Clay Shaw went to Congress when it wasn't seen, at best, as dysfunctional — or, at worst, as a joke.
His time in Washington, D.C., included a period when Congress actually got things done, with bipartisan civility and cooperation. A Republican congressman, Shaw played a key role in welfare reform legislation signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton.
But during the 26 years he represented Broward County, plus Palm Beach County when redistricting moved his territory north, Shaw also saw the end of that bipartisan civility and cooperation. Along with it went public approval, which is now at all-time lows: 83 percent of Americans in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll disapprove of Congress' performance.
In this interview, Shaw gives an insider's view on what happened and how to fix the Congress.
What's wrong with Congress?
"They don't really like each other a lot. It's a problem. The Democrats and the Republicans don't really know each other. They get to town on a Tuesday morning, vote, and leave on a Thursday. They don't socialize. They never see each other."
Why can't Congress get anything done?
"It's more complicated than I just stated. The Republicans, moderates, have pretty much disappeared, and the Democrat moderates have disappeared. And there's no center to work with, and that's a problem.
"And also they have pushed both parties to the extreme left and right. The currents are pushing both sides to the far left and the far right and it makes it very difficult to operate. I know [House Speaker] John Boehner on the Republican side is having a hard time trying to pull the moderates — what's left of the moderate party — together with the libertarians, trying to get them to sit down and talk with each other and come up with a plan that they could push forward and the party could get behind. And the Democrats have gone so far over to the left with big government. There's no Bill Clinton around to pull them back toward the center."
When you went to Washington, it was a more civil, cooperative place. Yet today it's the capital of slash-and-burn politics. What happened?
"We liked each other. I've traveled with [former Democratic House Speaker] Jim Wright. He said nice things about me in his book. I played golf with [longtime former Democratic House Speaker Thomas P.] 'Tip' O'Neill. He and I were buddies. We could have fun together. We could fight in the daytime and have fun at night. We were adults."
How did it change while you were there?
"Campaigning became increasingly rough and personal. … Truth in advertising seems to have gone out the window. And the money chase is unbelievable. It always was a lot, but now you've got to work [raising campaign money] all the time. It's crazy."
How much blame does the tea party get?
"No more than any other group who believes strongly in the way that our government should operate. Everybody jumps on the tea party. They're the right wing conservatives, but they're not crazy. They work hard, they get their voters out."
Was it better 30 years ago?
"Oh yes. … People talked to me about coming back. And my friends said, 'Clay you don't want to come back here.' I thought a little bit about going back into the practice of law. People are saying the same things about lawyers. [Years ago] we were gentlemen. We tried to get things done either in law or Congress."
What would you do to fix it if you had carte blanche?
"One of the first things is to bring your Democrats and your Republicans together behind closed doors, away from cameras, and try to start to talk things out. … It has to be done with the cooperation from both sides. And I just don't see it coming about. Everybody's saying my way or the highway, and you can't get much done."
Are you optimistic about Congress becoming functional again?
"I'm always optimistic about our country. We'll be able to bounce back. But this is getting to be a little bit of a low point. We need a president able to talk to Congress — both parties. We need the parties talking to each other within the Congress. We need to be able to figure out together what do to, and then live to fight another day."
Watch a video interview with U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, assessing congressional dysfunction and a gallery of pictures from Shaw's career at SunSentinel.com/BrowardPolitics.
Personal: Age 74; born in Miami; lives in Fort Lauderdale
Education: Bachelor's and law degrees, Stetson University. Master's degree in business, University of Alabama
Political career: Assistant Fort Lauderdale city attorney,1968; chief city prosecutor, 1968-1969; associate municipal judge, 1969-1971; city commissioner, 1971-1975, Fort Lauderdale mayor, 1975-1980; member of Congress, 1981-2007
Source: Biographical Directory of the United States CongressCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun