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Coming together for the holidays? Outgoing Pa. congressmen reflect on coalition building

Conor Lamb attends a Democratic Party campaign rally Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022, in Beaver, Pa.
Keith Srakocic
Conor Lamb attends a Democratic Party campaign rally Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022, in Beaver, Pa.

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. Sign up here to get it every Thursday afternoon.

This is the holiday season, a time for celebrating our blessings and extending goodwill to all.

And I have no doubt that we’ll get right to that — right after we’re done accusing each other of “paperwork insurrections,” getting up to hijinks with taxpayer dollars and playing yet another game of chicken with the federal budget.

It may be just some holiday-season wistfulness, but as 2022 closes out, there is at least anecdotal evidence that Americans are tired of the country’s Forever War. A new NPR poll suggests thatthree-quarters of Americans wish to see more compromise among their leaders — though most doubt they will. (And as NPR’s Domenico Montanaro pointed out on the air Thursday morning, when voters say they want compromise, they often mean they want the other side to give in.)

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s two outgoing members of Congress, Mike Doyle and Conor Lamb, both say that relationships among lawmakers aren’t quite as bad as you may think. Which is maybe a hopeful message, right up until you realize it means things could get worse.

Both men sat down for interviews with WESA recently: Lamb’s aired last month, while Doyle’s will air next week. Both made a case that the political environment may be a little less toxic than it seems on the surface.

“You can still have relationships with people, even if the politics are different, if their goal is the same,” insisted Doyle, who is stepping down after nearly three decades in Congress and will be replaced by Summer Lee. “Most members I've met go down there with the intention of doing a good job for their district and doing a good job for the country. … [I]f that part's there, then I think that that forms the basis to have relationships.”

Doyle is a practitioner of a kind of low-key, old-school approach to politics that has fallen out of fashion … but which arguably paid huge dividends for his constituents. By any reckoning, he has brought home federal funding that has helped complete Pittsburgh’s transformation in the post-steel era.

Much of that money is still on the table, thanks to big-ticket Democratic bills passed in 2022.

“So we need somebody that is willing to go down there and work with the Biden administration to make sure that that money … finds its way to Pittsburgh,” Doyle said.

But more broadly, he said it’s crucial to tend to interpersonal relationships, in good times and bad: “One day you’re in the minority, the next day you’re in the majority, the next day you’re in the minority. … If you want to make laws, you've got to build coalitions.”

Lamb echoed the point, recalling that when he joined Congress in 2018, relations between the parties weren’t as bad as he expected — in part because he took part in weekly prayer breakfasts also attended by such hardline conservatives as Louie Gohmert of Texas.

“If you see him in the news, it’s because of something very outlandish … he says,” Lamb said. “But I’ll just say that at this weekly breakfast, he plays the guitar for the hymn they sing every week. He’s a very kind man.”

It’s admittedly hard to put a price on such connections. And sometimes that may be because — when the chips are down — they aren’t worth much. Lamb says the Jan. 6 uprising and the GOP’s willingness to pretend it wasn’t the fault of Republican standard bearer Donald Trump left him questioning the intentions of those across the aisle.

“A lot of the people who come to this breakfast were arguing for the election to be overturned” hours after rioters had stormed the capital, he said. “And those were people I thought I knew and trusted to a certain degree.”

And while Lamb said he is able to work with Republicans in nearby districts for the benefit of the region, “I have not sought out quite as many connections with them since Jan. 6th.”

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Let’s face it: It’s decidedly old-fashioned to wax nostalgic for the days when civility reigned. Even assuming such a time even existed, public gentility amongst the ruling class can paper over political and economic systems that were capable of brutal inequality. A shortage of politesse in the Capitol cloakrooms is a remote concern if you aren’t sure how you’ll make next month’s rent.

Nor is it clear what to do about it. Doyle blames the rise of polarized and polarizing media. He notes that when he took office in 1995, “The internet was just coming into being. Cable news was just getting started.”

Those technologies, with their self-selecting audiences, have “made the politics much more difficult,” he said, by encouraging the kind of performative extremism practiced by, say, Georgia House member Marjorie Taylor Greene.

But this is a season of hope. And so we should note that even among Harrisburg politicos — a group known for clinging to a grudge like it was a cherished gift itself — there is at least some holiday-season lip service being paid to setting aside old resentments next year.

In that spirit, I’ll wish you a season of peace and joy. Or, failing that, the kind of power that leaves your enemies trembling before you. Happy Holidays!

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.