Political Scene

A Year in the Sausage Factory
David Curtiss

Editor’s note: David Curtiss is completing his term as the American Geological Institute’s 2001-2002 Congressional Science Fellow. He spent a year working for the House Republican Conference chaired by Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. (R-Okla.).

“To retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making.”
Otto von Bismarck

Pulling in to Washington, D.C., on a sweltering August afternoon in 2001, I had no idea how momentous the next 16 months would be. The tragic events of September 11 and aftermath forced our nation to contemplate an unpleasant reality by exposing the vulnerabilities we face in an open society. The anthrax attacks on Congress, fighting the war on terrorism, ensuring disarmament of Iraq, responding to North Korea’s admission of an advanced nuclear weapons program, and the random shootings by a sniper or snipers in the D.C. metro area all demonstrate the rampant violence of today’s world. These are hardly peaceful times.

Meanwhile, across the globe, economies are sputtering, with many teetering on the edge of a deflationary abyss. Global markets propel whip-lashed investors on a roller coaster marked by sharp rallies and sickening drops that match the feeling in your gut while opening a retirement account statement. Charges and proof of corporate impropriety have further undermined economic recovery in the United States, and are fueling anti-capitalist sentiment both here and in the developing world. Prophecies that the “new economy” was “rewriting the rules” are gone, leaving behind the wreckage of a bubble burst, and a dented national psyche.

The political front is in similar disarray. By the time this column is published the results of the mid-term elections will be known. The present balance of power in Congress is on a razor’s edge, and the outcome of any of a handful of close races will determine partisan control of both the House and Senate for the 108th Congress. As a result it has proven difficult to pass legislation through Congress and to the president for signature. For example, the energy bill conference committee is stalled over several provisions. Of perhaps greatest significance is that since Oct. 1, the federal government is operating under continuing resolution, which provides operating funds at a level commensurate with the past fiscal year. As of the end of October, only 2 of 13 annual appropriations bills had been passed by the Congress and sent to the president for signature. Both are military oriented; everyone else is still waiting. Beltway insiders exclaim that this “is the worst they’ve ever seen it.” Truth be told, they’re probably right.

Sufficiently depressed? There is no doubt that these are trying times for the nation, and that the challenges we face at home and abroad have immediate and real impact on our lives. In this environment, particularly with a saturation of media coverage providing a blaring megaphone, it is easy for cynics to gain converts. But is their cynicism justified?

In my view it isn’t. The past year has given me opportunity to see the U.S. government in action from the inside, and I marvel. Success was hardly assured when the Founding Fathers gathered to declare independence from Britain, and yet their actions set in motion an experiment in self-governance that has proven remarkably resilient over the past 226 years. Far from smooth sailing, our nation’s history is full of struggles, some of which threatened to destroy the republic, others that tore at the basic fabric of our society. Through it all, though, Lincoln’s admonition that our government was and must remain “of the people, by the people, and for the people” and that such government “shall not perish from the Earth” provided a foundation that our elected leaders have not undermined.

Admittedly, in Washington it is especially easy to be swept away by an overly romanticized patriotism that merely feeds the cynic’s view that it is all a sham. The reality, though, is that while our system of government is far from perfect, it works because the people are involved. As citizens we too often abdicate the responsibility of engaging in public discourse and debate, an essential element of good government, because it seems so mean spirited and nasty. And yet, how else do you balance ideological extremes and arrive at an acceptable solution? At times, the whole operation does seem to land in the ditch, which might (ahem) characterize the current situation in Washington. Ironically, this usually happens around election day. Time for the people to grab the reins and put things aright — that’s resilience.

So the next time you cringe watching C-SPAN or cable news, remember that in our republic the mess is part of the magic. Then grab your pen and write your congressional representative, get involved and join the debate. Hold your nose if you must, but come into the sausage factory and be part of the solution. Whether it is in your local school, PTA, university, church, on a mountaintop, outcrop, or maybe even Congress, you’ve got something to offer and I look forward to hearing your story. See you round the bend.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Rep. Watts, the House Republican Conference, or the American Geological Institute (AGI) and its member societies.

The AGI Foundation supports the AGI Congressional Science Fellowship.

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