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Building trust in Congress

Commentator David Frum.

Tess Vigeland: As we heard earlier, President Obama met with congressional leaders at the White House today for more talks on the nation's debt and deficit. Commentator David Frum says the debt ceiling debate has exposed something amiss in Congress. And it has nothing to do with spending.


David Frum: Former House Speaker, Tip O'Neill, retired from Congress in 1987. He was asked how the institution had changed over his 35 years of service. He answered: "The people are better. The results are worse."

The results are sure looking pretty miserable this month, as the country lurches toward the very real risk of default on federal obligations.

How did we get to this impasse? A big part of the problem is that Congress goes home on weekends.

Seriously.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, members of Congress typically established their homes in Washington. Travel was more difficult, so they brought their spouses and sent their children to school. They joined a community. And most came to realize that the people on the other side of the aisle were pretty reasonable actually. People you could do business with.

It helped that so many members in those days shared the common bond of military service -- a bond that separated them first from their elders, then from their juniors.

It helped too that campaigns cost less, so they did not have to spend a third of their time fundraising.

Those days are gone. Members spend their weekends in their districts and their evenings with their donors. Some claim that the new system keeps members closer to their constituents. But which constituents?

Members hear from retirees, from the hyper-partisan, and from the affluent. But they don't hear from everybody. Mothers of young children tend not to go to town halls. Anxious 20-somethings are seldom seen.

Summer recess is coming soon. We hope the recess will arrive before the financial apocalypse. If so, and you should happen to see your representative, a word of advice: ask them to spend more time with their colleagues, just getting to know them and developing the habit of working together for a common country. British Prime Minister David Cameron has suggested: "Politics shouldn't be so different from the rest of life, where rational people do somehow find a way of overcoming their disagreements."

That's good advice for this side of the Atlantic as well.


Ryssdal: David Frum was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush. He's now the editor of FrumForum. Next week, Robert Reich. Your views anytime.

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