Washington's Perfect Storms, Inside and Out

By Jamie Stiehm

January 16, 2019 5 min read

WASHINGTON — The morning after a snowstorm, Washington looks serene and sparkling in a white winter coat. The elegant embassies, marble memorials, train station, woods leading to the river and — yes — especially the Capitol: the panorama is pretty grand.

It can make you proud to be American, for a fleeting flicker of time.

The reality under the dome is far different. The republic is stuck like a ship on shoals. While the longest government shutdown shadows the capital, the Capitol's chambers are rocked: the Senate locked in listless inactivity and the House in a mad rush of confident, bright newcomers.

The new Democratic majority is determined to stand up to President Donald Trump. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has deftly hit that point home in person more than once. On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, an isolated president keeps the ship of state stuck, despite the world of hurt to the federal workforce in winter. He's got Russia on his mind. It is, indeed, a perfect political storm.

I am inside the Capitol as I write. Sunset has fallen and I face an identity crisis. You see, the House and Senate are parallel universes that seldom meet. When you come to this place — democracy's citadel — you are either a House or a Senate person.

I like to say, vive la difference. The Senate is like going to the theater and the House is like the circus. Or, the Senate is like private school and the House is like public school, where the "noise of democracy" is heard. Or, truth be told, the Senate is like the South and the House is like the North.

In both chambers, however, women have hit a historic high of one-quarter.

On the first day of public school — e.g. Congress — the contrast was striking between the glum Republican white men in red ties on one side and the burst of cheer, color, children and cool city people on the other side.

Smart and savvy Donna Shalala, 78, D-Fla., a former university president and Cabinet member for President Bill Clinton, is a freshman, the oldest in the class. She represents Miami. The youngest, outspoken Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., at 29 has made a splash like no other freshman in memory. She represents Queens. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., rose in party ranks with a speaking style that compares to young Barack Obama.

Democrats looked like a real party, ending with a burst of exuberance when Pelosi was elected speaker. The House is a much truer reflection of the American people, district by district, and so, more ethnic and diverse. Bobby Rush, the former Black Panther who defeated Barack Obama in a Chicago House race, is still very much here.

Steve King, the Iowa congressman whose racist, anti-immigrant views are well-known, looked across the way that day and said the new majority was "no country for white men." A former bulldozer operator, King was just punished by leadership for comments he made to The New York Times.

A freshman congresswoman, Katie Porter, D-Calif., introduced herself to me as "Katie" from Orange County. I nearly fainted at the informality. She told me she had flown 14 hours to vote.

We were by the Speaker's Lobby, a heaven of heavy furniture, portraits, chandeliers and fireplaces. Reporters can roam free and sit down with any member that has something to say.

I've always been a Senate person, since I interned for a Wisconsin senator. Later, as a rookie reporter, the Senate was my beat. I learned its courtly customs. Oratory was still in. The Senate giants could raise the rafters. Standouts were the late Senators Edward Kennedy, Robert C. Byrd, an expert on Roman history, and Dale Bumpers, who reminded me of fictional country lawyer Atticus Finch.

The last time I heard a senator hush a full house with a speech was the late John McCain. He had returned on a summer day. Fresh from brain cancer surgery, he urged lawmakers to reach across the aisle in "regular order," and actually meet for the greater good. That was his fare-thee-well.

Look for me in the Speaker's Lobby as the storm goes on.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and other Creators Syndicate columnists, please visit the website, Creators.com.

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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