Former U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks had harsh words for his old institution in a speech Friday before the Columbia Basin Badger Club.
"To be at 11 percent favorability with the American people is despicable," he told an audience of almost 100 in Pasco, referring to a recent poll on congressional job approval.
Dicks, who retired this year after 36 years in the U.S. House, was particularly critical of the recent government shutdown and near-default on the national debt. A vote to reopen the government got majorities in the House and Senate, but was opposed by a majority of House Republicans.
A powerful Democrat on Capitol Hill, Dicks criticized Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, saying he reminds him of anti-Communist crusader Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
"He's over there coaching the high school, the House of Representatives, on what they're supposed to do to shut down the government and default," said Dicks, who represented the 6th District in Western Washington.
Dicks recalled a time when he worked for Sen. Warren G. Magnuson. The clean air and water acts were passed and the Environmental Protection Agency was created with votes by a Democratic Congress and signed by Republican President Richard Nixon.
"I always jokingly say if it wasn't for Watergate, he'd be our greatest president," Dicks said of Nixon.
Dicks blamed some of the discord on a shift in the House being run by the central leadership, as opposed to by the committee chairs. He said that started under former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who came to power after the 1994 Republican landslide elections.
It was a shift from Gingrich's predecessor, Spokane Democrat Tom Foley, who worked carefully with representatives from both sides. Dicks noted that Foley died Oct. 18, the day after the deal to end the government shutdown passed.
"I'm sure at the end he was relieved that we hadn't made a tragic mistake," he said.
One possible way to remedy the bitterness in Washington would be public financing of Congressional campaigns, he said. But the best way to get Congress to change would be a landslide election.
"I'm not sure it's going to get better unless the American people step in and demand compromise," he said.
But Dicks declined to call for the rest of the country to go to a primary system like Washington has, where candidates from both parties face each other on the same ballot.
"I really like the party system, and I'd really hate to see that change," he said.
The Washington system prevents fringe candidates from winning against incumbents among a small group of party members, said Robert Hindes of Pasco, who asked Dicks about the issue. The system allows Washington legislators to vote their conscience.
"You're not going to get turfed out by somebody running from the far right," Hindes said. "If it's tied to a small electorate, they have the potential to lose their job."
Dicks said people should tell their legislators how they feel.
"The legislators need to hear that we expect you to care and get something done," he said after the luncheon.
The Badger Club is a nonpartisan political forum designed to promote civil discourse, said club president Mike Berriochoa.
Dicks also discussed:
-- The Hanford vitrification plant: "I really feel like they have a plan to get this thing done. It's going to take a few years ... they will have a plan that will stand up to scientific and technical scrutiny."
-- A federal transportation bill: "Most of the stimulus should have been in transportation. You've got to get the economy growing again. That is considered spending and (Congressional Republicans) are not going to do it."
-- Climate change and ocean acidification: "These things are being ignored right now. People are saying it doesn't exist when 98 percent of the scientists are saying it does exist."
-- Affordable Care Act: While Dicks preferred a government-run, single-payer system, he said Obamacare, "will reduce the cost of health care dramatically if we can get people covered who aren't covered today."
-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom