Recent polls show that more than 70 percent of the public holds an unfavorable view of Congress. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) wins about a 10 percent approval rating; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) has similarly rock-bottom poll numbers.
Why this astounding — and growing — disdain for our lawmakers? After all, Congress has had plenty of scandals and corruption in the past, such as the House post-office and check-kiting messes, the Charles Keating payoffs, and the Abscam bribery.
But lately, Congress seems not merely corrupt, but — far more worrisome — without apparent concern that it has become so unethical.
A “culture of corruption” was the slogan of the Democratic Party to win back Congress in 2006. And indeed there was lots of sleaze then among incumbent Republicans.
Reps. Duke Cunningham (R., Calif.), Bob Ney (R., Ohio) and Tom DeLay (R., Tex.) all left Congress under a cloud. Rep. Mark Foley (R., Fla.) and Sen. Larry Craig (R., Idaho) saw their careers ruined over creepy sex allegations. Convicted felon Jack Abramoff ran a criminal-lobbying syndicate by which Big Money earned special attention from Republican lawmakers.
But when reform-minded Democrats took over, the mess got no better, and possibly worse — suggesting that the problem was not politics, but what Congress itself had become. Rep. William Jefferson (D., La.) was convicted on multiple counts, including bribery and racketeering. Rep. Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.), who recently stepped down as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, for over a year has been under investigation for numerous transgressions — from rent-control violations and tax avoidance to improper lobbying and omissions from financial-disclosure forms. The late Rep. John Murtha (D., Pa.) had seemed destined for an investigation into quid-pro-quo relationships between the money he received from boosters and the earmarks he earned them. Sen. Chris Dodd (D., Conn.) managed to get a cut-rate home loan from a tottering bank — and a great deal on a vacation home in Ireland from a seller with connections to someone for whom Dodd lobbied for a presidential pardon.
Presidents come and go, but Congress stays the same in its habit of borrowing money. In the latest nearly half-trillion-dollar spending bill, Congress included more than 5,000 special earmarks. Senators and representatives routinely dole out dubious grants to their own constituents, usually in some way connected with campaign contributions. They worry little about the rising federal debt or the value of such spending for the nation at large.
When questioned, our representatives — reminiscent of the old French court at Versailles — act like they live in a rarified, untouchable universe.
Rangel shrugged off his ethics problems as racially motivated. Would-be reformer Pelosi — who, along with other Democrats, has railed about corporate CEOs and their perks — asked that her taxpayer-provided plane travel be upgraded so that she would not have to refuel on her way home to California. Former Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia struck a Capitol Hill police officer who asked her to show identification upon entering a House office building. Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) called an airline attendant a “bitch” last year after she repeatedly asked him to turn off his cell phone in accordance with federal law.
It is understandable, but not healthy, for a democracy to have little respect for legislators such as these. So, how could these self-absorbed grandees show voters a little contrition?
A good start would be to ban the egomaniac naming of monuments, parks, buildings, and roads after living senators and representatives. The rest of us don’t expect to have things named after us at work or school for simply doing our jobs. Congress should not either.
Members of Congress should employ pay-as-you-go lawmaking. It is easy to win friends by handing out someone else’s money, but harder to ask voters to pay the ensuing bill. Appropriate the money first; spend it second.
Can’t legislators go back home and get a life after their terms? Why don’t they quit lobbying their former colleagues for profit, and stop finagling for lifelong sinecures at some federal or state agency?
And why can’t members of Congress abide by the very laws they pass? If members wish to change health care, they should enroll in the same plans they mandate for others. Congressional offices should be subject to the same labor rules that private businesses work under — from sexual-harassment statutes to overtime compensation.
Our self-absorbed Congress should start to reform, fast. Right now, the American people seem to think that the main purpose of holding congressional office is to boost egos and get rich later on — and in the process make the rest of us poorer.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.