PADME: You really don't like politicians, do you?
ANAKIN: I like two or three, but I'm not really sure about one of them. (smiling) I don't think the system works.
PADME: How would you have it work?
ANAKIN: We need a system where the politicians sit down and discuss the problems, agree what's in the best interests of all the people, and then do it.
PADME: That is exactly what we do. The trouble is that people don't always agree. In fact, they hardly ever do.
Hold that scene in your mind while you read about our time visiting the Senate and House of Representatives.
On the one hand, it is quite easy to be admitted. One has only to go to the office of your Representative or Senator and request free gallery passes. Since we sold our house and our official address is in the north part of Florida in a place we have never actually lived we had no idea who our Representative might be, but we knew one of our Senators is Marco Rubio and we set out for his office. Naturally, there is some basic airport-style security to pass at the door, but after that you just check the building map and head down the hall. Or around multiple halls. Or even three-fourths of the way around the whole floor where his office is supposed to be located then up the elevator and down the stairs again because I swear that is what the signs told us to do. And I am just one of those ridiculously compliant people who will wander in circles, flapping my arms and quacking if that is what the very official looking wall map says to do, even if I could maybe save myself eight miles of walking by asking someone for directions.
As it turned out there was no need to do so. I cannot begin to tell you just how many Senators stopped and offered to help us find Mr. Rubio’s office. The only ones who did not offer to help were the three who were standing in a huddle discussing something important. We met Senator Jerry Moran from Kansas in the elevator and he even gave us directions, finally explaining why we seemed to keep having to backtrack: someone built a wall at the end of the hall closest to our goal and we indeed needed to either go up a floor then down again to get by it, or just walk all the way back around in the other direction. We chose door #2.
I am not at all complaining about our lengthy trek. We passed the office of John McCain and his door was wide open and I almost wet my pants in surprise. I don’t know why I was surprised to find a Senator’s office in a Senate office building. I was expecting, perhaps, Ghandi?. Then I saw a plaque noting the office that was once occupied by President Kennedy, as well as those for Presidents Truman, Johnson, and Harding. Our little diversion was turning out to be all sorts of geeky fun. When we finally arrived at our destination a very bored-looking intern gave us passes to the gallery for the Senate and the House. I had expected to have to go to someone else’s office for House passes, but not so! Excellent! Because we had already walked plenty.
We headed for the Senate building first (after 109 layers of security and surrender of all sharp objects, electronics, small animals, etc.) (not kidding -- Collared Boar could not go in) because we had this odd theory about which place might offer the best viewing: there are only 100 Senators but 435 Representatives so the proceedings in the latter chamber might be more chaotic and difficult to understand. Boy, was that an accurate guess. We got into the Senate gallery just in time to see...wait for it....absolutely nothing. Only the Senate President pro tempore, some clerks, pages and the Parliamentarian were present. We sat for a few minutes admiring the chamber and floor and listening to the crickets when some disembodied voice addressed the President with the request to speak on some legislation he was proposing. He was given the floor and he spoke for a solid ten minutes to no one about sanctions against Syria and Russia because they are supplying the Syrians with arms. When he was done he moved for a vote without quorum, role was called (no one answered) and he left. We were about to leave too, but our other Florida Senator, Bill Nelson, entered. I did not vote for him, am not a big fan, but he went up on a space shuttle about twenty-five years ago and I hoped maybe he would talk about that. He spoke for several minutes (to no one) about how he believed President Obama made a good decision that morning. Immediately I wondered what decision was made (reinstating the Shuttle program?) and vowed to do some Googling when we got back to the zone where smart phones are not verboten. Then Bill Nelson left and another Senator came in and spoke at length on legislation he was proposing - something to do with bringing America back into global competition in the manufacturing sector. I can’t remember what the bill was named, but based on his description I dubbed it The Anti-Cheap Plastic Crap Made Overseas Act.
We made a trip to the House of Representatives next and arrived just in time to hear them begin giving one-minute speeches in support of H.R. 3350, also known as the Upton Bill, which was aimed at amending the Affordable Care Act to allow people to keep their health care plan if they are happy with it. This was far more interesting than the Senate because there were actually a decent number of lawmakers on the floor listening to each other. No one spoke in opposition to the act, and I heard enough stories of families losing their coverage or being forced to pay extreme increases in rates that I got a bit nervous about our own insurance. Most all Representatives shared letters from one or more of their constituents. I learned that a resident of Arkansas is called an Arkansan. I had been wondering. Really.
We enjoyed ourselves so much that we came back the next day for another round of observation in the House. It truly was fascinating to watch historic legislation being debated. Unfortunately, we could not always tell who was speaking if we did not recognize a face because they only address each other as “the gentlewoman from Kentucky” or “my distinguished gentleman from Oregon.” The Speaker of the House would recognize someone and ask, “For what reason does the gentleman from Texas rise?” We usually could not hear the response clearly at all, but they would then come to the podium and speak to the floor. When they finished they would thank the Speaker and add, “...and I yield back the balance of my time.” Many of them said that, even if the Speaker had rapped his gavel at them because they had used it all up.
Most of the time when Representatives were finished they would leave, but some huddled in other parts of the chamber discussing matters with other lawmakers. I noted they seem to be a pretty serious bunch. I did not see a lot of smiles, although everyone was fairly pleasant, but it really did seem it was all business in there. Which brings me to my main take-away: call me naive if you like (you know where the comment box is), but I really do believe the majority of our elected officials are in Washington with good will. Yes, there are and have been a few whose character leaves something to be desired. I don’t doubt there are a few bad apples in the bunch, but that is true no matter where you go because none of us are wholly perfect all the time. I walked right past the good ones in the Senate office building and heard them doing their jobs. They were not discussing what happened last night on Dancing with the Stars. They were talking about how to make things better. They want the same things we want - for the country to work, but as in Anakin and Padme’s discussion, it is important for the rest of us to remember that people don’t always agree. In fact, they hardly ever do.
Our legislative process was purposefully designed so that no bill should sail through too easily. Every piece of legislation ought to be open to a healthy dose of debate and consideration. The alternative is the sort of thing we expect from a dictatorship. I walked out of the gallery with a new appreciation for Congress. I think they have one of the toughest jobs on the planet -- leading the greatest nation, and they do it amid a LOT of harsh criticism. Maybe the fastest way to see things in Washington improve would be for the rest of us to look for the good and offer our Senators and Representatives something a little more encouraging.