House of Cards

Why We Vote
[Note: This essay is one in a continuing series by ICCFA executive director Bob Fells focusing on various issues in our federal government. Although the subjects are political in nature, the approach is bipartisan in outlook, at least so far as that is humanly possible. The goal of each essay is not to persuade the reader to adopt a particular political viewpoint or party, but to illustrate why a knowledge of the system is important to protect our businesses, our homes, and our families.]

HOUSE OF CARDS: A Deck Full of Jokers

Perhaps because a lot of my job involves dealing with the federal government, friends and colleagues have urged me to start watching HOUSE OF CARDS, a Netflix series now apparently in its third season. I like the convenience of on-demand video streaming so I watched the first episode of the first season, then found that Netflix offered handy recaps of seasons one and two. I understand why the series is popular, especially with the hordes who work on Capitol Hill. But the show is about as realistic as the opera NIXON IN CHINA is to the actual events.

The star of the series is Kevin Spacey, who I would judge to be one of the finest actors today. But his character in CARDS, Rep. Francis Underwood, seems a retooling of the J.R. Ewig character from the DALLAS TV series. Indeed, the concept of CARDS might be summed up as DALLAS Goes to Washington.  Like J.R., Spacey’s character Underwood (sounds like “Underhanded”) is just so bad! That’s half the fun, maybe most of it. But the machinations that bring viewers back to episode after episode are over-the-top – neither Congressmen nor Washington reporters end up murdered as far back as I can remember. Hence that creates a comfort zone for those earning their living on Capitol Hill, together with the flattery that what they do is worthy of a TV series, and a suspenseful one at that. 

The reality is not only more interesting, but actually has greater consequences than the events on CARDS. I kept looking for real-life personages who might have been models for the characters in CARDS but I didn’t really find any. The eternal power struggle on Capitol Hill is getting re-elected, not grabbing for higher office or sabotaging rivals. Just look at Washington news and you see powerful individuals compromised by their own actions all the time, not by the scheming of others. The latest scandal du jour, Hillary and her State Dept. emails, fit the playbook perfectly. Nobody set up Mrs. Clinton and she has nobody to blame but herself. There isn’t a devious Francis Underwood lurking in the shadows calculating her downfall because no such person is needed. 

The real drama on Capitol Hill is the eternal running for office and the only “death” feared is the political death of a failed re-election bid. The folks in the House are up for re-election every two years, all 435 of them. As a practical matter then, they are campaigning all the time. One Congressman, now retired, told me that the morning after Election Day when he won another term, he met with his campaign staff to plan for the next election. This is the real power struggle on Capitol Hill. It probably doesn’t make for very exciting TV drama but it does explain why our representatives are distracted by the business of just staying in office and how every issue in Congress, whether foreign or domestic, is viewed through the lens of “How will this affect my re-election?” This is the price we pay for a full-time federal legislature and especially for career legislators who have no “real” job to return to because serving in Congress has become their real job, government is their business, and everybody wants to grow their business. But then this would not make for a suspenseful TV series.