POLITICO Mike Rogers: Why Congress is Broken

January 7, 2015

Why Congress Is Broken

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A retiring member’s parting advice.

By MIKE ROGERS

JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2015

EVERY DAY FOR 14 YEARS I WALKED INTO THE U.S. Capitol with reverence for my lineage as a member of Congress. Madison, Adams and Lincoln all served here. The challenges that faced politically diverse populations with seemingly insurmountable hurdles were daunting. They not only persevered, but we also came out stronger as a nation. And as I depart the House myself, I believe I’ve accomplished most of what I set out to do,

including restoring order to intelligence oversight as chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. I believe in this chamber and this institution more than when I started.

And yet being in politics today often seems like being in the middle of the worst divorce you’ve ever seen, every day. The level of pettiness and small-minded meanness in political discourse is disheartening at best. It works against our national interests at its worst. It is hard to solve big issues with small politics. My ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), and I came to our first deal for our final 2011 Intelligence Authorization bill in the library of the classified spaces. When we reached across the table to shake hands, the building shook. Literally. It was the first authorization for the Intelligence budget in six years, and it was exactly at the same time an earthquake hit Washington, D.C. A Republican and a Democrat had agreed on a final product on what had been previously controversial legislation, and the ground shook. We made the usual jokes about divine approval, but that moment wasn’t lost on either of us. I hope it isn’t lost on the incoming 114th Congress as well. You can make progress on the issues you care about without sacrificing your principles.

America is facing huge challenges. So is America’s political discourse. The 24-hour news cycle has become a 24-second news cycle. A member used to hope for a 15-second clip in a news story. Now it’s 140 characters in a tweet. And if you want someone to read it, best be clever. Newsworthiness comes second. The first one out there on a topic wins, and accuracy is an afterthought, if a thought at all. Nothing has made me appreciate real journalists more than anonymous bloggers and partisan tweets. One of my first votes in Congress was the repeal of some very onerous regulations on business crammed through at the last minute of the Clinton administration. Many urged me, as someone who had just won a race by 111 votes, not to vote for the repeal for purely political reasons. A yes vote to repeal the regulations was in the best interests of the country, so I voted yes. I will take an 80 percent deal any day of the week that gets me toward a conservative solution. Then, I’ll wake up the next morning to go after the other 20 percent.

I went home to Michigan that same week to tour an automotive factory in my district and used the restroom before starting. There, above the urinal, was my picture, and the caption was something like, “Mike Rogers wants workplace deaths to go up.” After seeing that, I thought, “Wow, this is a whole new game.” It was a completely inaccurate account of what the regulations we repealed were about.

I knew political conversation was changing, and not for the better. Fast-forward to today’s social media and the sheer volume of misinformation and speed at which it travels. It is amazing any congressional office gets anything done. It takes an enormous amount of time trying to correct the record. It all takes away from the time a member needs to spend getting smart on issues that matter. The only way to do that is read, question and dive deep into all of the often unsexy issues of legislating. I’ve gotten into trouble with my fellow conservatives for saying this—after all, our party believes, often justifiably, that Washington is usually the problem—but I do think elected officials need to devote more time here on Capitol Hill engaging in governance. It won’t get you on the 11 o’clock news, but it will make for a better-functioning legislature.

I believe real governing must begin in the committees, where members must spend long, unglamorous hours on panels crafting budgets and performing oversight. The House Intelligence Committee passed good, important legislation largely because Dutch and I were both willing to take some lumps from our partisan caucus members in order to advance an issue important to national security. Consensus may not be possible, but constructive cooperation is, which is why our legislation generally enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support.

Prior to our tenure, the Intelligence Committee had not passed an intelligence budget for six years. To change that trend, Dutch and I had to change the way the committee did business. We didn’t focus on partisan fights or the issues that made headlines. Rather, we sat for hours in long, often dry and difficult hearings and briefings. We debated important issues, whether satellite programs or helicopter fuel. Again, this isn’t news-at-11 material, but ensuring our national security professionals are receiving the right resources is quite important to the protection of this country. In a short time, we turned the Intelligence Committee from a dysfunctional, partisan debating society into a functioning oversight and policy-review committee. And once we had members who understood how it all worked, we had better-informed members making smarter decisions.

Our history is filled with examples of people putting aside their differences and, in even the hardest of times, uniting for the greater good. A great example comes from the heartland of America— North Platte, Nebraska, home of the Union Pacific Railroad. During World War II, trains would crisscross the nation to take soldiers to the ports from which they were bound for the fronts in the Pacific and Europe. While soldiers headed to war, those at home faced government rations for things like eggs, coffee, cheese and tires. And while facing those rations, that little Midwest town came together to provide further support for the war fighter.

Farmers donated what they had—eggs, cheese, flour and their time. As the trains rolled through North Platte, those normal Americans met each one. Altogether, that little town provided 6 million meals to young soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. Those townspeople understood that during America’s greatest challenges, it is up to the people, and not their government, to help their fellow citizen. Like the soldiers they helped, the whole town contributed to something bigger than themselves. This was not a government program; nobody coerced them to provide for these departing war fighters. Nevertheless, the people of North Platte knew that their role was to contribute to keeping America great.

Flash forward to the present day. Remember, the United States has been in conflict for over 10 years. Yet none of us have faced rations, and only a small percentage of us have actually faced battle. We still get our tires, our coffee, our cheese and our TV shows. Most Americans do not feel the effects of war on a day-to-day basis, but members of Congress must remind their constituents of what is at stake in our struggles overseas. We must remain focused and serious. And stories like that of North Platte remind us what it takes to remain the beacon of hope to the world. In Congress, each member is given the chance to achieve great things. And just like in the broader America, succeeding in Congress does not depend on status or title; it merely requires hard work and discipline to focus on what’s important. It’s time we once again focus on the hard work at hand, and not the small and petty politics that keep us from tackling our challenges.

I’m leaving Congress, but I am not giving up the fight. I’m just changing playing fields. I’m taking on a new role to join a broader platform and communicate with millions of people each week about why we need a strong defense, engagement overseas, a strong economy and an America that believes in herself again. One of my aims is to help Congress, the institution I love, by improving the information coming to it.

Mike Rogers is a former Republican U.S. representative from Michigan.