SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Gridlock is the term many use to describe what happens when legislation gets stalled in the U.S. Congress. But gridlock suggests that people in Congress at least run into each other. I've had enough casual personal conversations with representatives in both parties in recent years to begin to think a more critical problem might be that politicians of opposing parties are almost strangers to each other.
Evan Bayh, who left the Senate last year after two terms is the son of former Indiana Senator Birch Bayh. He's told interviewers that he could remember parties and dinners during his boyhood in Washington, D.C., to which is father, who was a Democrat, would invite Republicans, whom he considered friends and colleagues. I haven't been to a dinner in 12 years where there were any Republicans, he told Charles Gibson of ABC. I've heard Republican legislators say the same about Democrats.
A number of congressional representatives turn the Capitol office they work so hard to win into a kind of post-collegiate crash pad - sleeping on a sofa bed and lining up to shower in the House gym. Many nights they might sit on their office sofa and watch FOX News or MSNBC, according to their affiliation, and wonder why some representative from Idaho or Oregon is on and they're not. In fact, it's notable today that Evan Bayh owns up to growing up in Washington, D.C., where the Bayh family was together. Many representatives these days don't bring their families with them to Washington. They emphasize how little time they spend in the Capitol. A representative might seem to find it easier to explain why he went to North Korea than to linger in Washington, D.C.
Many representatives and senators will leave Washington on Friday in time to appear at a fish fry, church supper or community meeting in their district that night. There's usually a welter of other events through the weekend, because a politician can't go to the park side citizens' forum on Saturday and miss the lakeside neighbors' assembly on Sunday.
They work long hours, seven days a week and get a zillion frequent flyer miles, which, representatives have told me, they dare not use to upgrade, lest constituents see them sipping a free drink in first class - a first sign of going Washington. At the end of a week, week after grinding week, they'll hear what many people in their district think about urgent issues. But I wonder how much opportunity they have or make to hear other ideas from other districts or get to know and work across a table with other representatives in what's called, after all, a representative democracy.
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