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In savage new book, an anonymous Congressman details how to fix Washington

'God help us.'


Aaron Sankin


Posted on May 25, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 5:26 pm CDT

In one sense, Confessions of Congressman X is a profoundly odd document. In another, it’s one of the least surprising books you’ll ever read.

Congress’s approval rating currently sits at 18 percent. This number is up considerably from the all-time low of 9 percent Gallup recorded in November 2013, but it’s still nothing for anyone in Congress to crow about. The American people, by and large, aren’t stupid. They understand there are serious, fundamental problems with the way the country is governed. For what it’s worth, that sentiment is certainly shared by people tasked with actually doing the job of legislating.

Confessions of Congressman X isn’t precisely the no-holds-barred, tell-all book it was initially made out to be. Instead, it’s a slim volume of rants stitched together from years of private conversations between an anonymous Democratic member of the House of Representatives and the book’s actual author—a travel writer named Robert Atkinson.

Atkinson, who worked on staff for a pair of members of Congress in the 1970s, became friends with Congressman X through his travel writing and, as the pair regularly met up for dinners over the years, Atkinson transcribed some of the lawmaker’s more bluntly cynical observations about the state of American democracy. Unsettled by the anger roiling in the 2016 electorate, Congressman X, who elected to remain anonymous, decided this election cycle would be a good time to publicly release Atkinson’s notes as a single, unified collection.

The book is light on specific details. Other than a couple passing derisive mentions of party leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, basically all of Congressman X’s gripes with the way government works are systematic. The problem, as he sees it, is not so much that bad people are corrupting the country’s democratic system. Instead, it’s a fundamentally corrupt system—where the only way to succeed is to raise as much money as possible from powerful special interests—that prevents meaningful change from ever occurring.

Congressman X’s complaint concludes with a list of reforms he believes could go a long way toward fixing what ails Washington. They range from the obvious—like imposing new limits on campaign donations—to ideas borne from first-hand experience in how the sausage is made, like changing the process for committee assignments.

Here’s the full list:

  • “[Congress] should agree to significant campaign finance reform without loopholes.”
  • “Severely cap political contributions from individuals and PACs, and mandate full disclosure of all donors.”
  • “Lobbyists should be prohibited from raising money for those they lobby.”
  • “Compulsory, publicly financed primary and general election campaigns should … be on the table.”
  • “[Congress] should agree to support independent, nonpartisan commissions to redraw congressional districts every 10 years.”
  • “[Congress] should agree to overhaul obstructionist legislative procedure. Bring about a return to regular order in the House, especially when it comes to the budget process. Enough with the uncertainty caused by continuing resolutions. It’s time to pass spending bills on time each year.”
  • “[Congress] should agree to limit the power of party leaders and abolish the seniority system. Why should the Speaker dole out committee assignments? And why should someone chair the same committee forever? It’s time to rotate committee chairs every X number of years.”
  • “Ban leadership PACs and fundraising quotas for committee chairs.”
  • “[Congress] should agree to cut back the number of committees and subcommittees so members can attend hearings and become more familiar with the issues at hand.”
  • “Members…need to spend additional time in Washington doing their job. Recesses are fine, but let’s have four-day Washington work weeks when Congress is in session.”
  • “[Congress] should agree to limit congressional service to X years, or set a mandatory retirement age of, say, 70. We need a constant flow of new blood and invigorating new ideas.”

Congressman X doesn’t seem particularly hopeful that these ideas will come to pass—or, even if they do, that they will ultimately make a big difference. Partisan gridlock and a disinterested electorate that barely shows up to vote in most primary elections, Congressman X insists, ensures that business as usual isn’t going to change any time time soon.

“I fear those who govern and those who are governed will continue to watch out for their own self-interest,” he concludes. “God help us.”

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*First Published: May 25, 2016, 4:35 pm CDT