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Greg Dennis: Restoring Congress’ tarnished name

Can Congress be saved?
No one is talking about abolishing this once august institution. But Congress is suffering from a well-deserved reputation for partisan bickering and gridlock, which have resulted in little recent action to address the nation’s challenges.
And as for global issues such as the environment — well, let’s just say the solutions are not going to emerge anytime soon from Capitol Hill.
So bad is the institution’s reputation, in fact, that Rep. Frank Pallone recently observed its favorability rating is “in the single digits, somewhere between lawyers and used car salesmen.”
Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat and 1973 graduate of Middlebury College, was back in Addison County recently for an informal panel at the college on American government. He was joined by Rep. Barbara Comstock, a freshman member of Congress from suburban Virginia, with former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas of Middlebury acting as moderator.
Comstock holds the distinction of being the first (and so far only) woman from the college to be elected to Congress. Despite running in one of the nation’s few swing districts, where the winner is not preordained by gerrymandering, Comstock won an impressive victory in 2014 after five years in the Virginia General Assembly.
It’s hard to know what to make of Comstock. Judging by her presentation at last week’s seminar, she’s not a polished speaker. She seems to prefer to ramble.
But she is effective enough to be the kind of Republican that drives Democrats nuts. Raised in a Democratic household in Massachusetts and campaigning for the Kennedys, she turned Republican as an adult. She’s bright, personally engaging and comes across as anything but a typical politician.
She’s the kind of new politician voters like.
But beneath the image, she has quite a conservative past — including working on the legal defense teams of Rep. Tom Delay and Cheney aide Lewis Libby when they were accused of wrongdoing. As a legislator, she even voted for a bill that would have required women to undergo an internal, transvaginal ultrasound before having an abortion.
Whatever her record on women’s issues, I was struck by one jarring fact from Comstock’s remarks: In all of American history, only 313 women have been elected to Congress.
People like Comstock are fresh faces who bring new energy to an old institution. So why, one wonders, don’t the two political parties push even harder for women candidates?
Pallone comes from the other side of the political spectrum. Having served in Congress since 1988, he has retained the commitment to environmental interests that he had as a college student.
He recalled helping to form the Environmental Quality group on campus, and even being deputized to identify local sources of pollution as part of the Earth Day movement.
Pallone is a member of the Progressive Caucus in Congress and a defender of gay rights. Though he lost a U.S. Senate primary to now-Sen. Cory Booker, he’s easily won re-election to the House for many years — a reminder that while Americans say they don’t like Congress, in most cases they keep electing the same people to fill it.
The remarks by Pallone and Comstock were notable for their fond memories of being in Prof. Murray Dry’s political sciences courses, and it was Dry who had the pleasure of introducing his two former protégés.
Comstock even brought to the panel a couple of her books from Dry’s freshman course on American government.
Comstock and Pallone went out of their way to try to reassure students that Congress can still act in a bipartisan fashion to get things done.
Presumably some of the students had done their homework, however, and recognized that in its current state, Congress is markedly partisan and historically unproductive.
Nonetheless, the local event was a vintage feel-good session. For the two members of Congress back in their old haunts for a day, it seemed to be a welcome relief from the pressure cooker in which they usually function.
Krista Conley, a Middlebury resident and also an alumna of the college, was recently part of another event aimed at restoring Congress’s reputation.
When she was fresh out of college after graduating in 1986, Conley served on the staff of the U.S. Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, which was chaired by Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Nearly 30 years later, Conley joined hundreds of other former Kennedy staffers at the recent dedication in Boston of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.
Conley attended a reunion meal with former staffers and was on hand when President Obama and other speakers dedicated the $78.4 million museum cum civics classroom.
“Kennedy knew how to work across the aisle to get things done,” Conley told me, pointing to the liberal Democrat’s friendship with conservative colleague Sen. Orrin Hatch. Kennedy and Hatch worked closely together to pass landmark bills such as the Child Health Insurance Program and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Conley, as an experienced business leader and mother of two teenage sons, said she wants young people and other citizens to know that politics can be an honorable profession, and that today’s partisan wrangling doesn’t represent the reality or the potential of Congress.
Speaking at the Boston event attended by Conley, Vice President Joe Biden surely overstated it when he disputed concerns about partisanship by claiming, “On every major issue, there’s a consensus in America.”
But Biden certainly spoke for many of us when he added, “It’s the political process that’s broken.”
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: gregdennisvt@yahoo.com. Twitter: @greengregdennis.

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