NPR's Seabrook Reflects On A 'Broken Washington'
After 14 years with NPR and nearly a decade covering Congress, Andrea Seabrook is striking out on her own. She began her career in the marbled halls of Capitol Hill before Twitter, before the Tea Party, before the first female House speaker and before that institution's approval ratings sank to near single digits.
Seabrook is launching a blog and podcast called DecodeDC.
"One of the reasons that I am leaving to start a new project," she tell NPR's Jennifer Ludden, "is because of how broken Washington really is and how difficult it is to try to ... tell our listeners what is going on with their government day to day."
"We're in position, as journalists, where ... what the speaker and the majority leader and the minority — what they say is news, right?" she says. "But most of what they say these days — all day, every day — is spin. So it's very difficult."
Seabrook began covering Congress in January 2003. "It was a time when you could still smoke all over the Capitol. You could still smoke in the speaker's lobby, and really, it sounds like ancient history."
Dennis Hastert of Illinois was speaker of the House, and Tom DeLay of Texas was the House majority leader. She says that the culture of spin she observes now wasn't a major issue then. "In covering Tom DeLay, I never had to question if what he was saying was spin. He said what he meant."
"You asked him if he was going to continue the assault rifle ban, and he said, 'Nope.' And you said, 'Well, why? Most Americans support a ban on people owning assault rifles.' And he says, 'Because I don't.' "
Seabrook covered Democratic California Rep. Nancy Pelosi's rise to become the first female speaker of the House in 2007. "One story that [Pelosi] told me is when she was a teenager in high school, she was in a debate class and picked a debate topic out of a fishbowl — or her debate partner did. And the debate topic was: Do women think? So she went in her career from do women think, to the first speaker of the House. I find that extraordinary."
Seabrook's new blog will center on her view of the dysfunctional nature of Washington. She believes that the American people bear some of the blame.
"Americans, real people, you have bought this line that we are on two teams in this country. There is a red team, and there is a blue team. When we've gotten to the point where your partisan stripe comes before your American citizenship, our shared culture, our shared values in this country, then we have a real problem at the nation — national, federal level. We vote for people who are going in there to fight red or blue instead of put that stuff down at the end of the election cycle and work on real problems that need to be solved."
In reflecting on her years, she's learned to value the importance of the individual vote. "As a citizen of any political stripe, you should be very careful to research who you vote for and spend your vote very wisely."
"If you want someone who's rational and reasonable, then you have to go look for that person and take your vote out of the emotional realm of your brain and into the rational realm of your brain."
JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:
After 14 years with NPR and nearly a decade covering Congress, Andrea Seabrook is striking out on her own. She's going to produce a podcast and blog called DecodeDC. Before she heads off, we wanted to get a debrief and some perspective. After all, Andrea's time in those marbled halls of Capitol Hill started before Twitter, before the Tea Party, before the first female House speaker and before that institution's approval ratings sank to near single digits.
What questions do you have for Andrea Seabrook? Call us at 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Andrea Seabrook is still, for a little bit, NPR's congressional correspondent until July 27th, I believe.
LUDDEN: Andrea, she's here in Studio 3A. Welcome.
ANDREA SEABROOK, BYLINE: Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.
LUDDEN: So can you go back those nine-plus years? Do you remember what it was like when you first kind of started getting your head around how Congress works?
SEABROOK: I remember, yeah, it was the time of Dennis Hastert and Tom DeLay, and the Republicans in charge of the House and the Senate. It was the time of the Hammer. Tom DeLay was a very effective whip and then majority leader in the House of Representatives. It was a time when you could still smoke all over the Capitol. You could still smoke in the speaker's lobby, and really, it sounds like ancient history, but I mean....
LUDDEN: Not recent? Wow.
SEABROOK: ...it's just a few years ago. 2000 - the beginning of 2003.
LUDDEN: Could women wear pants?
SEABROOK: Yes, women could wear pants.
LUDDEN: I think Hillary Clinton broke that barrier. That wasn't so long ago.
SEABROOK: I did get kicked out of the - off floor once for wearing open-toed shoes.
LUDDEN: In the past year nine years, holy moly.
SEABROOK: In the past three years.
LUDDEN: Never knew that was not appropriate.
SEABROOK: Yeah, there's all sorts of things you do. I mean, you can bring a dog into the Capitol. Lawmakers are still allowed to smoke in their offices, and they do all the time.
LUDDEN: The only time I've been looked at for open-toed shoes is in Iran.
LUDDEN: That's crazy.
SEABROOK: Interesting. That's very interesting, Jennifer.
SEABROOK: Yeah, it's a different place. I mean, the thing about Congress is that it - those hollowed halls where they make the nation's laws, they often bypass those laws themselves. They don't pass a lot of laws on themselves. For example, most of the OSHA rules and ergonomics rules and labor standards and so on don't apply in Congress, as well as smoking laws and some all sorts of other things.
LUDDEN: So what was your - well, I guess, maybe that was just a list of it. I was going to ask you your biggest surprise.
SEABROOK: That was - I remember finding it very surprising. It was very surprising how few people, lawmakers in 2003 really used the Internet or understood the impact of the Internet. It's surprising for that matter how few lawmakers now really understand the impact of the Internet and sort of the changing dynamics of their own voters.
SEABROOK: Yeah, their own constituents. I mean, frankly, if you look at the data, the number of constituents any congressman has to answer to or represent is - it averages out to about 600,000. And there's no way that any one person could keep track of how 600,000 people are thinking about anything. And so they usually have a legislative assistant or two answering phones. Now there's no way two people answering phones could keep track of 600,000 phone calls in a two-year cycle. That's if every constituent called once. Now people don't do that very often. But there's this huge, newfangled thing called the Internet, which lawmakers are slowly starting to marshal to the end of representing their own constituents. But it is very slow.
LUDDEN: Well, and the Internet lends itself to very engineered and/or highly orchestrated campaigns. And how do you know that that actually represents your 600,000 people?
SEABROOK: Yup. Well, that's something that they could work out, I think, if they could - if they would.
SEABROOK: And so they may not understand this all, but don't they all have their Twitter accounts now? Or at least many of them seem to.
Yeah. One of my pet peeves, personally, is lawmakers on Twitter who aren't actually the lawmaker tweeting. There are some lawmakers who tweet a lot. John McCain is well-known for his tweeting - Chuck Grassley, outgoing. He's well-known for tweeting. But a lot of lawmakers just have their PR guy send out a tweet every once a while that says, oh, you know, Mr. Smith is supporting this bill. Mr. Smith is filibustering on the Senate floor. But - and that's not really helpful to anyone. Twitter, I think, is best when it's a conversation between real people.
LUDDEN: Rudolf(ph) in Kansas City writes in for you: Ask Andrea if she's encountered a gridlock during her time covering Congress, since that word is synonymous with Congress, especially within the last three years. Is it the only last three years that - the ways things...
Oh, no. Yes, I mean, absolutely, the last, really, year and a half is what we're talking about. From - for the years 2009 and 2010, when Democrats controlled everything, it was very, very productive. In the years that Republicans controlled everything, when George W. Bush was in the White House and Republicans had the House and the Senate, it was very, very productive. It's when you have any friction at all that you have full friction.
But isn't the whole system supposed to work when there's friction? I mean, we're supposed to have the system where the two sides hash it out, right?
LUDDEN: You're not supposed to have one side only in control.
SEABROOK: You know, Jennifer, what you're saying is how I felt when I first went to Congress. I felt like, this is awesome. It's the great train wreck. Let's get in there and see the wreck of the ideas and watch them work it out and do it and, you know, see what comes out of it. And sometimes, I find that still works. There are glimmers.
But one of the reasons that I am leaving to start a new project is because of how broken Washington really is and how difficult it is to try to cover a place, tell Americans, tell our listeners what is going on with their government day to day and not just cover what they say. I mean, we're in position, as journalists, where we - you know, what the speaker and the majority leader and the minority - what they say is news, right? But most of what they say these days - all day, every day - is spin. So it's very difficult.
I mean, my - we're in very strange position. I think NPR is a - has done better than anyone in the news business, frankly. I could say that now that I'm leaving. I'm very, very proud of having worked here. I think our Washington desk is amazing, and I've learned everything I know from the people there. But it's - I am going - my intent is to attempt to do - do it a little differently.
LUDDEN: You know, listeners are - writing in about this. There's Colin(ph) in St. Paul, who says, hello. He's a former intern at TALK OF THE NATION.
SEABROOK: Hi, Colin.
LUDDEN: And he wants your perspective on, you know, the pack journalism mentality, what's it like covering the slow-moving institution, covering policy versus politics. And then Dante in Cleveland says: Does Andrea have insights and hopefully practically suggestions about what the average American can do to change the dysfunction?
Well, those are two different questions. The pack journalism is a real problem. There are still - well, journalism has died in a lot of ways at the state level, where lots of crazy things are going on. There are dozens and dozens and dozens of reporters, hundreds in the Capitol. And for the most part, they are covering the same thing every day. They are running around to the same press conferences. And that is a real problem.
SEABROOK: There's a real sort of idea that, oh, this is the one news thing today. Everything else doesn't matter. There are lots of policy questions that are ignored. And part of that is - and I know this is true for NPR - we just don't have the resources to cover everything all the time. And our listeners won't want to hear everything all the time, anyway.
In terms of what you can do as an American, as a citizen of any political stripe, you should be very careful to research who you vote for and spend your vote very wisely. Don't allow anyone to sway your opinion. Go and allow - go and do your own research and look at how lawmakers actually vote. Sometimes - I know this is going to be shocking. Sometimes, they can be misleading in their campaign.
SEABROOK: For example, if they - if you hear a lawmaker in a campaign say, well, I introduced a bill that would have done X, Y, Z. Well, yeah, any lawmaker can introduce any bill that says anything. And so at the beginning of every Congress, there's a lawmaker who introduces a bill that would get rid of the IRS. And he goes out and he campaigns on it, and he says: I want to abolish the IRS. I introduced a bill that would do this. There is no practical way that the United States government is going to abolish the IRS right now.
LUDDEN: It's a painless measure.
SEABROOK: So - yeah. And they can put anything they want into the hopper. It doesn't mean it's going to come out of the hopper. So, you know, you have to be very careful. And remember, you get what you vote for. You have - if you want someone who's rational and reasonable, then you have to go look for that person and take your vote out of the emotional realm of your brain and into the rational realm of your brain.
LUDDEN: All right. Let's go to a caller, here. Mark in Little Rock, I think, has a question on leadership. Hi, Mark.
MARK: Hi, I'm shocked, shocked that politicians...
MARK: ...hide their real intentions in their campaigns. Goodness, gracious.
LUDDEN: Yes, breaking news.
MARK: My question - I'm changing the question than the one I had originally, because of what Andrea just said. You know, your coverage has been impressive, Andrea. Congratulations.
SEABROOK: Thank you, sir.
MARK: If Washington is that broken, who broke it and who can put it back together again?
SEABROOK: Well, we broke it.
LUDDEN: Thanks, Mark.
SEABROOK: We broke it.
LUDDEN: We, the people?
SEABROOK: We, the people, broke it.
SEABROOK: Yes. I do think so, Mark. I know that's surprising, but I think - really, there are many, many problems that have come together to create what we have right now, which I say - and this is not NPR saying it. This is Andrea Seabrook going off to a new thing. I say Washington is broken. Washington is dysfunctional, and I will start with that point from - with DecodeDC.
But the - there are many reasons, and one of them is that people, Americans, real people, you have bought this line that we are on two teams in this country. There is a red team, and there is a blue team. If you ask a few other people, there's a green team and there's a Ron Paul team and whatever. You can make a million variations. But generally, there's a red team and a blue team.
And people truly believe that because they're on the red team, their blue team neighbor is fundamentally different than they are. Their brains work differently, and they don't trust them. When we've gotten to the point where your partisan stripe comes before your American citizenship, our shared culture, our shared values in this country, then we have a real problem at the nation - national, federal level. We vote for people who are going in there to fight red or blue instead of put that stuff down at the end of the election cycle and work on real problems that need to be solved.
LUDDEN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Roger is in Norfolk, Virginia. Hi, Roger.
ROGER: Hey. How are you doing?
ROGER: Good. Andrea, first of all, thanks for your service to all of us listeners in Washington for the past decade.
SEABROOK: Thank you.
ROGER: A lot of people have been focusing on the dysfunction coming out of Congress, but I'm wondering who have been the most remarkable representatives and senators that you've seen, from your point of view, during your time covering that body?
SEABROOK: Well, the - I need to separate those two because there...
SEABROOK: ...there are many, many remarkable lawmakers, many of whom are partly responsible for the dysfunction. You know, I think Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader and whip before that, who was later indicted by a grand jury in Texas and left Congress in - somewhat in disgrace. I think he was a remarkable man. And I'll tell you, that in covering Tom DeLay, I never had to question if what he was saying was spin. He said what he meant. You asked him if he was going to continue the assault riffle ban, and he said, nope. And you said, well, why? Most Americans support a ban on people owning assault rifles. And he says: because I don't.
SEABROOK: You know, I mean, it's just, you know, there was just no varnish on any of that, and I really appreciate that. On the same - by the same token, covering Nancy Pelosi and her rise from the Democratic leadership into being the first woman speaker of the House, she is an extraordinary woman. One story that she told me is when she was a teenager in high school, she was in a debate class and picked a debate topic out of a fishbowl - or her debate partner did. And the debate topic was: Do women think?
LUDDEN: Oh, dear.
SEABROOK: So she went in her career from do women think, to the first speaker of the House.
SEABROOK: I find that extraordinary. There are endless extraordinary stories, and I will continue to cover them, though, in a different way. You can get me in a podcast.
LUDDEN: All right, Roger. Thanks for the call.
ROGER: Thank you.
LUDDEN: Let's squeeze in just a couple more, here. We're kind of close to our time. Steve in Toledo - hi, there.
STEVE: Yes. My question is, as a history instructor, you go back to the Compromise of 1850. Those gentlemen stayed in Washington all the time. They dined together. They'd visit each other. They got things done. These guys are, you know, flying in and out. They don't spend a lot of time in Washington. Wouldn't it made more sense if they spend more time in Washington to get to know their opposition?
LUDDEN: Good question. Thank you, Steve.
SEABROOK: Yeah, it is a great question, Steve, and it's one that I find myself mulling over, especially when we have these weeks of, quote/unquote, "work" that go from Tuesday to Thursday in the U.S. Capital. I sometimes wonder - you know, the Congress didn't used to be a year-round thing. In many states, it's just three months of the year. And I wonder sometimes if they shouldn't have, you know, three-month work periods and then some time off or - I don't know. There would be ways, I think, to fix some of the problems by getting them to be nicer to each other.
LUDDEN: All right. We have one, last question, here. Beth in Cincinnati.
BETH: Hi, Andrea. It's your dear sister-in-law.
SEABROOK: Oh, hi, Beth.
BETH: I'm so glad I caught the show, and we are all wishing you the best of luck, but are very sad to not be able to hear you anymore on NPR. As you know, we listen to it all the time, and your nephews' cheer, Aunt Andrea, Aunt Andrea, every time you're on.
SEABROOK: Alex, David, Sammy, hello.
BETH: So, anyway, best of luck, and we'll be excited to see what's next.
SEABROOK: Thank you.
BETH: But we'll miss hearing you.
LUDDEN: Thank you for your call. And, you know, we will all miss you, too, Andrea.
SEABROOK: Thank you very much. The podcast will be called DecodeDC at DecodeDC.com. The first episode will be out at the beginning of August.
LUDDEN: We will look out for it. Andrea Seabrook, NPR's congressional correspondent extraordinaire.
Tomorrow, we'll talk about the job crisis up in the - crisping up the Corn Belt. It affects much more than the farmers. Listen in for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.