Guest Column: David Price’s lesson – Congress can work

Published 12:06 pm Saturday, March 27, 2021

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By Gary Pearce

The cover of North Carolina Congressman David Price’s new book sums up American politics today: dark storm clouds looming over the gleaming Capitol dome.

Published before the January 6 mob attack on the Capitol, Price’s book describes the dangers our democracy faces. But he charts a hopeful course for the future, suggesting that “the patriotism our country needs is neither uncritical love nor loveless criticism but a posture of love and loyalty combined with a determination to repair and reform.”

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This is the fourth edition of Price’s study, “The Congressional Experience: An Institution Transformed.”

No one can guide us more expertly than the former Duke University professor and 17-term congressman. He’s a politician and a political scientist, a scholar and a senior leader in Congress, a battle-tested campaigner and an insightful student of government.

A Democrat, he has represented North Carolina’s Fourth Congressional District since 1986, except for two years after he temporarily lost his seat in 1994. He has a powerful position on the Appropriations Committee. He’s the dean of the state’s House delegation. And he’s a skilled policy entrepreneur.

He knows how to make the levers of government work, a talent that is underappreciated and denigrated in today’s polarized, hyper-partisan politics.

Price traces Congress’ dysfunction to “our broken electoral system,” including “extreme partisan gerrymandering; the dominance of unaccountable, unlimited big money in elections (and) widespread voter suppression.”

He says “mainstream Democrats need to overcome factionalism for the sake of the larger goal of defeating Trump and Trumpism, forming a workable governing coalition and taking the country in a positive direction, internationally and at home.”

He’s interested in accomplishments, not attention-getting. He has to his credit a new headquarters building for the North Carolina National Guard and a new EPA research facility in Research Triangle Park.

He has worked on wide-ranging issues: border security, Raleigh-to-Richmond rail service, expanded housing, higher-education affordability, Teaching Fellows, home-equity loan disclosure and Veterans Administration prosthetic research.

Three long-time initiatives are making private security contractors working overseas subject to U.S. criminal law, requiring standardized reports on income and spending by college athletic programs, and replacing hog-waste lagoons with new technologies.

He always has pursued campaign reform. HR1, House Democrats’ reform bill, includes four ideas he champions: “Empower small donors, shine a spotlight on dark money, crack down on candidate coordination with Super PACs and boost transparency for political ads.”

He and his friend Mac McCorkle of Duke University pioneered “Stand By Your Ad” laws that require candidates to appear in and assume responsibility for their campaign commercials.

Some of his reform ideas are counter-intuitive: He would restore congressional earmarks. Eliminating earmarks, he writes, “has neither reduced spending nor rendered funding decisions less ‘political’; it has merely shifted the locus of project-level decisions from legislators to agency officials.”

Price’s book is deep and detailed, thoughtful and thought-provoking. It’s a serious study of how government works, doesn’t work and can work better. It’s not the fodder of Twitter chatter; it’s the grueling, unglamorous work that affects people’s lives.

His work reflects his faith; he has a divinity degree. In a chapter about religion and politics, he writes that our traditions “counsel a kind of religious humility, a sense that our own strivings are always subject to God’s judgment.”

It says a lot about our world that we don’t hear nearly as much about David Price as we do about, say, Madison Cawthorn, the newly elected congressman from North Carolina’s 11th District.

Politics might be better, and Congress might work better, if we paid better attention to David Price.

Gary Pearce was a reporter and editor at The News & Observer, a political consultant, and an adviser to Governor Jim Hunt (1976-1984 and 1992-2000). He blogs about politics and public policy at