Butterfield: From big money in politics to lack of civility, Washington is broken

In less than a generation, Congress has devolved from a respectful institution to a toxic one in desperate need of a reset, Democratic 1st District Congressman G.K. Butterfield said Friday.

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Laura Leslie
, WRAL Capitol Bureau chief
WASHINGTON — In less than a generation, Congress has devolved from a respectful institution to a toxic one in desperate need of a reset, Democratic 1st District Congressman G.K. Butterfield said Friday.
Butterfield, who announced Thursday that he won't seek re-election next year, named the "sea change" in how Congress conducts its business as the biggest disappointment in his years on Capitol Hill.

When he was first elected in 2004, he told WRAL News in an interview, the debate between Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. House "was partisan, but it was respectful." Everyone had "respect for the institution," he noted.

"The days of civility have left us, and we now find ourselves in very toxic, divisive debate," he said. "We cannot have toxic and divisive debate and survive the institution. The institution depends on civility, and we don't have civility today in Washington."

Citing polls showing 22 percent of Americans saying that Congress is broken, Butterfield said, "I don't actually disagree with that."

The partisan tone grew sharper over time, he said, but it went to another level after former President Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Social media helped fuel the change by quickly spreading misinformation, he said.

"We should not tolerate deliberate lies about elected officials," he said. "The American people deserve to hear the truth about the issues and about the candidates. And right now, we're experiencing lie after lie after lie, and it's infecting the whole political process."

After he leaves office, Butterfield said he plans to work on reforms to repair the damage, such as pushing for public funding of congressional campaigns to reduce the influence of big-money special interests and for independent redistricting commissions in every state.

The redistricting North Carolina's Republican-controlled legislature recently approved was a primary reason he chose to retire, he said.

The redrawn congressional district map shifts what was Butterfield's 1st District – it will become the 2nd Congressional District under the new map – slightly to the west, adding the Republican-leaning counties of Franklin, Granville, Person and Caswell and dropping Democratic-heavy Pitt County and Gates County in the east.

"The map is gerrymandered. It's politically gerrymandered, and it's racially gerrymandered," Butterfield said, noting it's "almost impossible to win" the redrawn district as a Democrat.

Butterfield is very familiar with gerrymandering, noting that his father, the first Black elected official in Wilson, was gerrymandered out of his City Council district in the 1950s.

He said he expects courts to throw out the maps and order state lawmakers to redo them. But even if that happens, the 74-year-old said he won't reconsider his decision to step down.

"There comes a time in everyone's life when you have to make a decision to retire," he said. "It's time for me to reconnect with the people I love."

Butterfield said he’s most proud of his work to renew the Voting Rights Act, to promote economic development in rural eastern North Carolina and to bring federally funded community health centers to underserved areas.

He spoke with WRAL shortly after helping the House pass the Build Back Better Act, President Joe Biden's sweeping social and environmental package. Butterfield called it "human infrastructure" spending to match the $1 trillion physical infrastructure bill the president signed into law on Monday.

"It's a game-changer," Butterfield said of Build Back Better.


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