On the Diane Rehm show yesterday, the discussion centered on the latest efforts to end the impasse in Washington. One guest was a negotiations expert, who talked about zero-sum games, compromising vs. "satisfising", organizational goals, etc.
The discussion really became interesting when one of the callers, identifying himself as a former Capitol Hill staffer, stated that none of these strategies applied because Congress was an institution, not an organization. He said that it was composed of 535 separate gigantic egos, whose only interest was themselves, and whose only goal was to destabilize the institution enough so that no one could tell them what to do. I believe this insight (which was essentially ignored or misunderstood by the guests) pinpoints the real dysfunction in Congress, one that mirrors the current societal obsession with celebrity divorced from talent or achievement.
It would be easy to dismiss this point as the whining of a disgruntled employee, but my own experience tends to confirm it. In my former job, I had occasion to deal with many Congressmen (both Senators and Representatives) on "fact-finding" trips abroad. The protocol was that the Embassy would set up a "Welcome Room" with drinks and snacks and foreign service personnel to cater to the needs of the visiting Congressperson. Sometimes the Congressmen would visit in person (and their egos were manifest); sometimes they would send staffers. The staffers would, without exception, refer to their bosses not by name, but as "the Congressman" or "the Senator", as though they were the only one, or more to the point, as though they were royalty, and we citizens but peons. The Congresscritters were self-absorbed celebrities, each with his own little entourage to stroke his ego and service his every need.
And the needs were never related to the supposed purpose of their trip, they were always of "The Devil Loves Prada" sort: send flowers to the woman I had dinner with (I don't remember her name); get these Cuban cigars on a military flight back so they don't go through customs; cancel my meetings with local government officials and get me a chauffeur to take me to this Michelin-starred restaurant in the neighboring country. All the events were photo ops devoid of content, even religious practice. One staffer said "the Congressman" would like to attend church services. "What denomination?" I asked. "It doesn't matter -- the one that was in the New York Times."
It's not going to be possible to resolve this through rational compromise, any more than an open letter to Miley Cyrus is going to change her behavior. Any solution is going to have to involve an appeal to ego and an assurance that these little demigods are just as important and unconstrained in their actions as they think they are.