and so what ensued were months and months of, as Cantor himself would put it to Joe Biden and some of the other Democrats, of educating these guys, of making them understand the consequences of failing to raise the debt ceiling while not being coercive about it.

SIMON: So you have a situation here in Congress where you have a large number of Republican members at the House of Representatives, principally supported by the Tea Party, could be a thorn in the side of Speaker Boehner. You have a number of Democrats who are openly put out with and annoyed by their party leader, Nancy Pelosi, and then you have it seems like Nancy Pelosi sometimes leading the charge against the Democrat in the White House.

DRAPER: Well, I think Minority Leader Pelosi has tried to be a good team player, despite the fact that at certain junctures she felt like she was being cut out of the negotiations. She basically has gone along with Obama and she hasn't always respected his skills as negotiator, in fact, there's a moment where blue dog Democrat Dennis Cardoza, just after the debt ceiling deal was consummated, pulls Pelosi aside in the House chamber and says that President Obama has to be the worst negotiator of anyone who's ever held that position, and Pelosi replies, yeah, but he doesn't think so.

SIMON: But the advantage of your experience there in the trenches, were, near as you can tell President Obama and Speaker Boehner ever really close to reaching some kind of grand bargain over the debt ceiling and debt reduction?

DRAPER: See, I don't think they were, Scott, because at times, Speaker Boehner was simply speaking without authority, and he had to be reminded that he did not have the votes within his conference. Many members of the freshman class of 87 as well as senior conservative members were very, very hostile to any notion of any kind of deal that might include revenue increases of insufficient cuts.

In fact, there was a certain point where some members of the Republican House who were allied with Speaker Boehner came to his office and warned him, that said, John, if you cut a deal with Obama, the kind of deal that fails to get let's say half of the Republican votes, you could have a mutiny on your hands. And they warned him that Eric Cantor is - and his staff are, you know, spreading rumors, fomenting divisions. And it very much sobered Boehner and it wasn't long after that that he broke off talks he was having with Obama at the White House.

SIMON: Recollecting everything you say about discord and chaos in the House of Representatives, on the other hand, it's hard to argue that the process hasn't become more transparent, that representatives in Congress aren't immediately responsive to public opinion in their districts, and that earmarks that people have been decrying for decades have been eliminated. So why is Congress so unpopular if they just did a bunch of stuff that people say they want done?

DRAPER: That's a very well-framed question and I would sort of add to it. The more generalized paradox that what we're talking about, Scott, is the most democratic institution in America. I mean where the representatives are maximally hotwired to the electorate. They have to face the music every two years. I think that there's a lot of blame to go around. The media shares some of the blame since I think they reward extremists. I think as well that the public deserves some blame. I mean here was Congress in October of last year with a 9 percent approval rating. But do we think that these representatives will fear their wrath? To some degree. But we'll see. The final thing I will add on this is that redistricting has played a major role in this because more and more swing districts are being eliminated as redistricting results in state legislatures turning congressional districts into much redder districts or much bluer districts. What this means is that what matters is that you prevail in the primary. To win a primary this means you have to appeal to your base, which means you have to go to the most extreme position. These are the people who then come to Washington - not bent on compromise, not spent on governance, but instead, more hotwired to the extreme elements of their party.

SIMON: And finally, is it really worse than it used to be? Is it more bitter? Is it more partisan? I mean, you know, we've had threatened duels on the House of Representatives

DRAPER: That's exactly right. And the title of my book, "Do Not Ask What Good We Do," comes from one of the first federal congressman, Fisher Ames from Dedham, Massachusetts, who wrote the First Amendment but after four terms decided he'd had enough and wrote a friend and said, do not ask what good we do, that is not a fair question in these days of faction. So partisan divisions have been there since the beginning, Scott. You're right. At the same time, you could be provided and still be productive. And so I do think that partisanship, it's always been there but it has resulted now in a full-on paralysis that we did not see in earlier years.

SIMON: Robert Draper. His new book, "Do Not Ask What Good We Do."

Thanks so much for being with us.

DRAPER: My pleasure.


SIMON: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.