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After the Arizona Massacre, Will Congress Ever Be the Same?

3 years ago
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The enduring glory of the House of Representatives – since the dawn of the republic – has been that two-year terms force incumbents to be accessible to the voters. While senators monopolize the Sunday talk shows and minor Cabinet members travel with security details worthy of a Third World dictator, House members have always been the ones holding town meetings, visiting senior citizen centers, and chatting with neighbors in the Safeway.
Ever since she was elected to the House in 2006 from a Republican-leaning, Tucson-centered district, Arizona Democrat Gabrielle Giffords has personified this belief that the personal touch could trump political differences. In her first term alone, she made 340 public appearances in her district. Upholding this tradition of accessibility this week, her office advertised that Giffords would be holding a Saturday "Congress on Your Corner" event at a Safeway in northwest Tucson. The press release advised, "For the media, 'Congress on Your Corner' is an excellent opportunity to view the congresswoman interacting with constituents or to ask questions about any topic."

That invitation to watch the congresswoman talk to voters and to quiz her on anything was the essence of democracy. The heart-rending shooting of Giffords in the head at that event – and the killing of six people and the wounding of 12 others – reminds us how fragile real democracy remains in the 224th year of the Constitution.

Stunned by the brutal sweep of the Arizona massacre, this is not the moment to leap to glib conclusions about the motivations of the man who fired the shots. Nor do I want to reprise the familiar debates over gun control or to demonize Giffords' political adversaries. There are too many facts that remain elusive (the first hours after the shooting were punctuated by incorrect rumors masquerading as news) to resort to partisan talking points.

But we can glimpse what the future will bring – and there are valid reasons to fear that the traditions of congressional openness are in dire jeopardy. After the raucous Tea Party protests during the 2009 summer recess, some embattled House Democrats resorted to "virtual town meetings," which were little more than disembodied telephonic conference calls. The next step will be that instead of "Congress on Your Corner," incumbents in both parties will offer something akin to "Congress on Your Computer."

The acidic anger corroding our political system is premised on the belief that elected officials in Washington are arrogantly out of touch. But what will happen when representatives and senators begin to believe that they are risking their lives by appearing in public to answer voter questions? The inevitable result will be new barriers (portable metal detectors, omnipresent security guards) standing between the political elites and the governed.

Equally troubling will be the psychological effects on House members themselves as Congress gives way to the inevitable security mania. Although there is no way of proving it, I have long nurtured the belief that living inside a protective bubble exaggerates the self-importance of public officials. If everyone must be screened and frisked before being allowed to see a freshman congressman, it is easy to imagine how this legislator might soon believe that he is entitled to perks worthy of the court of Louis XIV.

Living in an isolation chamber also has to eventually warp political judgment. Town meetings and more casual encounters with constituents allow congressmen to understand problems and public attitudes in a way that no poll or focus group can replicate. Right now in Washington – from the White House to the dome of the Capitol – too many public officials view voters as an abstraction and the political mood as a spreadsheet expressed in approval ratings and unemployment statistics.

There is, of course, one subset of Americans who will always have personal access to senators and congressmen: wealthy campaign donors. The more time that legislators spend raising money in Park Avenue living rooms – and the less they see their constituents face-to-face – the easier it becomes to believe that creating tax breaks for the rich is the major purpose of government.

A few months after the 9/11 attacks, I visited the Knesset in Israel. What haunted me as I went from interview to interview was the emptiness of the hallways since, because of security concerns, there was almost no one there who was not on official business.

Coming back to America – even an America emotionally scarred by the terrorist attacks – I reveled in the vibrant openness of the corridors of the congressional office buildings as foot-sore tourists, high-priced lobbyists, Westerners wearing bolo ties, Hassidic rabbis, and earnest activists all participated in this daily pageant of democracy.

This is a nation built around the principle that elected officials are not entitled to the trappings of royalty. When Grover Cleveland was president in the 1880s, it was still possible for a citizen to wander into the White House and leave a calling card in hopes of wangling an appointment. That laudable tradition still endures in congressional offices and when legislators go home to places like Tucson.

Or at least it did until that horrible moment Saturday morning when "Congress on Your Corner" turned into unimaginable carnage.

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