Washington and Hollywood have had an uneven love affair over the years, but currently it’s enjoying a smoking hot revival! Capitol Hill staffers joined millions outside the Beltway in binge-watching the frothy “House of Cards.” But even as we collectively obsess over these fictional accounts of D.C., it’s worth considering how the show impacts or even drives our deepening cynicism about American politics. “House of Cards” lead actor Kevin Spacey further blurred the lines between perception and reality when he said in an interview, “Some people feel that 99 percent of the show is accurate.”
Now before readers get up in arms over another commentator throwing a wet blanket on a hit show, don’t — I am a huge fan of this show and just about any TV show or movie based on Congress. I have a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” movie poster in my office, bought every season of “The West Wing” on DVD (even the last season, after it jumped the shark), and have watched the opening scene of Amazon’s “Alpha House” pilot with the Bill Murray cameo no fewer than 20 times. And yet, there are consequences for constituents confusing the fictional Congress with the real one.
There are little exaggerations (i.e., complete falsehoods). In “Alpha House” Sen. Robert Bettencourt waits for a ride from Sen. Andy Guzman who arrives in a limousine to drive him four blocks. Ironically, the only people seen traveling in limos in D.C. are, well, people from Hollywood.
The fundamental dilemma with Hollywood’s portrayal of Washington is the negative and largely inaccurate picture of the motivation of members of Congress. Legislators are seen as craven or corrupt figures, driven by the acquisition of power or personal wealth. And yet, when you genuinely examine what motivates members, it’s something much more noble. An anonymous Congressional Management Foundation survey of members of the House found 95 percent reported that their top priority was “staying in touch with constituents.” Contrast that with a 2013 public opinion study that reported 16 percent of Americans believe that their representative in Congress “cares about what I think.”
When you look at how legislators actually spend their time, it reveals another gap between perception and reality. Hollywood (and much of the Washington media establishment) would have you believe that members spend “most” of their time raising money. However the survey of legislators showed the top activity in Washington was “legislative/policy” related activity. (“Political” work was third, at 17 percent of their time.)
On some levels, I don’t fault Hollywood for distorting the reality of Washington, as its job is not to inform but to entertain. Yet, the Washington media adds to the frenzy when it piles on the narrative with more distortions. And reporters seem to reject any data that confound that narrative. A few months ago, a reporter was being interviewed on a cable news show, citing a CMF report showing that members of the House work about 70 hours a week when in session. The anchor said (not kidding here), “I don’t believe you.” It was like she was channeling the Groucho Marx joke, “Who are you going to believe ... me, or your own two eyes?”
Washington Post White House correspondent Juliet Eilperin recently penned a wonderful rebuttal to the cynics who revel in distorting Washington. “Many journalists and the officials they cover moved to this town because they care about the ideas and the policies that help shape the world we live in. ... It’s why my parents moved here nearly half a century ago, and it’s why I have stayed.” I’m not saying that the American public does not occasionally send a Frank Underwood to Congress (but never one so gleefully deceptive). That doesn’t change the perhaps boring fact that the vast majority of Congress consists of solid public servants, who sacrifice much for their districts, states and nation. While the creators of “House of Cards” and the denizens of Washington surely know the difference between perception and reality, the American public does not. And the consequences of their misinformed and cynical view of our democratic process isn’t fiction, it’s real.
Bradford Fitch is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation and a former congressional staffer.