Watching Congress at Work

How your elected officials behave in the arena reveals their true character
Illustration by Louis Roskosch

No matter how combative our political discourse, we like to imagine the U.S. House and Senate floors as dignified forums, bound by decorum and procedure, and reflecting an immigrant nation’s diversity. If only. “They’re full of these generic, faceless, white, grayhaired men, sprinkled with a few red female power suits,” says Markos Moulitsas, founder of political blog Daily Kos.

As anyone who’s ever spied on the chambers knows, there’s lots of telling activity going on amid the pro forma fulminating. (When congressmen bother to show up, that is.) What the cameras don’t catch—the whispering, chuckling, snack-munching, and even video-game playing—says as much about our lawmakers’ character as their policy positions.

“They’re a lot more cordial to one another than you might think,” says the Hoover Institution’s Peter Schweizer, author of Throw Them All Out, an indictment of Congress-Wall Street collusion. “You’ll have Barney Frank and a conservative Republican cracking jokes. But they’ll change to vicious partisan attacks once they’re in front of C-SPAN.”

Bloomberg Businessweek spent two days in late March observing behaviors on the House and Senate floors, with their daylong ebb and flow of pols and staffers. Then we turned for insight to Moulitsas, Schweizer, Daily Kos’s congressional expert David Waldman, and Wonkette editor and publisher Rebecca Schoenkopf.
Other standouts from the House and Senate:
Apathetic, Glassy-Eyed John McCain: “He’s an action guy … The deliberative part of it really bothers him.” (Schweizer)
Stoic Decamper Olympia Snowe: “I assume that she is relieved to be out of there … The rug was being pulled out from under her by the Tea Party.” (Waldman)
Legislative Loner Al Franken: “He’s doing everything he can for the next four years to be taken seriously. He’ll go out of his way not to be funny.” (Moulitsas)

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