Parliaments are the engine rooms of democracies. They are where the (often dirty) work of government gets done. What they look like, and how they function says a great deal about the society in which they operate.
Last week, after more than two years in the US I finally made it to Congress to see America’s federal legislature in action. The building sitting atop Capitol Hill looks out grandly upon Washington, stamping its dominant presence upon the national monuments and government offices set out below.
The building was made to impress. Beyond the inevitable security barriers, body scanners and X-ray machines, it’s all neo-Greco-Roman pillars and marble, complemented by classical 19th century European-style interior design. Carefully positioned statues reflect the diverse origins and achievements of the United States, including busts of a Native American chief and an astronaut.
Along shiny, broad corridors are the two chambers that make up Congress; the upper house – the Senate, and the lower House of Representatives.
The Senate chamber which was mostly empty when I visited has a clubby ambience, which is fitting given that it has just one hundred members representing over 320 million American citizens. The grand (and mostly elderly) men and women huddle in groups of two or three, chatting when not delivering speeches from their schoolroom-like wooden desks. The House of Representatives akin to the teenagers table at a family gathering; younger, busier and noisier – with legislators slyly check their phones while chatting volubly with colleagues.
The public galleries were a mix of those who came to be impressed, and those who came to press a cause. There were tourists, grandparents with grandchildren, middle-aged couples, college students and others. There were also lobbyists – many on this particular day coming from AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) which was holding its annual conference in DC. Alongside AIPAC there were others pressing their own causes, including a delegation from the civil aviation industry.
In the US lobbying is seen as – technically at least – an important element within the country’s democracy. The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees it as a right. But many ordinary Americans now see the various lobby groups as having tainted their democracy with too much influence and too much money. Recent figures by a non-profit organization called the Center for Responsive Politics show that spending by lobby groups in Congress has doubled since 2000 reaching a total of $3.23billion last year! The same database shows that John Boehner, the Republic Speaker of the Senate received over $17m in campaign contributions in 2014, with substantial amounts coming from groups representing the securities and investment industry, real estate, retirees, oil and gas, and mining.
The US Congress as well as the offices of other elected officials are awash with cash from lobbyists, big and small. All this money has a distorting and corrupting influence upon the workings of the legislature. Senators and Congressmen are dancing to the tune of the donors rather than the voters. This was most sharply illustrated in April 2013, when there were efforts to expand background checks for gun buyers and ban assault weapons in the wake of the slaughter by a crazed gunman of twenty children and six staff members at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Despite polling data showing a majority of Americans favoured these measures, it failed to pass in the Senate, after the National Rifle Association brought its weighty political bludgeon to bear upon wavering Senators, ensuring they followed its diktats – or face the consequences.
All this has translated into disgust and disillusionment by many voters for their elected representatives. In the Congressional mid-terms four months ago, only 36% turned out to cast their ballot, the lowest figure in over seventy years.
Apathy is flourishing at the expense of democracy. Ordinary Americans feel disconnected from the mechanics of government. They see politicians as a breed apart, more interested in preserving their own comfortable seats and satisfying their donors, rather than looking to more modest needs of the average citizen.
The Constitution begins with words ‘We the People’ emphasizing the primacy of the populace in the American system. The founders of the country sought to build a society that protected against the influence of the privileged few, and put government – as much as possible – in the hands of the citizenry. There is thus a sense of tragic irony to the current situation, where the people feel excluded from the engine room of their democracy.
After wandering the halls of Congress I left to admire the grandeur of the building from outside. But in viewing the obscured Dome currently undergoing building work, it was clear that the faults in America’s legislature go far beyond the fabric of the structure.