It’s the noon hour on a Thursday, and Sen. John Boozman, R.-Ark., arrives for an interview at a downtown Little Rock restaurant. He takes a look at the offerings on a chalkboard menu and orders a grilled cheese.
The interview lasts an hour and is based on a tough premise: Things look bad. The country is sinking ever deeper in debt at the same time that Congress and the White House have become incapable of addressing problems. Must the country hit rock bottom? If so, what would happen next?
Boozman has more hope than that. He points to Congress passing a bill to fund the Federal Aviation Administration, a bill to fund the highway system for a year and a half, and a bill for inland waterways. Not exactly crowning legislative achievements, but they do show that Congress is at least capable of passing something. The sequester that’s occurring now, where cuts are being made sort of indiscriminately — that was the fallback position of congressional negotiators during the fiscal cliff debate. He says it’s imperfect, but it was the result of legislative action and it did lead to cuts to the federal government. The floor manager for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D.-Nev., told him that the climate in Washington has been this bad before. "At the end of the day, things seem to come together," Boozman says between bites.
Back to the central question: Will it take a crisis to force Washington to function again? He says we’re already in one; we just don’t know it. Unfortunately, the American people — not just Congress — are simply too divided to do anything about it. "I think Congress reflects the country to a large extent," he says.
These are difficult, unsettling times, he says, where the whole world is in turmoil and the economy is changing rapidly. He visits as many factories as anyone, and it’s impressive how technologically advanced they are, but it’s also striking how empty they are of laborers. It’s a sign of progress, but he asks, "What do you do with a high school dropout?" He and Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, are discussing forming an "upward mobility caucus" to support pro-American Dream policies.
I’m still looking for hope, not that Congress can solve the nation’s problems, but that it can fulfill its duties — for example, pass a budget, which it hasn’t done since 2009. What must happen for Washington to work as intended on the big issues such as the national debt?
Boozman says it starts with presidential leadership, which has been in short supply lately. As for structural reforms, he’d like to see a balanced budget amendment with built-in flexibility to allow manageable debt, particularly in an emergency. He favors a line-item veto that would allow the president to cross out wasteful parts of huge spending bills instead of having to sign or veto the whole things.
He says Congress should return to the committee system, where a bill is proposed, debated in committee, voted on by the full chamber, and then sent to the other chamber. That careful, deliberative process allows a variety of viewpoints to be considered. These days, proposed bills often go straight to the chamber for a meaningless up or down vote.
Watching Washington work, or not work, is frustrating enough. He and other members of Congress actually live and work there. I tell him I’m surprised that he’s not more discouraged.
"I think that you can’t get cynical," he says. "I mean, you’ve got to decide, is this worth fighting for or not fighting for?"
We discuss Obamacare. He’s very much against it, believing policymakers’ ultimate goal is a national, single payer system. It’s a mess, I agree, adding that in an ideal world, what should have happened was a multi-year national discussion involving both political parties, the medical community, and others that led to a broad agreement. Boozman, an ophthalmologist, says his input wasn’t requested.
He thinks more effective health care reform can actually happen. When I express doubt, he replies, "Necessity is the mother of invention."
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.