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Ugly times

Congress is more about personal attacks than debating ideas

By Bruce Morton
CNN National Correspondent

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You've probably noticed that President Bush is in trouble in the polls -- an approval rating of just 37 percent in the latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll, the lowest of his presidency. You may not have noticed that the voters give Congress even worse marks, just 32 percent in that same poll.

There are good reasons for that. One probably is that just about everything in Congress these days is personal, partisan and ugly.

For instance, last week Democratic Rep. John Murtha, a Marine Corps veteran from Pennsylvania, made a speech saying it was time for the U.S. to pull its troops out of Iraq. He may be right or wrong about that, but the debate wasn't about his idea; it was about him.

Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio, the newest member -- she's the Republican who beat an anti-war Democrat who'd served in Iraq -- told the House she had a message from a Marine Corps reservist in her district. "He... asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message: that cowards cut and run. Marines never do."

Murtha, of course, is a Vietnam vet with two Purple hearts, the V for valor, the whole nine yards. Massachusetts Democrat Martin Meehan yelled at the Republicans, "You guys are pathetic!" Democrat Harold Ford of Tennessee charged toward the Republicans, shouting, "Say Murtha's name!" Colleagues held him back.

Schmidt finally said, "My words were not directed at any member of the House," though of course they were, and asked that they be withdrawn from the record.

'Like fifth graders in school playground'

This is debate? In a legislature? It's more like fifth graders in the school playground, yelling things like, "Your mother wears combat boots."

Congress was not always like this. I'm old enough to remember debates about Vietnam, a day when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee suddenly turned on Secretary of State Dean Rusk with tough, skeptical questions. Or a day in the Senate chamber when George McGovern, later the Democratic presidential candidate in 1972, shouted, "This chamber reeks of blood!"

But he was still talking about the issue, about the war, not questioning someone's character. And of course you don't have to be brave, or cowardly, to think that this war, or that one, was a bad idea.

The last time public debate was this vulgar was probably during the anti-communist fever that gripped the country after World War II. Anyone who disagreed with you about anything was a communist or a communist sympathizer -- "comsimp" is the ugly word we heard so often back then.

And it isn't just Iraq. A multibillion-dollar spending bill included some 6,000 pet projects for members' districts, including a $223 million "Bridge to Nowhere," from Ketchikan, Alaska, population 7,423, to Gravina Island, population 50. It would replace a ferry. That earmark was canceled, they say, but not really. Alaska still gets the money and can do whatever it wants with it -- including building a bridge. Alaska's delegation is so senior it ranks third in total federal funding, behind California and Illinois, which have lots more people.

This is caring legislation? John Kennedy urged Americans, presumably including congressmen, to ask what they could do for their country. That's out. Providing pork for your district is in.

There is one proposal that might help, at least in the House. For the last 10 or 15 years, both parties have drawn district lines in the states to create safe seats. That tends to produce fewer centrists -- more left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans -- and fewer independent thinkers, more members who are supposed to take orders from their leaders. A couple of states -- Iowa is one -- have the district lines drawn, not by the parties, but by an independent board -- retired judges. Similar proposals were on the ballot in California and Ohio this fall, but lost in both states.

So it's pork, and partisanship and personal attacks. The issue that provokes the hottest language, of course, is the war in Iraq. It's starting to get to them. Republican Sen. Jim DeMint (South Carolina), told the Washington Post, "I feel like every morning I wake up, get a concrete block, and have to walk around with it all day. We can't even address the issues."

He's got that about right.

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