Q&A: 'Government is broken . . .'

Ex-U.S. Rep. Bob Edgar , now head of Common Cause, sees "dysfunction" in Washington.
Ex-U.S. Rep. Bob Edgar , now head of Common Cause, sees "dysfunction" in Washington. (LAUREN VICTORIA BURKE / Associated Press)

Its three primary parts, says Bob Edgar, "are talking at each other and not with each other."

Posted: July 28, 2011

Bob Edgar, 68, a former Democratic congressman who represented the Seventh Congressional District centered in Delaware County from 1975 until 1987, now heads the nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause. He planned to take part in a noon rally on Thursday at the Capitol, to spotlight how Congress' actions and inactions affect poor and working-class Americans.

Edgar spoke Wednesday with The Inquirer about how Congress has changed since his days in office.

 Question: It's popular to say Washington is "broken," especially with regard to Congress and, most recently, the debt ceiling. But there's always been partisan rancor. Is it really "broken"?

Edgar: I think the seed of today's dysfunction in Washington started in the early 1990s and has continued into the midterm elections . . .. Government is broken and it's not going to be repaired by next Tuesday, and, unfortunately, I don't see an easy solution to this dysfunction . . . I think all three parts of the government - the House, Senate, and the White House - are talking at each other and not with each other.

Q: How is Congress different from when you served?

Edgar: While I was in service, many of my best friends were moderate Republicans. That whole variety of Republicans has either retired, disappeared, or died. Now you have a party that is really ideologically to the right of ultraconservative.

Q: You've said that you and the other Democrats elected in the wake of Watergate have some similarities with the tea party of today. 

Edgar: I was one of the "Watergate babies" that joined Congress in 1975 . . . We were angry at Nixon, angry at Watergate, angry at the war in Vietnam. . . . we unseated five Democratic committee chairs . . .. all unseated by young Democratic freshmen who wanted democracy to work . . . By April 1975, we were on the House floor leading an effort to shut down the Vietnam War, which we did . . .

The period between 1975 and 1980 was a period not dissimilar to what the tea party is trying to spark . . .. but from a middle-to-left point of view. Many of the tea party folks, particularly with the help of the money that was given to them by the Citizens United [Supreme Court] decision, they came with a hard-core ideology.

Q: Do members of Congress spend so much time raising money and hanging out with [allies] that they never spend time with the opposite party?. . . Is that different from when you were in Congress?

Edgar: Because of the accelerated pace of fund-raising, both Democrats and Republicans spend 40 to 60 hours a week raising money. . .. Many of the congressmen from Day One - the Republicans the night before the first session this year, and the Democrats the night after the first session two years ago - had political fund-raisers. Money has corroded the service in Washington.

When I served there, after Congress adjourned for the day, we [Democrats and Republicans] often went to dinner together . . . I think because of the tensions that have brewed, many of the House members don't know each other and don't like each other.

Q: How else has Congress changed since you left it? 

Edgar: Bill Moyers said it best. He said this is the most dangerous moment in our country. Will we be a nation of the people, for the people, and by the people or of the corporations, by the corporations, and for the corporations? This is a time when the corporations are buying their way into the legislative agenda more aggressively than any other time in history.

Q: Tell me about Common Cause. Isn't it white and kind of antiquated?

Edgar: John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause, said everybody has a special interest representing them here in Washington except the people. So Common Cause wants to hold government accountable and lobby for the people.

. . .. It is accurate to say that for a long time Common Cause was viewed as elitist and white and Anglo . . . We have come off this last election with a passionate commitment for pointing out economic disparity between the very rich and the very poor.

Q: What's your salary?

Edgar: About $215,000.

Q: Ever talk with Pat Meehan, who has your old seat in Congress? Ever give him advice?

Edgar: No, and no.

Q: What grade would you give Obama so far?

Edgar: B-minus. I think he did a god job on the TARP issue and kind of salvaging what happened in the later years of the Bush administration. Early on I think he was right to focus on health care . . .. but I think he's been too timid in many ways. . . . We in the reform community . . . would have urged him to be less intense in Afghanistan. It's going to be like Vietnam.

Contact staff writer Joelle Farrell at jfarrell@phillynews.com, 856-779-3237, or @joellefarrell on Twitter.

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