Life in the Swamp: Worse, not Better.

Once a year in April, the Rail Passengers Association meets in Washington, DC, for three days. Days One and Three are devoted to RPA business: outside speakers, workshops, board elections, and so forth. But on Day Two, we all head for Capitol Hill where we meet with senators and House members from our home states and try to make the case for more and better and faster passenger trains.
As a practical matter, of course, most of the time the actual sit-down meetings are with someone on the elected official’s staff. These are bright young people who perform an endless variety of services for their bosses and are universally referred to simply as “staffers”.
The first thing to realize is that all senators are important. By contrast, a first-or second-term member of the House may be a minor celebrity back home, but is barely noticed and mostly ignored by anyone who really matters in Washington. Their standing is perfectly reflected in the size and location of their assigned office space, which, more often than not, is ridiculously small and located on an upper floor a long walk from the nearest bank of elevators. One of my interviews a year ago was with a staff member of Rep. Coleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii). It took place with me and the staffer literally sharing space with another constituent on a sofa in the office’s reception area.
What strikes you almost immediately during visit to almost any Congressional office is that every corridor on every floor of every office building is bustling with people who have appointments in one or more of those offices. And most of those hurrying people are there to present to the senator or to one of the staffers what is known on The Hill as their “Ask”.
It’s fascinating to see it all working, but the harsh reality is that it’s mostly working for whoever is willing and able to spend big bucks in the form of campaign contributions. These days, thanks to the infamous Citizens United case, wealthy people and special interests can make huge anonymous contributions to specific campaigns. As long as that’s the case–and it’s getting worse, not better–our republic is in real trouble.