As exit interviews go, it was a doozy.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, (D-Vt.), is retiring from Congress after 48 years. Though his last official day is Jan. 3, the Senate’s president pro tempore gave his final address on Tuesday.
And then he spoke to the Associated Press, confirming what many Americans have felt for years.
Too many politicians in Washington “don’t care” about the country, he said, only about their “political ambitions.”
It was stunning to hear this from a senator. We’ve seen it, of course, in pols who seem to think they were elected to denigrate the other party, slamming plans and policies regardless of merit. The only time they reach across the aisle is to throw a punch.
Leahy said when he first joined the Senate in 1975, senators found ways to get things done regardless of differing views.
“I think then, most of [the senators] knew there were basic things the Senate should do, basic things the country needed, and we should find a way to come together,” Leahy told the AP.
“Now, there are too many people who think, ‘What can I say that will get me on the evening news or give me a sound bite or get me on this Twitter account,’ or something else.”
Fame seems to have replaced public service for too many who hold elected office. And drama, real or manufactured, is a ticket to more air time and clicks. Thus we have many lawmakers playing victim for the cameras, or vanquisher, depending on the issue.
Drama also fuels polarization, which continues to degrade American politics and life.
Leahy is optimistic, telling AP he’s holding out hope the Senate as he used to know it will return some day, saying “hyperpartisanship” has taken precedence in Congress more recently.
“If we don’t get back to it, this country is going to be severely damaged,” he said.
Polls have shown a majority of Americans feel the country is going in the wrong direction – the question is, how do we get on track?
It calls for courage on the part of lawmakers to be willing to work for the people instead of gaining more power for themselves and their party. The runup to the midterms was a relentless exercise in “who’s got more seats.” What Americans cared about and needed was a sidenote.
Getting on the right track also means senior party leaders must rein in lawmakers who go rogue for the camera. It’s bad enough the country is so divided, but to have political parties further split across differences in ideology and feuding in the media is not good government.
We deserve better.
To get it we have to be better, as well. Staying informed and engaged is the best way for voters to hold lawmakers accountable. Being able to separate the wheat from the chaff is crucial to one’s vote making an impact.
“We have responsibility to the Americans. We have a responsibility to the rest of the world,” Leahy said.
Here’s hoping Congress was listening.