Ship of State adrift in chaos
It’s hard to go along if you can’t get along. The result has been that the Ship of State has been floating sideways toward the falls, because its divided crew can’t agree on which way to go.
By rowing in opposite directions, the sides cancel each other out, and the ship continues to drift.
Just because someone disagrees with you, that doesn’t necessarily make them a bad person. It may not even mean they’re wrong.
Used to be, before easy air travel, congressmen used to spend weekends in Washington, and got to know each other, and even like each other. But that respect is hard to come by in today’s Washington. George W. Bush learned that the hard way when he moved from the Texas governor’s office to the White House.
While running for president, Republican Bush had stressed he could get along with Democrats. He developed friendships and close working relationships with the Democratic leaders of the Texas House and Senate – Speaker Pete Laney and Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock.
Not so in Washington. It was almost as though Bush was forced to drink some kind of partisan potion on the way to the inaugural.
Among the reasons are the structure and size of the institutions compared to those in Texas.
In Texas, Bush had 150 House members, contrasted to 435 in the U.S. House. He had just 31 members of the Texas Senate, contrasted with 100 U.S. senators.
In Texas, the governor’s office is in the same capitol building, and even on the same floor, as the House and Senate chambers. Bush could have a state senator in his office discussing a bill in 30 seconds.
If the president wants to meet with legislators in the national capitol, it requires a several-car motorcade for about two miles, plus enough security manpower to invade a small country.
And, the partisanship is pervasive. In Austin, when Bush was governor, it hadn’t reached that point. Texas is one of a halfdozen states that hasn’t organized like congress, where the majority party controls everything.
State Sen. Jeff Wentworth, a Republican whose district includes part of San Antonio, told of a going-away reception a few years ago for newsman Bob Richter. He was leaving the San Antonio Express-News to be press secretary for new Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick.
Wentworth said while greeting people at the function, he walked over and gave state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, a Democrat, a hug, and kissed her cheek.
A reporter from the paper’s Washington Bureau was amazed.
“You’d never see that in Washington,” he confided. “They don’t even talk to each other.”
Oddly, the capitol restoration, after the 1983 capitol fire that nearly got away from firefighters, inadvertently caused some loss of camaraderie among legislators.
About a quarter century earlier, the highceilinged offices in the capitol were doubledecked, so every legislator had an office and staff in the building.
There were groups of about six House members and their staffs in suites, with the legislators in private offices, and their staffs in a jammed-together bullpen outside them.
The good thing was that the staffs would almost literally be crawling over one another, and got to know each other well.
There was a lot of horizontal mentoring, and the legislators also got to know each other well.
The capitol’s underground extension was built in the 1990s, before the restoration of the capitol, in a 65-foot hole in the solid limestone north of the capitol.
Its purpose initially was to house the capitol’s officials during the restoration, and then for legislators and their personal and committee staffs to have more office space.
There are two floors of offices and meeting rooms, and two floors of parking beneath that. It is an attractive place.
But the legislators and their staffs are in individual suites, behind closed doors. The amount of social interaction went way down – and with it the camaraderie and cooperation.
A saving grace of the underground extension is its sizable cafeteria and snack bar. The capitol is connected to several adjacent office buildings, such as the attorney general and high courts, legislative staff offices, and so on.
The cafeteria quickly became a mixing pot, where you’re likely to see supreme court justices, legislative committee chairmen, staff members, lobbyists, and tourists. It is a good place to catch up with people not on one’s usual path.
Those structural and personal differences from the nation’s capitol may not keep Texas from falling into Washington-style gridlock. But it’s more likely that compromise can be reached if the people involved know each other.
Familiarity may breed contempt. But it also can lead to camaraderie, cooperation and compromise.
Contact McNeely at email@example.com or (512) 458- 2963.