Politics & Policy

Congress: A Ship of Fools with Exceptions

Andy Jacobs in 2007
Indiana’s Andy Jacobs was a rare honorable congressman.

Almost all of the coverage of former secretary of state Bob Gates’s memoir focuses on his criticism of Presidents Obama and Bush. But he saved his most searing criticism for what he considered a preening, blinkered Congress.

“Congress is best viewed from a distance — the farther the better — because up close, it is truly ugly. I saw most of Congress as uncivil, incompetent at fulfilling their basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned and prone to put self (and re-election) before country,” Gates wrote. And that was just his warm-up lede paragraph.

#ad#Gates roasts members such as Senate majority leader Harry Reid for declaring the Iraq War “a failure” just as the surge was showing results and then demanding special-interest add-ons to the defense budget. “Any defense facility or contract in their district or state, no matter how superfluous or wasteful, was sacrosanct,” Gates writes. “I was constantly amazed and infuriated at the hypocrisy of those who most stridently attacked the Defense Department as inefficient and wasteful but fought tooth and nail to prevent any reduction in defense activities in their home state or district.”

In other words, there are reasons that Congress’s approval rating hovers around 10 percent. But it’s at times like these that it’s important to note that many members of Congress resist the temptations of power that Gates zings them for. It’s vital we recognize real examples of selfless public service and integrity.

That’s why we should truly mourn the loss of Andy Jacobs Jr., a Democratic House member who represented Indianapolis for 30 years before retiring in 1997. Would that the Democratic party still had more clear-eyed, independent liberals like him.

He died late last month at age 81, and his memorial service in the rotunda of the state capitol was held just a few days ago. It is a measure of the bipartisan respect Jacobs engendered that he was mourned by Democrats along with such Republicans as Governor Mike Pence, his predecessor Mitch Daniels, and former Indianapolis mayor Bill Hudnut. “I’ve lost a dear friend, one who never held a grudge,” Hudnut recalled. He remains the only man who ever defeated Jacobs, ousting him from Congress in the Nixon landslide of 1972 only to lose to him two years later in the Watergate election of 1974. But the two grew close and remained so until Jacobs’s death last month.

Jacobs was a self-described “parsimonious progressive” whose record bore some resemblance to that of maverick Democrat William Proxmire of Wisconsin, who served as a senator from that state from 1957 to 1989. Jacobs didn’t accept congressional pay raises, took no overseas junkets, didn’t mail taxpayer-funded propaganda to his constituents, and declined all contributions from special-interest groups. His frugality led him to turn down a color TV set for his congressional office.

He also once refused to board a plane because only first-class seats were available and taxpayers were picking up the tab. The plane crashed, killing everyone aboard. Even though he had been wounded in combat while serving in the Marines during the Korean War, he turned down a disability pension. “He didn’t think it was right to take that money, since he had a job with a good wage,” family friend Gary Taylor told the Associated Press. “He was frugal, and that’s something I think the public really [liked] about him.”

His voting record was, to say the least, quirky. “He favors affirmative action as well as free-market medical savings accounts, is for preventive anti-crime measures and against the death penalty, likes preschool programs and dislikes foreign aid,” noted Michael Barone in his Almanac of American Politics.

He made his biggest impression among colleagues when it came to military spending and foreign interventions.

“If you want to know about waste in the Department of Health and Human Services, best not to ask a liberal,” he wrote in his congressional memoir. “If you want to know about waste at the Pentagon, don’t waste time with a conservative.”

An early opponent of the Vietnam War, he zinged both sides for their approach to the conflict. He thought liberals had given President Lyndon Johnson a pass by letting him pursue the war with insufficient authorization.

“The way I read the Constitution, the Congress is paid a salary to determine whether we should go to war,” he said. “Therefore, I don’t think Congress is earning its money.” He poked fun at Pentagon cost overruns by naming his Great Dane “C-5” after a gold-plated Air Force plane. He said the dog grew as fast as a military contract. He also infuriated conservatives by coining the phrases “chicken hawks” and “war wimps” to describe lawmakers who favored drafting young Americans for war, but who had dodged military service themselves when they were young.


“I don’t think Andy thought passing new laws was his principal role in Congress,” Louis Mahern, a former Jacobs staff member, told the Indianapolis Star. That attitude irritated congressional leaders. They didn’t appreciate Jacobs’s free-spirited ways and unsuccessfully tried to block him from holding a subcommittee chairmanship on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. But his message stayed the same. “Andy Jacobs tried to tell his party for half a century, there’s nothing progressive about saddling future Americans with debt, because today’s officeholders greedily consume campaign contributions while ignoring the quid pro quo that accompanies them,” Carl Cannon, a columnist with Real Clear Politics, wrote.

#ad#Jacobs would both thrill and tweak his liberal allies. Ralph Nader once called him “the conscience of the House,” but Nader came under fire from Jacobs for driving the Corvair sportscar off the market for alleged safety defects. “He always said it was the best car he ever owned, and Ralph Nader was trying to take it away from him,” said Patrick Traub, a former press secretary for Jacobs.

“Mr. Jacobs was a dream interview,” the Washington Post’s obituary noted. “Quick-witted, adept at rhetorical bank shots that caromed around between irony, humor, metaphors and anecdotes, he treated reporters as equals to be embraced, not foes to be duped.” I couldn’t agree more. I first met Jacobs while I was writing my book supporting term limits on members of Congress. He was an enthusiastic proponent of the idea, and we appeared together supporting it at several forums. “In politics the cream often rises to the top and then it curdles,” he would quip. “Along with Jefferson, Lincoln, and Taft, I support the principle of rotation in office.” When asked why he backed term limits but continued to extend his own congressional career, he was bluntly honest: “The reason for a universal rule is that everyone has to follow it, and it avoids having some members disadvantage their district or state through lack of seniority.”

Along with Jacobs, I believed Congress would run better if it weren’t full of so many people scrambling to extend their time there. The congressional careerists, of course, disagree, which is why they fought so hard — along with lobbyists, bureaucrats, and most journalists — to halt the drive for term limits in the 1990s.

But if ever there was an argument against term limits for Congress, Andy Jacobs was Exhibit A. As the Indiana blogger Johnny Simms noted, “Although he tried to convince everyone that he wasn’t, he was larger than life.”

John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.

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