‘Cannot See the Forest For the Trees’


‘Cannot See the Forest for the Trees’ is an old English idiom that the dictionary says dates back to the 16th Century. It describes a situation in which the bigger picture is overlooked because of a focus on detail.

It came to mind during the 4-day super-charged opening of the 118th Congress that ultimately resulted in the election of Kevin McCarthy as Speaker.

Twenty House Republicans turned the usually ritualistic formality into high drama. There was a dichotomy of motivations as Karl Rove pointed out in the Wall Street Journal today. Some of those members had a sincere if not passionate interest in rules changes that would open up the legislative process so that rank-and-file members had more influence over the flow of bills, resolutions, and amendments. There was merit in some of those changes, but not all. Karen Tumulty explored those worthwhile procedures in the Washington Post.

Others were making a power grab or just sticking it to Kevin McCarthy, who they consider a poor legislator and lacking in ideology or allegiance to their right-wing orthodoxy—distinguishable from conservative orthodoxy.

But the combatants really overlooked the forest for the trees.

The crisis affecting Congress is far greater and more critical, deeply rooted in public distrust and disgust with the institution and, more broadly, most of the institutions of government and politics.

The rules changes by themselves are unlikely to change much. We all wish it were that simple.

House rules are only as good as the fervor of those enforcing them. They can be broken, ignored, waived, loosely interpreted, or repealed. It is likely they would be in a legislative environment permeated with distrust, disdain, self-interest, extremist ideology, partisan gridlock, identity politics, and self-righteousness. Those are just a few of the vices that can derail legislation.

Once the shining star in the political universe, our unique Republic founded in representative democracy two centuries ago seems like it is dissolving into a black hole that is sucking in those pillars of effective government. The black hole needs to be plugged and soon.

Congress is dysfunctional. Period. It will remain so unless there is fundamental change.

Congress must be made more responsive to the citizenry. Civility must be restored to public discourse, isolating those who refuse to work together and prefer being disagreeable while they disagree. The iron grip of partisanship must be broken. And the commonly considered American values, those that comprise the American character, must be preached and practiced earnestly.

Congress is a good place to start. But the restoration of civil engagement and the suppression of our worst political instincts cannot be accomplished alone by members of Congress, political leaders, civic institutions, the media, or partisan parties even if they work together, which they don’t. It must end with them. The only engine powerful enough to drive change of this magnitude is the citizenry, the people for whom the Congress is supposed to be the first line of defense against intrusive or neglectful government.

What the Legislative Branch needs is renewal that can only be inspired and driven by Americans who are resolved to regain control over their Congress and their public servants.

Renewal is not rebirth. We don’t have to start over. Democracy is not dead or dying and our system of self-rule is still, with all of its faults, the best there is. Renewal is a reaffirmation and restoration of those grounding principles, values, and beliefs with which we have formed our political, social, and cultural lives.

More importantly, renewal is the restoration of and commitment to the belief that our unique Republic is the right fit for us, not to be dissolved, disavowed, or replaced, but to be repaired, revised, and preserved; to work for it, not against it.

Renewal is the work of a citizenry equipped and committed to regaining their stature in our system of self-rule.

“Wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights,” Thomas Jefferson observed in 1789.

Nearly 170 years later, Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson in his 1952 campaign for the presidency insisted that:

“As citizens of this democracy, you are the rulers and the ruled, the law givers and the law abiding, the beginning, and the end… Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other. Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right…and a desire to know.”

Civic leaders for two centuries have extolled the critical value of an informed citizenry. Its importance cannot be overstated.

Yet today, two centuries later, American citizens are less knowledgeable than ever regarding how government and politics really function. The fault can be spread widely. In one respect, the public has been played by the media, by their representatives, by interest groups, and the parties. They have been overfed worthless information but starved of knowledge. The research is overwhelming.

An Annenberg survey found that 47 percent can’t name the three branches of government and a third cannot name one. Nearly 40 percent said the Constitution gives the power to declare war to the President. It doesn’t. Ten percent said the Constitution gives Congress the authority to outlaw atheism. It doesn’t. In another survey, it was discovered that nearly 50 percent of Americans did not know the free exercise of religion was protected under the First Amendment. Many can’t distinguish between the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Many citizens don’t know who their congressman and senators are, let alone how to access them and have more influence over what they say and do. They don’t know the difference between a resolution and a bill or what committees do or how the Constitution both empowers and limits Congress. They don’t know what is considered the First Branch of Government (I saw a survey of college students years ago in which 10 percent of them believed Judge Judy was on the Supreme Court).

The public can’t change something they don’t understand.

So renewal begins with education of the citizenry. Congress should be used as a power tool for those who want to influence government. But a power tool isn’t helpful unless you know how to use it.

The following is an unpaid, unsolicited, shameless but I hope welcomed plug:

A friend and colleague of mine, Jerry Climer, and I have written a book, tentatively titled Retaking Control of Your Congress. It is roughly patterned after the book Surviving Inside Congress for new members and staff we co-authored with Congressional Institute President Mark Strand.

Retaking Control of Your Congress is aimed at giving citizens that knowledge and a tool box full of the instruments needed to get greater access to and greater influence over the Congress. The intent is to help them leverage the power they have to make Congress more accountable, transparent, productive, and responsive to their needs—right down to answering their mail or helping with problems they have in government agencies.

The book is a compilation of what the public needs to know:

  • How Congress really works and why it doesn’t;
  • How to gain access; and
  • How to influence those who serve there.

It discusses in several chapters how Congress is affected by outside interests some of whom have inordinate influence over the elected and unelected. They include first the media, then nonprofit organizations, and those infamous “special interests,” thousands of them that run the gamut from major corporations, labor unions, air traffic controllers, to school teachers, campers, farmers, and bicyclists, all of whom are represented by lobbyists in Washington. We have chapters on civility, survey research, and ethics.

Retaking Control of Your Congress explains how and why the electoral process and the political parties disenfranchise voters by limiting choices on election day. We describe the detriments of gerrymandering, closed primaries, and the financing of campaigns. The book delves into the history of senators once being appointed by state legislators. It devotes a chapter to who has what powers and how those powers are exercised, right down to the distinctions between rank-and-file members of Congress and the leadership. Citizens need to understand the complex relationships among the House and Senate, and the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, and how those relationships can impact their representatives’ actions. We discuss how Congress has gone astray over the past two centuries, how it and the people who serve there have changed. To keep all that in context, we devote a lot of ink to the history of the institution, and some of our own experiences.

Citizens need answers and they need solutions.

They need to know the realm of what’s possible. There have been literally thousands of ideas and solutions proposed by hundreds of individuals and organizations over the past several decades. Some are innovative and visionary. Some would make profound changes in the structure of the government and the political system such as those dealing with the election of Senators or opening up primaries. Some are practical, programmatic, and process oriented.

The message of the book is that citizens have the power to retake Congress and get more out of it. They have the power to move the Congress and the country in new directions. The late Supreme Court Associate Justice Louis Brandeis believed: “The most important political office is that of the private citizen.” Private citizens have rights and responsibilities. It is time that those responsibilities are exercised now so that those rights are preserved for posterity.

We believe Retaking Control of Your Congress is an important primer in reinstating American citizens to the political office Justice Brandeis envisioned. It is one of many steps needed to move forward in a nation that is taking too many steps backward.

(By the way, you cannot buy the book in stores or online or at newsstands. No, you can only get it with our special promo code and if you are among the first 50 to call, we will send you absolutely free, a remarkable new potato peeler, a monogrammed fur-lined oven glove, and a page marker with a neat tassel at the top. Actually, you can’t get the book because it hasn’t been published. It appears we will have to add much more sex, violence, and salacious rumors and get Prince Harry to co-author it before attracting a publishing agent. We’ll keep you posted.)

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Inside Congress, a guide for new members and staff. He was a co-founder and former Chairman of the Board of the Congressional Institute. He participated in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project that led to creation of a special House committee and has taught and lectured on congress. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and four grandchildren.