Members of the House and Senate took time out from their legislative wars to commemorate the bicentennial meeting of Congress, "the most fascinatingly human institution in the world."
The lawmakers gathered Thursday in the House chamber to celebrate the history - moments of dramatic greatness sometimes accompanied by the foibles and weaknesses of its all-too-human members - as well as to voice their hope for the third century of what was, at its beginning, a unique form of government in the world."For 200 years Congress has been a mirror of the nation . . . a distillate of the nation's strengths and weaknesses," said House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas.
Congress, he said, is "probably the most fascinatingly human institution in the world. . . . It can rise to heights of sparkling statesmanship and it can sink to levels of crass mediocrity . . . precisely because it is human. The story of Congress is the story of people."
Senate Republican leader Robert Dole of Kansas said today's lawmakers deal with many of the same issues that occupied Congress in the past - the federal deficit, pay raises and, in an apparent reference to the battle over the nomination of John Tower to be secretary of defense, "helping a president get his nominees confirmed."
The observance's major address was given by historian David McCullough, who acknowledged there is "such a lot of humbug and so much that has been so overwhelmingly boring" about Congress.
But he added: "Let no one misunderstand . . . we have as much reason to take pride in Congress as in any institution in our system."
"Congress, for all its faults, has not been the unbroken parade of clowns and thieves and posturing windbags so often portrayed. . . . We make sport of Congress, belittle it . . . probably we always will. You do it yourselves, particularly at election time.
"But what should be spoken of more often, and more widely understood, are the great victories that have been won here, the decisions of courage and vision achieved, the men and women of high purpose and integrity, and, yes, at times, genius, who have served here."
"The ink had only barely dried on the new Constitution" when the first lawmakers gathered in New York City on March 4, 1789, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va, reminded the members. Two states had not yet ratified the Constitution. Only five states were represented on the first day.