Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Reporter's Notebook

John McDonagh can be reached at

On the business of government

“Let’s go to Washington!” It’s a phrase that’s less of a travel itinerary than a call to arms for the associations, organizations, cities, counties and private companies that make the pilgrimage to our Nation’s Capitol in pursuit of federal contracts, subsidies and grants. The money they seek comes from the various funds from which annual or biennial disbursements are made – a longstanding practice better known to the public as the much-debated and often-derided “earmark.”

Last week was my first opportunity to participate in a “let’s go” effort in support of Share, a local nonprofit engaged in addressing the issues of hunger and homelessness in Clark County. Share was encouraged to apply for an appropriation from the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development by the local office of Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) for the renovation of its recently acquired facility on Andresen Road in Vancouver.

Since I’ve never been to “The Hill,” I found myself intently observing how the center of our government conducts its business.

For a republic now approaching 250 years old, I was taken most strongly and immediately by the age of those staffing it. Back on the local level, men and women of a “certain age” dominate the public policy sphere. However, in the U.S. House and Senate, the halls are crowded with bright and aspiring young people who find excitement and fulfillment in helping to run the government.

These 20 to 30-somethings also act as gatekeepers for their elected bosses, charged with meeting all those who come to Washington to advance to their Senator or Representative the projects they feel are worthy of federal support.

The next strongest impression I was left with was the formality in which the business of government is conducted – a ritualized pomp bordering on the religious which was almost as surprising as the youthful nature of Congressional staffers. Some of these rules dictate minute details such as who is allowed on the Senate or House floor, who sits where and how they are to be addressed.

However, when it comes time to take a vote, that formality seems to disappear.

During the “constituent coffee” session with Sen. Murray we were told there would be two historic Senate votes: one in the morning, the other in the afternoon of Wednesday, March 17. The morning vote would determine the fate of the so-called “Jobs Bill.” However, we were told that before a vote could be taken, the bill’s backers, mostly Senate Democrats, would have to address a point of order raised by their Republican colleagues. During the 15 or 20 minutes I watched from the gallery overlooking the Senate, the scene below looked something like an ant farm, with legislators milling about across the Senate floor. What seemed to be a formal roll call, with each legislator’s name shouted over the din by the presiding Assistant Secretary of the Senate, in the end turned out to be the “historic” vote we had been encouraged to witness.

Contrary to the morning vote was the afternoon session, with the U.S. Supreme Court empanelling the Senate for an impeachment hearing regarding a ne’er-do-well federal judge in Louisiana. For this proceeding, the entire Senate sat at their assigned places and intently listened to the litany of charges against the judge before unanimously voting to remove him from the Federal Bench – a rare piece of bipartisanship in a bitterly-divided chamber.

The third, most striking observation was the diversity of organizations on Capitol Hill, each with a compelling case for badly-needed federal funding. Last week those groups included firefighters, parks advocates, nonprofits like Share and for-profit companies, all descending on Congressional office buildings to meet the platoons of young staffers to present their various pleas and pitches.

Underlying all this was a tremendous sense of history – not as a static, dead or dying thing, but one filled with constant movement. At the end of the day, or visit as it were, I realized that the business of government is the penultimate Big Business – lumbering most of the time, filled with a sense of decorum that can slip away whenever that formality fails to suit its interests.

But mostly, it seems a business with plenty of youthful passion among its lower ranking members, its staffers, schedulers and policy advisors. It gives one hope that these bright eyes will find a way to make government actually work better, not just for businesses, but for all.