Independence Hall in Philadelphia Pennsylvania on a sunny morning.
Images from Washington D.C. flood our social media feeds and fly across our screens and devices every day as members of Congress speak from the chambers of the House and Senate. The scenes are impressive, perfectly framed with historic podiums and the marbled walls of the nation’s Capitol. The visuals we see imply lofty ideals being declared and debated in the inspiring manner we imagine the Founders deployed at the Constitutional Convention. However, if the C-SPAN camera were pulled back slightly, it would show that most speeches from members of Congress are being delivered to an entirely empty chamber except for some beleaguered young interns or pages, along with a few security officers and staffers.
I remember the first speech I worked on that was to be delivered on the Senate floor. The team had done a great job polishing every word and phrase, and the senator had prepared perfectly. The appointed time for the speech came, and it was like a scene from “The West Wing” as we walked to the Capitol and entered the chamber. I took my seat on the benches with other staffers. To my shock and dismay, beyond the Senate pages who were listlessly sitting on the steps, there wasn’t a soul to be seen. The speech contained proven principles and sound policy and was brilliantly delivered, but I left the chamber deflated by the absence of any other senator or any American who could have been inspired or influenced by the speech.
Sadly, the chambers in both houses of Congress have become more like production studios for members than a place for elevated dialogue and rigorous debate. Members know where the cameras are located and deliver their speeches to them so their messages can be clipped and shared on their social media platforms. While social media is an important and effective way to push messaging and policy ideas out to constituents, the hallowed chambers of the nation’s Capitol were created so elected officials could have a conversation with the American people, both sides making their case and offering amendments on a particular policy or issue, culminating in a vote that every citizen could see.
I have heard some wonderful speeches delivered on the floor of the Senate from liberals and conservatives alike. No one loves an inspiring, well-crafted and powerfully delivered speech more than I do, but both political parties presenting never-ending monologues posing as dialogue will never be sufficient to engage the American people and solve the issues of our day.
It is too easy for politicians to deliver such monologues and walk away feeling they have moved the nation and that the nation is moving with them.
Jonathan Swift said, “It is the folly of too many to mistake the echo of a London coffee-house for the voice of the kingdom.”
I would say it this way, “It is the folly of too many in Congress to mistake the echo of the empty chamber for the voice of the American people.”
We should replace the echo of the empty chamber with the sound of real debates, the offering of multiple amendments to improve each bill, and a steady stream of meaningful votes. Imagine how members of Congress would change if — rather than racing to endless meetings with lobbyists — our elected officials spent even just three hours a day sitting in their respective chambers having actual dialogue, debate and votes in front of the American people on the issues that matter most.
As citizens we must also be wary of echoes from our own “chambers,” whether those chambers are found on our electronic devices, within our preferred media outlets, or in our circle of friends. It is easy to convince ourselves that the echo of our words — whether audible or electronic — rightly represent the voice of the nation. Deeper dialogue and more elevated conversations will enlighten our thinking, inspire our better angels and produce more innovative solutions to our problems.
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I once stood in Independence Hall in Philadelphia early in the morning with few visitors around. There is indeed an echo in that special place — it is the sound of freedom. In that hall, America’s founding principles and the proper framing of our freedoms and form of government were forged in passionate debates, critical compromise and difficult votes. The sound of freedom produced in Philadelphia has echoed down the years and across the globe for over 200 years.
In another 200 years, will future generations hear from our day the echo of empty chambers or the sound of freedom?
Boyd C. Matheson is president of Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates for a free market economy, civil society and community-driven solutions.