Roll Call and I have changed a lot since 1955, the year we both began on Capitol Hill. And yet it’s that very change that has kept us both going and positioned us to continue our work into the future.
I do wonder what the Speaker who first swore me into office — the great Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) — would say about this milestone year for both Roll Call and me if he were still around. It might be, let us say, colorful — but I guarantee you one thing, it would be brilliant. Sam knew how to craft a sound bite before CNN was a glimmer in Ted Turner’s eye.
Of course, the Members who served with Speaker Rayburn in the 84th Congress would barely recognize the job — or Congress itself — as it is today.
Back then, Congress was in session for about seven months a year. Committee markups were held in executive session behind closed doors, and were full of real, vigorous debate and discussion. Ultimately, real bipartisan agreement was hammered out.
The number of staff around to help us was small; I had four people in my first office and did my own scheduling. Members did not go home to their districts every week, as the highway system was still in its infancy and air transportation was both expensive and not widely available.
Campaigning was different back then too, with retail politics the name of the game and with fundraising a relatively minor aspect of winning re-election. It was unusual to spend $100,000 on a campaign. When we were in session back then, we were able to concentrate a lot more on policy. Campaigning was something we did back home with our trusted advisers, our neighbors and the party faithful.
Congress has always been a partisan place, but never has the atmosphere been as negative and divisive as it is today. We accomplished a lot more when Democrats and Republicans not only worked on legislation together, but also talked, dined and got together socially with one another. The children of Democratic and Republican Members played together in the neighborhoods where we lived, and our teenage children went out on dates. We played cards together in between votes, went hunting together and played paddleball in the gym (I frequently played an Illinois lawmaker named Donald Rumsfeld).
In other words, we were friends beyond the floor of the House, and the trust and respect that came with those friendships helped us understand not only each other better, no matter our party or region, but also when and how the Congress needed to come together for the good of the nation.
Clearly, times have changed, and so too have the processes of Congress. We have all witnessed and participated in many of the significant changes that have taken place in the way the House of Representatives does its work. Spotting the changes is the easy part. Assessing and navigating the changes as they happen, in order to chart the best course forward toward a better life for our constituents and our nation, is another matter entirely.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.