Journalist talks politics at tea

At a Branford College Master’s Tea on Wednesday, Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin said she thinks the House of Representatives has become the victim of an “explosive combination” of partisanship and unaccountability.

Speaking before an audience of 15 students and faculty, Eilperin — who wrote the book “Fight Club Politics” about the House — blamed both Republicans and Democrats for creating a culture that leaves members polarized and ineffective.

“Redistricting has made members [of both parties] less responsible and more polarized; all that matters is the primary,” Eilperin said. “The Republicans are far to the right, and the Democrats are far to the left.”

Because of redistricting, Eilperin said, incumbents face virtually no challenge, and members are beholden to only their partisan base. She noted that there is a 98 percent re-election rate for incumbents and said she prefers a redistricting plan similar to that of New Jersey, which has a bipartisan redistricting commission and an academic who serves as a tiebreaker.

Eilperin, who covered the House for 10 years and is now an environment reporter, said her book also focuses on the Republican leadership that emerged in the wake of the GOP takeover of the House in 1994.

Though Eilperin praised Republicans for coming up with a concrete platform — the Contract With America — a decade ago, and cleaning up some corrupt aspects of Congress, she said that today the “Republican revolution” is dead.

“A group of sincere ideologues decided to destroy Congress and remake it in their own image,” she said.

Eilperin said she is concerned that Congressional members do not know each other as well as they might have in earlier days, because they do not live in Washington, D.C. She said this distance between members makes it easier for them to attack their political opponents, and that when she was interviewing members for her book, they were quick to demonize the other side, using words like “whiner,” “fruitcake” and “control freak.”

“They look at each other as the devil, and this is a real problem,” she said.

Having covered the House for the newspaper Roll Call and then for the Post, Eilperin said she was able to build a network of many different sources.

“There’s always another lobbyist,” she said. “There’s always another academic. I don’t have to be dependent on one individual source.”

Recently, Eilperin said, some of her sources have found themselves in sticky legal situations.

“All my best sources have been pleading guilty to conspiracy,” she said, in a reference to disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Eilperin said recently convicted lobbyist Tony Rudy has been her drinking buddy for years, and Michael Scanlon — an associate of resigned House Majority Leader Tom DeLay — invited her to his wedding.

Eilperin is currently writing an article on who she believes will be the next to use DeLay’s strong-arm tactics to keep party members in line — House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Political science professor David Mayhew said he found Eilperin’s talk incisive, and that he agreed with her analysis of the Congressional culture.

“It was a delight,” he said. “I read her in the Post, so I know she’s good.”

Lauren Sonderegger ’09 said that while Eilperin’s political leanings were not completely masked, the journalist was not overtly partisan in her analysis of Congressional problems.

“You could sort of see her political beliefs, but for the most part she was very in the center,” she said. “She did a good job of discrediting both sides.”

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