John Sarbanes was talking to reporters from The New York Times this spring, giving a video interview along with other members of Congress leaving office at the end of the year.

While the others — including Sarbanes’ Maryland colleague U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin — talked about why Congress is so dysfunctional, the Democrat from Towson didn’t exactly follow the script.

“How do you, quote, ‘Fix Congress?’” he asked, smiling at the idea and making air quotes with his fingers — bunny ears.

“Yeah, everyone wants to know how to fix Congress because everyone refers to Congress as being fundamentally broken,” Sarbanes told me last week. “And there’s a lot of challenges, no doubt. Is it irreparably broken? I don’t think so.”

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U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes puts air quotes around the phrase fix Congress during an interview with the New York Times in April.
U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes puts air quotes around the phrase “fix Congress” during an interview with The New York Times in April.

Maybe that’s why he got less time in the Times video than others. As his career in elected office comes to an end following his decision not to run for reelection, John Sarbanes is consistently more interested in the problem than the rhetoric.

Seventeen years ago, Sarbanes was a freshman congressman and I was the new editor of a weekly paper in Glen Burnie. He agreed to an interview at Los Portales, a restaurant near BWI Airport and a convenient stop on his daily commute.

He still makes that drive, so we met there again a day before his birthday. The 62-year-old ordered the soft fish taco, and we start with why his decision to leave Congress led to something of a misunderstanding with The New York Times.

“They were very interested in the notion of people leaving because of the dysfunction of Congress and I’m not. I’m not making the decision on that basis,” he said. “But my decision was more, I just, I got to this fork in the road, just it was a natural moment in time.”

U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes at Los Portales in Glen Burnie, talking about Washington and what's next after he steps down from Congress after 18 years.
U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes at Los Portales in Glen Burnie, talking about Washington and what’s next after he steps down from Congress after 18 years. (Rick Hutzell)

Ironically, Sarbanes is exactly the right person to ask about fixing Congress. It’s been his cause. His answer is long, without bunny ears, and flows from The Federalist Papers to the fall elections.

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It isn’t Congress that’s broken, he said, it’s us.

“If people around the country are kind of in a dynamic of pushing and pulling with each other, then you’re going to see that same dynamic translated into Congress,” he said.

Although dysfunction pundits usually focus on the Republican-led House — where chaos monkeys flinging poo put on a great show — Sarbanes sees it in the Democratic-majority Senate, too.

James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers that the Senate would calmly deliberate ideas bubbling up from the populist House of Representatives. Instead, Sarbanes thinks the rule that 60 senators are needed to bring an issue to a vote is a choke point.

“The notion is that the Senate is supposed to be the saucer in which hot tea cools. … But I’m not sure I would concede at this point that the Senate is that much more functional than the House,” Sarbanes said. “In fact, as long as you have the crazy rules system over there that allows a supermajority requirement to stay in place, which then, in turn, means a minority can fork the process at every stage, that leads to a lot of frustration in the public.”

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Sarbanes has experience with the saucer. His signature legislation, the For the People Act, landed there five times. In the last round, it was two Senators shy of getting to a vote.

The legislation is stuff almost everyone agrees is needed. It would curb special interests through campaign finance reform, end partisan gerrymandering and strengthen ethics laws. He doesn’t call it a failure because his work made it the top legislative priority for Democrats.

But he draws a direct line between its Senate defeat, Americans who feel powerless and angry — and the rise of populist figures playing on our worst angels.

“People start reaching for more radical solutions to things and demagogues can come along and get their attention,” Sarbanes said.

U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, center, watches from the end of a line of top Maryland Democrats as Angela Alsobrooks speaks during a party unity rally on May 23. (Eric Thompson/for the Baltimore Banner)

It’s not lost on Sarbanes that his likely successor in the 3rd District, state Sen. Sarah Elfreth, benefited from the kind of outside money he calls corrupting. AIPAC, a pro-Israel political action committee, spent $4.5 million on her behalf during the Democratic primary.

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“That’s become, unfortunately, the game that is getting played across the board in ways that, frankly, not only frustrate the public but frustrate candidates, who I think would prefer to be able to run their own race, raise their own money, in a way that makes sense to the public,” Sarbanes said.

He didn’t endorse in the crowded primary — or signal his choice as Cardin did with a tour of Annapolis with Elfreth during early voting. He said Elfreth has the right mix of skills for the House, even if he predicts she will be as surprised at the strength of special interests.

“You don’t really understand it at a deeper level until you’re there and you’re like trying to get things passed,” Sarbanes said. “You realize that at every turn there’s a whole set of very powerful, entrenched interests who have a lot of money to spend … who have their own designs on what this institution should produce or, often more so, have a view of what the institution should not produce.”

Before he leaves office, Sarbanes will campaign for Angela Alsobrooks, the Prince George’s county executive running against former Gov. Larry Hogan for Cardin’s seat in the Senate.

Hogan is more conservative than he wants voters to know, Sarbanes said, and the presidential race will help Alsobrooks. The rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump will drive Democratic turnout up by 7 or 8 percentage points, something that happens in every presidential election year.

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“It’s just a clear choice. I mean, just the split screen, people are gonna be like, we know what we want Maryland to do,” he said.

And if Biden leans into an anti-corporate campaign, Sarbanes sees the presidential race turning out differently than the close contest polls show today.

“People out there, they know who the villain is,” he said. “They know it’s big PACs, they know it’s Big Food, they know it’s Big Pharma. They know it’s the gun lobby. They know it’s the credit card companies and the big banks making life hard for them in terms of the economy.

“Biden can credibly say that’s the kind of corruption I’ve been fighting my whole life.”

Sarbanes says he hasn’t made a decision about what comes next for him. He thinks he will land at an organization he worked with on the big ideas of his time in Congress — democracy reform, the environment and health.

U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, right, listens during a roundtable led by U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona about mental health programs.
U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, right, listens during a roundtable led by U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona about mental health programs. (Rick Hutzell)

After lunch, almost as if to prove a point, he heads to Annapolis High School. He joins U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona for a roundtable on mental health. The school has innovative mental health programs for students, particularly those affected by gun violence, and is getting grant money out of the bipartisan Safer Communities Act passed in 2022. Eight students, teachers and counselors talk about anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress.

Hardly anybody outside the library where the roundtable takes place is likely to ever know it happened.

Yet the legislation itself is proof of what Sarbanes has been talking about since we first had lunch at Los Portales in 2007.

“Every so often, we kind of break free as an institution and we get something done.”