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

4 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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i believe the extreme left wing anti gun lobby may be arranging for gun violence to strenghten their agenda to outlaw guns so that they can take over the country. their agenda consists of more than safety. there is a nation at stake here that is why they are pushing so hard for anti gun legislation. do you really think they give a care for john doe getting blown away on the street corner? why has the anti gun agenda never started till after the 60's?

January 11 2011 at 12:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Lloyd E. Elling

We are a violent society obsessed with war and gun ownership to ensure control of our individual matter the horror imposed. We are a nation dependent on weapons to solve local, national and world issues. Our abilities to solve issues by debate and compromise have been buried under our choices to hate and divide. Our religious leaders have joined the haters to keep their benches full. Our public officials have joined the haters to keep their voting bloc energized to vote. Those who choose not to hate are exhausted and closing their doors and pulling down the blinds. This is all so damn discouaging. God Bless America....what a lie.

January 11 2011 at 10:32 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

"After the Arizona Massacre, Will Congress Ever Be the Same?" Of course it will Mr. Shapiro. The actions of one democrat madman will not bring the "house down". Stop the drama.

January 11 2011 at 9:45 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

there is a solution to this expand the size of the house of representatives. One rep for every 30,000 people. The reps would be closer to the people, the freedom of the people would be better protected, there would be more direct representation of the peoples interest, and the increased size would force the house to go to a work at home program . In other words all house member would conduct there business in there own community and not in D.C. All voting could be done over the computer.

January 10 2011 at 9:18 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Why is the press trying to come up with a motive for a mentally disturbed man's actions? Mentally disturbed people do not have viable reasons for acting in a carzy fashion.

January 09 2011 at 10:28 AM Report abuse +60 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to lenran72's comment

When they listen to a steady diet of hatred and suggestions that if you don't like your representative or senator, you should resort to those "Second Amendment remedies" by using your weapon to take out a lawmaaker you don't agree with, the looney tunes who commit murder certainly to have viable reasons for acting in a crazy fashion. They have the crazy extremists of Sharron Angle, Alan West, Sarah Palin, and their mouthpieces (Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Wiener-Savage, Ann Coulter), who put them up to it.

January 10 2011 at 12:54 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Did you know him personally? Did you speak with him daily? Probably not and you putting people with mental illnesses all into one category is completely idiotic of you. You people are so quick to judge without knowing any facts. The only thing we know is what the police and the media want us to know.

But since you are so high and mighty, why don't you drive to the VA where myself and many others go, walk in and tell all of those vets that they are too mentally disturbed. You know what put us there, these stupid wars that people like you are too scared to go fight in. Maybe you should research mental illness a little more before you are so quick to pass judgement. Guess we all were good enough to risk our lives for people like you but we don't deserve to live within your ranks when we come back because we are mentally disturbed, as you put it. You need to grow up grasshopper, not everything is black and white. If you only knew half of what goes on with these patients you probably would have kept that mouth of yours shut.

I have tried to get help for 6 years after coming back from war, wrote to Congress, the VA Director, and anybody else that I thought could help. Guess what, not one response and I still haven't been treated properly. That is why I laugh every time I see these stars and whoever else come on T.V. and say let's not forget about our vets, let's make sure they get the help they need. What a joke. My point is people like me that have been diagnosed with a mental illness are not getting any help at all. We reach out, we call these numbers to talk, but that only does so much.

If you want things like this shooting to stop happening, then you need to make sure Congress, Obama, and everybody else out there knows that people are not getting the help they need. Until then, be prepared to read more and more news stories of random shootings.

January 10 2011 at 6:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Man , this is nuts , shooting law makers who are trying to do the job we elected them too. Lot of nut cases out there.

January 09 2011 at 8:54 AM Report abuse +48 rate up rate down Reply

The solution is very simple act do what they said they would do for the ones that voted for them. Bring the money back from over seas and take care of our own for a change. Why do they always have money for war but not for anything else.

January 09 2011 at 8:11 AM Report abuse +70 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to K B's comment

Because if they distract us with war and threats of violence we won't notice how they are robbing us blind, and kissing the butts of the corporate wealthy, transfering our little wealth to them. All that right-wing anti-Obama talk about redistribution... What do you think the republicans are doing with YOUR money: they give it away to Wall Street brokers and bankers.

January 10 2011 at 12:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If this tragic act of violence causes the Representatives of our Democratic Republic to shrink from engaging with their constituency it will be an example of the weakening of the integrity and vibrancy of the Republic and will only add to the chasm between the governed and the governors perpetuating the alienation and disaffection the populace may feel (left or right).

And any hyperbolic rhetoric from opinionated "journalist" or political opperatives misusing the tragic circumstances that are still being investigated will only cause honest communication to be handicapped if not impossible.

All thoughts and blessing must be focused on the victims of this tragedy, it full expectations of the speedy and full recovery of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and those injured.

January 09 2011 at 7:06 AM Report abuse +22 rate up rate down Reply

Congress won't change. The gun industry lackeys at the NRA will still own Congressman and the Supreme Court so Americans will never be protected from the gun nuts. 30,000 dead AQmericans a year is the price that the NRA is willing to pay so they can play with guns and feel like Davy Crockett or John Wayne. God help their innocent victims.

January 09 2011 at 7:04 AM Report abuse -56 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to swbkhd's comment

You see, there are more GUN NUTS than reasonable people. Those are the people who want to return to the Wild, Wild West! Christianity and the golden rule surely seem to be mostly dead in America.

January 10 2011 at 12:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I beleive not. After this incident it is clear that radicalized Americans have gone off the deep end and that makes it too dangerous to mingle with people in public.

January 09 2011 at 5:13 AM Report abuse -10 rate up rate down Reply

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