WASHINGTON, Pa.-They call it the Beltway Blinders-a common disease that hits when so-called insiders to Washington politics lose sight of the priorities, challenges, and fears that matter in "real" America. Those inside the Capital Beltway, the roughly 60-mile interstate loop around the city, are vulnerable to the highly contagious disease, losing perspective on what the rest of America is saying even as they pretend to represent it. No respecter of party lines, the illness strikes politicians, their staffs, federal bureaucrats, and lobbyists on Capitol Hill. And it turns out that journalists are not immune, either.
So to inoculate myself from both the disease and the suffocating humidity that historically has caused many a lawmaker to flee the nation's capital in August, I launched a cross-country road trip-from Washington, D.C., to Washington state. Measuring the pulse of America heading into this November's elections, I learned that this summer it's hot everywhere: Voters are overheated about the nation's political climate.
What better place to begin than in another city named after our first president-Washington, Pa., a town just outside of Pittsburg wrapping up its bicentennial celebration in a key state in this year's midterm elections.
I missed the town's Washington Idol contest; the Whiskey Rebellion Dinner (marking the resistance movement that broke out there in the 1790s); the History, Heritage and Heroes' parade; and the obligatory fireworks. But evidence of the revelry remained: Red-white-and-blue bunting and banners covered buildings and street signs in the city's classic downtown area, culminating at its grand courthouse. Recently renovated, the courthouse features a dome that seems too large for a town of about 15,000. A statue of namesake George Washington perches on the dome's top, and inside its courtrooms recall movie sets from To Kill a Mockingbird.
Nearby I met Washington County Chamber of Commerce board member Martin Beichner at the sheet metal manufacturing company he started in 1980. Beichner employs about 130 workers. He'd like to hire more. But he is having trouble finding new employees, and he blames that on the government's continued extension of unemployment benefits.
Beichner is learning that some people are reluctant to work when unemployment checks rival starting wages for jobs that demand actual labor.
While Congress just gave an additional $33 billion in unemployment benefits to 5 million Americans, each state actually decides the amount given to individuals. The Huffington Post recently named Pennsylvania one of the "eight best states to lose your job." That is no surprise to Beichner: Pennsylvanians can receive a maximum weekly unemployment check of $564. That adds up to a better paycheck than Beichner can offer for entry-level employees: $10 an hour for 40 hours a week with no overtime. A recent hire of Beichner's quit after just one hour of prepping sheet metal products for painting. "Why would you want to work when you can just sit and watch TV?" Beichner asks.
Congress has responded to the recession by adding 73 extra weeks of unemployment benefits to the customary 26 weeks. Combined, that's nearly two years of unemployment benefits. After the latest extension, the number of unemployment applicants jumped for three straight weeks, reaching the half-million mark for the first time in nearly a year.
Beichner argues that lawmakers' repeated extensions of unemployment benefits not only add to the deficit, they also prompt some to avoid work altogether. That prevents companies like Beichner's from expanding.
Inside Beichner's 96,000-square-foot warehouse, workers monitor machines producing products like casings for big screen televisions. Beichner, a Vietnam vet, greets his employees by their first names. He seems more comfortable giving me a tour than talking politics, but he admits that the speed of Congress to pass legislation the last two years has "fried my brain."
"Regulation after regulation after regulation," continued Beichner. "They tried to do too much. You can't keep giving away money that you don't have."
Beichner is a registered Democrat ("that's what my parents were"), and his negative attitude toward a Congress and White House dominated by Democrats sums up the feelings of many in the congressional district where Beichner lives. Registered voters in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District outnumber Republicans 2-to-1. Yet recent polls show the Republican challenger gaining the advantage.
With the region's coal mine and steel mill history, local pastor Don Waltermyer describes the area's residents as "educated blue collar." Democrats here are pro-gun and pro-life, and their social conservatism has many betting that the 12th is ripe for a Republican takeover-something that has been unthinkable for the last 36 years.
That's how long Democrat John Murtha represented the district until his death in February. Murtha directed tens of millions to his district, a federal financial windfall that also made him a local legend. Longtime Murtha aide Mark Critz won the May special election to fill his former boss' seat. Republican Tim Burns, who lost to Critz in May, now holds a slight advantage in November's race to win a full two-year term.
The race presents voters with a choice between a longtime Washington staffer in Critz, 48, and a political novice in Burns, a 42-year-old businessman. This is a distinction Burns is happy to emphasize in the nation's current antiestablishment climate.
"I am NOT a politician," Burns says on the home page of his campaign website. "I don't claim to know 'how Washington works' because I don't believe that it does."
Waltermyer, the 54-year-old Presbyterian pastor, says he sees cracks in the Democratic stronghold here: Tea Party events draw crowds, and thousands lined up at a local strip mall-some waiting for as long as 17 hours-for a Sarah Palin book-signing last year.
Stirring voter anger is the growing national debt, according to Dave Schofield, 47, who works for a local museum. The Congressional Budget Office conservatively projects that the nation faces $6.2 trillion in additional deficits over the next decade. Such data, said Schofield, is getting area fiscal conservatives off the political sidelines.
"As much as George Bush contributed to it, Barack Obama has made him seem like a thrifty Scotsman," Schofield said.
Such sentiments may not bode well for Pennsylvania's congressional incumbents. The state has eight Democratic-held House seats that are listed as vulnerable by campaign watchers. Some of those are seats Democrats wrested from Republicans in 2006 and 2008 elections. But today the GOP holds a 48 percent to 39 percent overall preference advantage among Pennsylvania voters, according to an August survey by Public Policy Polling.
In these House races, four Democratic incumbents currently trail in polls released by Ayers McHenry and Associates. Besides Critz, Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, the freshman Democrat for the state's 3rd Congressional District (who voted for Obamacare despite past pro-life positions), is facing a 14--point gap against Republican challenger Mike Kelly. Many see the House within reach of conservatives, but a party switch will likely require GOP pickups in the Keystone State.
Back in Washington, Pa., Critz held a recent town hall at the county courthouse. There 61-year-old Don Tice, according to the Pittsburg Post-Gazette, asked Critz: "Do you really think that President Obama will turn the economy around?"
Critz responded by downplaying the district's dire mood. "There's so much negativity about how bad it is," he said. "But I've seen worse."
That answer left Tice unconvinced: "My opinion is, if I'm voting for [Critz], I'm voting for Obama."
In a nutshell, that is the challenge facing such Democratic incumbents: trying to prove to disgruntled voters that their party has solutions while at the same time demonstrating they are not in lockstep with increasingly unpopular leaders or their policies. To survive a sullen, pessimistic public, Critz and others must prove that they can ward off Beltway Blinders.
To hear Edward Lee Pitts discuss this topic on the Knowing the Truth radio program, click here.