Reptilian. Shameless. Greedy. Nauseating. Criminal.
These are the types of adjectives that every so often—the interval between episodes never lasts long—are inspired by one story or another about this or that member of Congress.
As it happens, we are in one of those seasons again. Perhaps you long ago relinquished your faith that most lawmakers are decent, conscientious, responsible people who are concerned first and above all with legislating in the public interest, and only then turn their attentions to their own earthly appetites.
Even so, some of these recent cases are out there: allegations of underage sex trafficking, unwanted public groping, resume-padding, and other manifestations of human weakness and depravity.
One useful thing about extreme behavior, however, is that it can help illuminate prevailing norms—the non-extreme, perfectly ordinary reality. So at a time when a lot of recent coverage of lawmakers revolves around allegations, or documented evidence, of unacceptable behavior, it seemed in a peculiar way an apt moment to look at Congress through the prism of a different noun: Mediocrity.
As an informal poll, I recently asked a bunch of people I thought would have well-informed views a question: What percentage of members of Congress would you say qualify as impressive?
What do you mean by impressive?
I let people define it however they wished. Some standard attributes might include people of uncommon intelligence, of either an academic or practical sort. Outsized achievements prior to coming to Congress certainly qualify, as would a clear record of effectiveness within the institution. Some people are impressive by virtue of an especially capacious character. Under any definition, we are talking about people who leave a wake behind them as they navigate life’s personal and professional channels.
There was nothing scientific about this poll. It included a dozen or so current or former members of Congress, or longtime operatives, or journalists who have covered Capitol Hill. For what it’s worth, everyone I interviewed met my own definition of impressive.
The results were striking. The first-blush answers ranged from a low estimate of one percent (!), to a high estimate of 55 percent (!!) of lawmakers who merit the adjective impressive. On further discussion, though, a fairly solid consensus emerged that about 20 percent of Congress is occupied by people who qualify.
Which leaves 80 percent who fall a bit short, or a lot short, of the Athenian ideal of the enlightened citizen servant.
At the extreme, this group includes Rep. Matt Gaetz, currently under investigation for sex trafficking. But in this crowd you’ll mostly find the uninspiring middle: Perfectly bright and well-intentioned politicians whose efforts are largely ineffectual; people whose competitive streaks earned them a prestigious job but who don’t display great interest in leaving a deep mark on American civic life; people who prove that still waters don’t always run deep; and a few people whose below-the-median traits stimulate genuine wonder: “How is he even here?”
Representative democracy, it turns out, means representation for everyone. That includes whizzes and schlumps and reprobates and the dudes at the seaside Hooters 15 minutes from Gaetz’s Panhandle home of Fort Walton Beach, who might find it OK that their member, according to CNN, showed cell phone photos of nude women he supposedly slept with to other members on the House floor.
“All parts of the Bell Curve of society are well represented,” one lawmaker told me, pondering the assortment of many dolts and at least a few deviates who count as colleagues.
A senator observed that ambition and discipline count for a lot, but the greatest factor of why one politician makes it to the Senate while others remain on city council is luck: “The bottom 80 percent of this place is no different than the bottom 80 percent of any typical city council.”
Here's something to keep in mind whenever you are reading about some politician or legislative battle. Years of covering politics make me think that most people who follow politics from afar have an exaggerated perception of most elected officials. Sometimes this magnification flows from idealism. Civics classes in youth can create a lasting impression that politicians are, or should be, the solons of democratic theory. More often, these days, distorted perceptions flow from cynicism. Even corrupt politicians are supposed to be sinister in an outsized and brilliant way, like Frank Underwood in House of Cards.
What both vantage points tend to understate is the pervasive ordinariness of many people who belong to the bottom four quintiles rather than the top one.
Journalism and political science, meanwhile, tend to focus on the ways that democracy is being distorted by structural factors. Gerrymandering of congressional seats encourages partisan zealots instead of conscientious servants of the public interest. A media-saturated political culture attracts more narcissists to Washington than ever, helping explain the high number of sex scandals. There is probably something to these theories. But the more salient reality is probably that elected representatives are indeed quite representative of the electorate.
In his recent memoir, former congressman John Boehner wrote of the 2010 elections that vaulted him to the speakership: “You could be a total moron and get elected just by having an R next to your name—and that year, by the way, we did pick up a fair number in that category.”
But the phenomenon isn’t solely partisan, nor is it related narrowly to intelligence, nor is it necessarily more prevalent now than before. Any legislative body I’ve encountered, at the local, state, or national level, has included many average people who are attracted to politics because it affords an opportunity to puff up their public image, and probably their self-conception, to something above average. And it has included people who—like other sectors of fallen humanity—have abundant exposure to temptations of the flesh, the bottle and the purse.
Rep. Tom Reed, a moderate New York Republican, checked two (and arguably all three) of those boxes during a fateful trip to Minneapolis in 2017 that ended his political career prematurely when it was publicized last month by the Washington Post.
After the Post article, Reed, 49, publicly apologized to a female lobbyist he was accused of drunkenly assaulting, attributed his boorish behavior to alcoholism for which he says he has sought treatment in recent years, and announced he was not seeking his re-election. What was striking, however, was that Reed himself came to Congress thanks to the sexual indiscretions of his Democratic predecessor in the district, centered in the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes region of western New York. Rep. Eric Massa did not seek re-election after allegations of improper physical contact with men who worked on his staff.
The kind of slobbish, cringe-inducing behavior that brought down Reed is actually quite familiar to those who hang around politics. As a young reporter at the Washington Post in the late 1980s, I covered local government in what were then the outer suburbs of Northern Virginia. The chair of the Prince William Board of County supervisors was Kathleen Seefeldt, a teacher with a reserved manner who I regarded as impressive. She would preside with an air of cool austerity while rank buffoonery played out around her. There was the time a discussion of trucking regulations made reference to “common carriers,” which prompted a leering reference to venereal disease among prostitutes in downtown Washington. Everyone but Seefeldt chortled appreciatively.
From there my reporting career went in the early 1990s to Richmond, where I covered the Virginia General Assembly for the Post. When the legislature was in session, the nightly scene for many lawmakers revolved around the bar at the Holiday Inn. For many politicians it was clear that one of their motivations for serving in office was to be away from home for a couple months of the year, with drinks and dinners and debauchery that was usually funded by taxpayers, contributors or corporate lobbyists. There was a famous story about a Northern Virginia senator who told his formidable spouse he was at the office working late, then got word that she was coming to get him at the Holiday Inn bar at that very moment. The not-very-formidable senator crawled out a bathroom window with seconds to spare.
The General Assembly was like many legislative bodies—true influence resided in a concentrated group of highly capable people.
In the House there was scowling, stoical Speaker A.L. Philpott, a Democratic former segregationist from Southside Virginia whose racial views had evolved out of some combination of conviction and necessity. He knew every sentence of Virginia’s modern criminal code, since he had written or edited the whole thing. Referring to his fellow delegates, he once rasped to another Democrat, “They are sheep!”
Over in the Senate, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews reigned with a proudly patrician air. He was one of the few legislators who read every one of the thousand or so bills filed each session. Without solid evidence of bribery, but with reliable intuition, Andrews once told me, “I think a lot of people are on the take.” How else to explain the barrage of narrowly crafted easements and exemptions and subsidies that his fellow politicians were trying to slip into law?
I’ve not covered Congress as a beat reporter but I did run a publication (this one) with a primary mission to illuminate the workings of Congress. My strong sense is that the fundamental legislative dynamic of Richmond is no different in Washington: A narrow corps of political practitioners operates in a different orbit of influence than the great sea of average politicians below them.
Partisans of one stripe or another may loathe Mitch McConnell, or Nancy Pelosi, but one strains to imagine any serious argument that would say they are not impressive: As politicians, they’ve shown uncanny ability to understand power and how to wield it and both of them have left a meaningful signature on American life—Pelosi by pushing through massive stimulus measures on the narrowest of majorities; McConnell in repopulating the federal judiciary for a generation. They have some impressive colleagues, too.
What factors help that narrow slice of politicians rise to that higher orbit? One theme from my survey was that the people who clear the impressive threshold have an ability to think beyond their own district and their own political circumstances. “A lot of these people run for Congress because they like being recognized in their districts and they like knowing they can always have the best table at their favorite restaurant,” said one veteran of Capitol Hill. Even many who take a more serious approach seem often buffeted by the stimuli right before them—town meetings, a barrage of angry letters, local news coverage—without appreciation of wider context. “Did it ever occur to you that what’s true in your district isn’t true in a lot of other districts?” one lawmaker said of colleagues.
That understanding of context—of the larger currents of politics and media and how to navigate them—is why a small number of legislators gain outsized influence even without the seniority of a McConnell or Pelosi.
Many progressive Democrats don’t like former Rep. Rahm Emanuel, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But after Emanuel won election to the House in 2002—after serving as a congressional campaign operative and a senior White House adviser for Bill Clinton—he almost instantly became a player on Capitol Hill. He was in the Democratic leadership by his second term, and soon became chief of staff in Barack Obama’s White House and then mayor of Chicago.
As it happens, another example is none other than AOC, whose self-confidence and savvy—who could dispute that her skills are impressive?—made her a national figure to contend with in her first days in Congress.
The rareness of these examples highlights the larger landscape. Plenty of perfectly decent but basically conventional politicians are not likely to ever rise above average. And plenty of other politicians with the kind of weaknesses that are common in any workplace aren’t likely to rise above below average.
This reality, a faithful expression of democracy, has been around forever. “All Congresses and Parliaments have a kindly feeling for idiots,” said Mark Twain “and a compassion for them, on account of personal experience and heredity.” He was joking, or mostly so, one of many rude comments he made about the legislative branch.
But recall a comment that was evidently not made in jest. A half-century ago, Richard Nixon nominated for the Supreme Court a man named G. Harrold Carswell of Florida. The nomination failed, but along the way liberal Sen. George McGovern protested, “I find his record to be distinguished largely by two qualities: racism and mediocrity.”
This prompted Sen. Roman Hruska, a Nebraska Republican, to come to Carswell’s defense with a quote for the ages. He noted that there are lots of mediocre people—many contemporary observers counted Hruska among their ranks—and that shouldn’t be held against them. “They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance?” Hruska asked.
They had plenty of representation then, and still do today.