You Know What's Wrong With Congress

Congress seems to have no answers on the debt-ceiling issue, so NPR's Andrea Seabrook takes it to the people. What do they think lawmakers should do? What do they want? Do former members of Congress have any insight into what it will take to get a deal?

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SCOTT SIMON, host: And the budget standoff leads to the basic question: why can't Congress break the stalemate? NPR's Andrea Seabrook hit the streets to ask Americans how they might solve the budget crisis.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Come tell NPR how to solve the budget crisis. What's wrong with Congress? You must have some ideas about that. I'm standing outside a Metro station on the National Mall. It's a pretty good place to catch all kinds of people from everywhere, really, and hear how they think the broken budget should be fixed.

LASZLO REDVANNI: Well, first of all, I would solve some of the tax loopholes and some of the issues with the archaic tax laws. I think that's ridiculous.

RAQUEL SIDEWITZ: I really feel like we have to step up as Americans. And I don't feel like it's a fair, the way things are going, it's not fair.

PAUL SIDEWITZ: You can't allow tax breaks for corporate jets and expect people to take cuts in social services and food safety and things like that. That just doesn't make sense.

SEABROOK: Laszlo Redvanni is from Houston and Raquel and Paul Sidewitz are from Silver Spring, Maryland. They're sympathetic with President Obama's argument that the budget tightening should squeeze Americans of all economic classes. Jay Mertz of Winchester, Virginia took my bait. Tell me how to fix the budget.

JAY MERTZ: Fix the budget?

SEABROOK: Yeah. Tell me how to do it.

MERTZ: Let me see. Go back to 2008-level spending.

SEABROOK: Really?

MERTZ: Yeah. Cap it at 2008, I think that'd be a great start.

IAN STAFFORD: Well, there has to be a lot of cuts, I'd say.

SEABROOK: Ian Stafford, an 18-year-old from Cumberland, Maryland, wants to shrink the government overall.

STAFFORD: We need to bring our country back down to the constitutional limits, that our constitution allows, and we need to bring back more personal responsibility to people.

SEABROOK: These ideas span the political spectrum, and that's part of why the problem is so thorny, says former Congressman Jim Kolbe.

JIM KOLBE: It's a grind.

SEABROOK: Kolbe is from Arizona. He was in Congress for 22 years.

KOLBE: Because there are so many complicated pieces to it and because so many interests are involved.

SEABROOK: For many year, Kolbe and other budget hawks worried and warned of the coming crisis. But lawmakers didn't act.

KOLBE: Now, we can't really postpone any longer. And the pain is going to be much worse. It's like you have an infection and you don't treat it and pretty soon your whole leg is infected. And now the treatment is going to be very, very painful. Maybe we have to cut off the leg.

SEABROOK: You got to ask why? What's wrong with Congress?

BOB FITZPATRICK: They're bought and sold.

SEABROOK: Bob Fitzpatrick of Burtonsville, Maryland says one of the big problems is campaign financing. Judy Shamo of San Mateo, California agrees.

JUDY SHAMO: They have to raise too much money to stay in office then they're in the pockets of a lot of corporations.

CHARLES WORSELY: The other big problem is, well, it's the voters.

SEABROOK: Charles Worsely of Rockville, Maryland explains:

WORSELY: We bought into a lot of dogma, and none of this dogma's going to really help us in the long run.

SUE JOHNSON: It's because Congress picks its voters as opposed to the voters picking congress.

SEABROOK: Sue Johnson of Washington is talking about redistricting, the drawing of congressional district lines that makes most of them safe for one party or the other. Tennessee Democrat John Tanner, another former congressman, says that means races are won or lost in the primaries, when the most ardent partisans vote.

JOHN TANNER: So, they come politically crippled, they go into this sensible center and actually work on problems as Americans first and Democrats or Republicans second.

SEABROOK: In fact, very few of the ordinary Americans I spoke with mentioned party at all. They're just interested in solving the problem, and together their ideas prove this: people aren't asleep - they're engaged, they're thinking about it and they're watching Congress, waiting for it to do something. Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington.

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