This Congress gets a lot of failing grades from voters and political watchers alike. Only 23 bills were signed into law in the past eight months, and neither side of the aisle is happy with the atmosphere on Capitol Hill.
But to Richvale Congressman Doug LaMalfa people who accuse House Republicans like him of blocking legislation are using the wrong barometer.
“I heard somebody complaining today about, ‘this is a Congress that doesn’t get much done.’ Well, how do you grade that? Is it by the number of bills you put out or is it more of a thing of the quality of what you’re doing? So if Republicans have a belief system in that we’re supposed to block bad things from happening, then I guess we should be graded on how well we block bad things from happening.” - Congressman Doug LaMalfa
Both parties routinely use aggressive tactics to blunt the political agendas of their opponents. That may look like gridlock but LaMalfa says he and other lawmakers have been working out the details on lots of bills. He says the problem is those negotiations take place away from the cameras and microphones.
“Well, our work gets done in committee, or even before committee on the legislation. And I think a lot of thought goes into what is actually coming out. We’re hashing out a lot of important things,” he says.
While LaMalfa is using his freshmen year to focus on committee work, Elk Grove Democrat Ami Bera is spending his first year in Washington, D.C. trying to forge relationships with Republicans. He admits that’s a bit of a survival mechanism.
“That is the way divided government works. I’m pragmatic. I’m a freshman in the minority party. I won’t be passing any legislation if I’m not working with Republicans so let’s look for places where we can work together.” - Ami Bera
Bera is a member of The Problem Solvers caucus - a group aimed at finding common ground. Members are not really tackling the big issues that drive the two parties apart, immigration, energy policy or even budget cuts. But the members have found some low hanging fruit where there's bipartisan consensus, issues like consolidation of government programs and streamlining the budget process.
Bera says there is bipartisan recognition among freshmen that voters are fed up with Washington. “The next steps for the Problem Solvers really have to be coming together as grassroots members to say, ‘you know what, if leadership is not going to change, then we need to change the process from the ground up,’” he says.
As for LaMalfa he came to Washington D.C. after spending time in the California state legislature. He says he's still getting used to the change of pace and his new surroundings.
“It’s more intimate there at the Capitol with less people so you work more on committee, see each other more often. Here’s it’s a lot of go, go, go and then you jump on an airplane at the end of the week and rush back the next. So the four days in the middle really goes by fast.”
LaMalfa recognizes in Washington he's a small fish in a big political pond. Still he says he's enjoying his freshman year. “I feel pretty good about it, but I’m one of 435, so you don’t hit a lot of home runs as a freshman.”
While the seniority system in Congress is stacked against freshmen, Bera is predicting members like him and LaMalfa will leave a mark on this town. “We’ve got a phenomenal freshman class. Eight-five of us. Fifty Democrats. Thirty-five Republicans. When I talk about who’s going to change Washington, D.C. I think it is our freshmen class.”
Congress returns to Washington this week after spending more than a month away. There are pressing issues ranging from the stalled Farm Bill to funding the government. Most freshmen have gone along with party leaders on these hot button issues so far. This fall will be the real test of whether Washington’s newest lawmakers are able to leave their own mark on the political process.