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The inner workings of the federal government

By TJ Ray

Ringling Brothers Circus may be out of business, but its traditions linger on in Washington. Recently my television has been switching between C-Span 2 and C-Span 1. (I listed C-Span 2 first because it garners the bulk of my viewing time.) These two channels give citizens a free pass to the circus in D.C almost every day.

Not having a copy of the agenda makes watching our government in action resemble the duck shooting booths at Ringling. At times no government business is shown, but peripheral group meetings and speeches abound. Segments of committee hearings are a staple, as are press conferences. To the credit of the C-Span managers, what is aired is generally free of slanted presentation. For a lopsided view of our government, one only has to switch channels to CNN, HLN, Fox News, One America News.

It would be quite enlightening to show the events on the House or Senate floor and the liberal and conservative channel spin they deliver on a split screen television.

Amazingly on those networks, it is common to have a commentator start something with “It’s as if” and kick that around till by the end of the broadcast an “It’s as if” supposition has morphed into a hard fact. Remember, the other gang is making the topspin in an opposite direction.

Watching the folks under the big dome is mesmerizing. In no particular order, look at the “rings” of action. In both chambers of Congress there is the mass of chairs and desks for members to sit in. These chairs are empty more than they’re full. Senators and Congressmen wander around the floor, stopping every now and then to shake a hand or confer with a colleague. (Isn’t it curious that Representatives are referred to as Congressmen but Senators just as Senators, as though they are not part of Congress?)

At odd times tuning in to the two C-Span channels will reveal that the main body is in recess but Congressman This or Senator That faces a microphone and delivers a solo speech to a mainly empty chamber.

Down front there is a hierarchy of tables. First are long tables stretching mostly across the wide floor, behind which sit all sorts of folks with laptops and papers scattered in front of them. At the ends of the raised area behind these tables sit the Pages, young boys and girls picked by their elected official to spend some time watching how our government operates. Wouldn’t it be interesting to read their diaries about what they observed on a given day? Wouldn’t it be even more interesting to let them comment on those diary entries thirty years later? Would some of them by then have learned that their mentor was a numbskull or worse?

When a bill is on the agenda, the clerk at one of the long tables reads a short piece about the bill, including its sponsor’s name. Beside him sits a lady with a long, narrow sheet of paper on which are printed the names of all the members. In time, when they vote, she reads names and announces how this person voted. As the end of allowed voting time comes or when it is clear that something has “been agreed to” or not, she passes the sheet behind her to the top level, where the acting authority for the session sits.

That gentleperson announces the results.

A fascinating aspect of this circus is the decorum with which it operates. The Senator, who last night on CNN or Fox made very scurrilous comments about someone from across the aisle, now addresses that same individual as he would a long-lost friend.

Just maybe this civility — which adds many minutes to every issue — is the balm needed to prevent physical conflict on the floor. But it consumes quite a chunk of time.

One conclusion is inescapable: If “the aisle” didn’t exist and all members of each body worked together, wouldn’t we all be better off?

T.J. Ray is a retired professor of English at Ole Miss.