My incredibly important work is conducted in a cramped, windowless office built by meth-addled contractors and destined to plunge two stories in the event of an earthquake. Close quarters and a maximum capacity of eleven means that getting along with your co-workers is as important as your level of productivity. We are hardly immune to the quantum physics of offices– we have one co-worker who is universally reviled and despised, whose very presence sends everyone scurrying for headphones if they bother showing up at all. He’s a workaholic who never goes on vacation and is loathe to take a day off for sickness or important events, so periodically we force him to skip a day so we can all get a little break. And we order pizza to celebrate.
A continent away two senators are beginning to push for ways to better socialize the heavily segregated floor. Holding hands in spite of their party affiliations, Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor and Wyoming Republican John Barrasso are trying to build support for their idea of shared meals. The thinking behind these sit-downs is that it would give the members of the Senate an opportunity to interact more as people than as political enemies, creating more congenial relationships which could diffuse the policy gridlock which stifles congressional work. Neither has brought their idea to the party leaders, but Pryor claims to have quietly approached his co-workers and that approximately thirty have lent a kind ear.
The simplicity of the proposal could be devastated by the complexity of how business is conducted on the hill. Lunch time has been dedicated to policy groups by both parties, closed door functions which barre members of the opposition from attending. Breakfasts or dinners might avoid conflicting with politics except that senators’ schedules are unpredictable. Senate Associate Historian Don Ritchie is quoted (and Barrasso claims that Trent Lott intimated a similar sentiment) as saying that the 1980 decision to allow senators unrestricted travel allowances has severely curtailed civil interactions off the Senate floor. Ritchie’s take on the matter is that fewer Senate families move to DC as the work schedule has effectively become a Tuesday thru Thursday week. Barrasso expands on this by suggestion that Senators and their families, being spread throughout the states, no longer see one another at weekend events, PTO meetings or other social groupings.
Many studies have been published which suggest that eating together is an important developmental activity for children. Kids who eat with their families for the majority of their evenings enjoy better nutrition, are purported to do better in school and become less prone to alcohol or drug abuse. Although the studies all seem to be crediting a lot to a family tradition without much empirical evidence, common sense would suggest families who sit down and share with one another will develop stronger social and emotional bonds which, in turn, makes for nicer and better people.
So can the act of breaking bread together fracture the walls of partisanship which afflict Washington and stifle an open exchange of ideas? I guess it’s hard to treat people like pawns when you’re stuffing your face across the table from them once or twice a week, and that absolute contempt for a person is difficult to maintain when you’re looking at photos of their kids and listening to stories about their crazy college days. They become a little more human and a little easier to relate to. However, is Congress responsible for alienating and dividing members of the Senate or are the power structures of party politics and lobbying kickbacks more to blame for the petty squabbles and backstabbing which routinely occur in the corridors of power? I wish Pryor and Barrasso all the luck in the world and wouldn’t even mind eating my words if their idea takes hold and institutes changes in the way that members of the Senate work with one another. However, I’m in no hurry to begin sitting down with the office headache and eating pizza since I don’t believe it could lead to anything other than a food fight.
The photo of Senator Pryor enjoying lunch is stolen from AP. Thanks to Senatus for catching the news.