Congress is beginning a seven-week recess to the cheers of Americans everywhere. According to a recent national poll, dated July 27-28, 21% of Americans approved of the job done by Congress and 71% disapproved. Keep in mind that this poll comes at a time when the same political party controls both the Executive and the Legislative branches of our Government, so there really should be no cause for gridlock. But when even Congress should be moving full speed ahead, it still polls horribly, and far worse than the President.
The saddest thing about these Congressional poll numbers is that they’ve come to be expected. Simply to say the word “Congress” is to generate groans from the left and the right. The branch that our Founding Fathers intended be to closest to the people is in fact the one that seems the most remote of all. And that is because most Americans view themselves as fundamentally honest, whereas they associate Congress with the attitude that “the truth” is always something that can be bought for the right price.
Am I exaggerating? Only up to a point. It appears that while Americans dislike most federal legislators, they feel differently about the ones from their own districts. These are the individuals who suck up to them, send them cheerful cards and letters, and fall all over themselves trying to help them out economically, at the expense of the rest of the country. This dynamic explains why Representatives so commonly get voted back into office term after term, decade after decade, despite the low public opinion polls for Congress as a whole.
Do you remember that deal that Senator Nelson worked out during the health care battle, in which the State of Nebraska’s Medicaid program would fare far better than every other state, simply because he had the temerity to sell his vote on the bill? To the rest of the country, it could only be viewed as a shameless act akin to extortion, since there was no principled reason for treating Nebraska differently from the other states. But Nelson was betting that to Nebraskans, his bold move would be seen simply as an example of a Senator fighting for his own people. And why not? The legislators with the longest shelf life tend to be the ones most associated with pork-barrel politics. Just look at the late Robert Byrd, the so-called “King of Pork.” Did that reputation destroy his career? Hardly. He served longer in the U.S. Congress than anyone in history. That’s what you get for putting local interests above national interests: re-election.
Lately, we’ve been reading about Representatives who, far from worrying about the best interests of the nation, have allegedly not even been thinking about their local constituency – unless of course, by their “constituency,” we’re including their spouses or children. One renowned member of Congress after another has been in hot water. “Charley Rangel, come on down! John Kerry, come on down! Maxine Waters, come on down! You’re the next contestant on “The Price of the Scandal is Obviously Right!” Whatever time it is, it always seems to be the right time for a Congressional scandal. Whether it’s about sex with children, self dealing, tax evasion, or any other sign of hubris you want to imagine, representatives are reportedly doing it.
The question is, why does this happen so often? And the answer is simple. Whether you get caught making an ass of yourself or flat-out violating a law, if you’re a member of Congress, you can typically sleep quite well with the knowledge that the consequences will be minimal or non-existent. After all, who do you think makes the laws that punish Congressional malfeasance? Why, your fellow members of Congress, that’s who. And they appear to be no more interested in deterring bad conduct than the Catholic Church was interested in punishing pedophile priests. The Church only began to change its ways when those sex scandals resulted in extreme public embarrassment, not to mention expensive lawsuits. But Congressional scandals never seem to result in public embarrassment where it matters most – in a Representative’s own district. There, they remain beloved, sympathetic figures. It’s only outside the district that they’re viewed with revulsion, together with the remainder of their august body.
Unfortunately, diagnosing this problem is a lot easier than solving it. One potential solution could be term limits. If nothing else, it would limit the number of years in which these sleazy Representatives would be able to place their own interests over that of our country. Unfortunately, the Constitution is silent on the legality of term limits for federal legislators, and the Supreme Court has decided that before the states can impose them, the Constitution must be amended. While it is theoretically possible to see such an amendment enacted, I wouldn’t suggest holding your breath – there’s way too much apathy in this country over an issue like this one to envision such an amendment in the face of Congressional opposition.
Another solution is for each of us as individuals to invoke the old fashioned cliché and “throw the bums out.” In other words, if one of your Representatives is embroiled in a scandal, investigate the facts as well as you can, and if you become convinced that they have behaved culpably, consider voting for the other guy, even if that means switching parties.
In today’s polarized America, such an approach may not wash – for many of us, voting against our political party would feel like an act of treason. But if nothing else, this should serve as one more reminder of how political polarization is destroying our democracy. Some day, we won’t have such extreme polarization, and members of Congress may actually fear that if they get caught, they might live to regret it. As things stand now, with truly rare exceptions, getting caught means that you’ll have to stick out your wrist, receive a slap, and wait until you’re alone before you can smile and light up your big, fat cigar. If you’re an entrenched incumbent these days, nothing at all can touch you – not the heavy hand of the law, not the next chump you run against, and certainly not your own conscience. It’s a pity, but it’s reality.