Jim Cooper, a Blue Dog Democrat who represents the Nashville area, was first elected to Congress in 1982. He was 28, and if it's not quite right to say he's been there ever since -- he spent eight years in the private sector after losing the race for Al Gore's Senate seat -- he's still been a congressman most of his adult life.
You'd think that Cooper's tenure would ensure him the privileges of seniority. It doesn't. A mild-mannered man, you'd think he'd have friends on both sides of the aisle. Not so. He's loathed by Republicans for being in the wrong party, and scorned by Democrats for his fiscal conservatism. At the least, you'd think that he'd be respected for his institutional memory. Wrong again.
The reason is that Cooper is the House's conscience, a lonely voice for civility in this ugly era. He remembers when compromise was not a dirty word and politicians put country ahead of party. And he's not afraid to talk about it. "We've gone from Brigadoon to Lord of the Flies," he likes to say.
I first heard him lament the state of Congress during one of those "get Elizabeth Warren" hearings held earlier this year. When it was Cooper's turn to question her, he turned instead to the Republicans. "This Congress is viewed as dysfunctional," he said, "and this alleged hearing is one of the reasons why. It too easily degenerates into a partisan food fight." He pleaded with the junior members to change their mean-spirited ways before they became ingrained.
With Congress back in session this week -- and the mean-spirited wrangling about to begin anew -- I thought it would be useful to ask Cooper how Congress became so dysfunctional. His answer surprised me. He said almost nothing about the Tea Party. Instead, he focused on the internal dynamics of Congress itself.
To Cooper, the true villain is not the Tea Party; it's Newt Gingrich. In the 1980s, when Tip O'Neill was speaker of the House, "Congress was functional," Cooper told me. "Committees worked. Tip saw his role as speaker of the whole House, not just the Democrats."
Gingrich was a new kind of speaker: deeply partisan and startlingly power-hungry. "His first move was to get rid of the Democratic Study Group, which analyzed bills, and which was so trusted that Republicans as well as Democrats relied on it," Cooper recalled. "This was his way of preventing us from knowing what we were voting on. Today," he added, "the ignorance around here is staggering. Nobody has any idea what they're voting on."
In the O'Neill era, when an important issue was being debated, there were often several legislative alternatives. But, under Gingrich, "that was eliminated in favor of one partisan bill," said Cooper. That continued after the Democrats retook the House in 2006. "We no longer search for the best ideas or the best policies," he said. "There was only one health care bill offered. One Dodd-Frank. Now you are either an ally or a traitor."
Cooper was rolling now. "The real problem with big issues like Medicare is that both parties have to be brave at the same time," he said. "Every pollster will tell you not to do that to get partisan advantage. Too many people here are willing to deliberately harm the country for partisan gain. That is borderline treason.
"This is not a collegial body anymore," he said. "It is more like gang behavior. Members walk into the chamber full of hatred. They believe the worst lies about the other side. Two senators stopped by my office just a few hours ago. Why? They had a plot to nail somebody on the other side. That's what Congress has come to."
Inevitably, Cooper turned to the subject of money in politics. "Money changes hands here way too much," he said. "Members buy their way onto committees. When I first came to Congress, the party was supposed to help you. Now, when a new member is sworn in, he or she is told what their dues are -- how much they are expected to raise for the party for the next election. It's worse in the Senate. It turns the whole place into a money machine."
Cooper had lots more to say: about how redistricting has fostered extremism, on both the left and the right; about how Congress has become incapable of legislating on behalf of the nation; about how we are living through a new McCarthyism, aimed at destroying innocent people who want to serve their country by coming to Washington to run an agency or department.
"We survived McCarthy," he said, suddenly, sounding a small, surprising note of optimism. "We'll survive this." I hope he's right. As I prepared to leave, he added, "You can't lose hope."
So, yes: Let's all hope that the next few, critical months for Congress will be better than the last few. For the country's sake, they have to be.