The Crumbling Congress

Thomas Jefferson once said, “If the members are to know nothing but what is important enough to be put into a public message and indifferent enough to be made known to all the world; if the executive is to keep all other information to himself and the House to plunge on in the dark, it becomes a government of chance and not of design.”
Thanks to a Congress that has forsaken its role, Jefferson’s concern has become a reality.
“Oversight of the government has disappeared,” said John Dean, who was referring to a job Congress has long forgotten to perform. Dean is one of many who now think Congress is “defunct.” Thomas Mann from the Brookings Institute has authored a book called the Broken Branch and former lawmakers Mickey Edwards, Bob Kerry and John Brademas also believe that Congress is “out of order” or missing.
In the past, Americans could count on Congress to at least minimize lobbyist’s financial influence, rein in Presidential hubris and keep State “earmarks” under a semblance of budgetary control. Today’s Congress has abdicated this responsibility and forgotten what it means to represent the American people.
Both Republicans and Democrats seem more concerned with partisan posturing, deflecting attention from ongoing corruption scandals and “piling on the pork” than securing a robust future for our nation. While our economy groans under the weight of skyrocketing healthcare costs, for example, Congressmen play golf with lobbyists for the pharmaceutical companies.
In August of last year, long before the Abramoff scandal, Lou Dobbs wrote about the heights that lobbying has attained. Republicans and Democrats alike are taking advantage of, as Mr. Dobbs states, “abuses [that] stem from lobbyists’ paying for politicians’ dinners, trips, golf outings and more.”
Political MoneyLine reports that members of Congress over the past five years have received more than $18 million to travel the world at the expense of private organizations. Those expenses include 6,242 trips for 628 lawmakers from both political parties. MonyLine also informs us that lobbyists, corporations and special interest groups, spent $2.14 billion on lobbying congressional members last year. Since 1988, corporations and special interests have spent more than $12 billion on lobbying efforts over that time. Imagine what else we could have done with this money.
Even foreign countries have learned the tricks of the trade. Case and point – Sudan, which the U.S. government has accused of genocide, recently signed a $530,000 contract with a Washington lobbyist to help improve its image. Good thing because it was getting pretty bad. Israel, India, and Armenia are also well known for their influence on US foreign policy.
There is a great internet site that tracks all the influence peddlers in Washington. It is PublicIntegrity.org. They have a special “lobby watch” section on the site. My favorite article is “Lobbying the White House, Campaign donors and former government officials help 4,600 companies influence the executive branch.” How can anyone compete with that?
In a past life, I tried to make a difference. I wrote letters, made phone calls, and even tried to meet with congressional staffers to air my concerns. Occasionally, someone seemed to be paying attention – even demonstrating genuine passion for a particular cause. Today, I’m lucky to receive an automated e-mail response. Most often, I’m told that my representatives are too busy to reply, but that I may hear from them by or before 2020.
I am perplexed by this since Congress has given the President increasingly more power. Congress is bowing before this latest Imperial Presidency, instead of fighting back, as it did during the Nixon years. Why?
Undoubtedly, the public mood following 9-11 played a role. Because Congress was as shocked and fearful as the rest of us, it turned to the Commander-in-Chief to steer the “ship of state” into safer waters. Fear of another terrorist attack made Congress willingly give the President a blank check to invade Iraq, and George W. Bush steered us into the eye of a raging storm.
Former Senator Bob Kerry claims that Congress is taking some responsibility. Really? Did Congress take responsibility when …
• The Department of Homeland Security decided that Omaha and Louisville should get more urban area security grants than New York City and Washington, DC?
• House members pulled the teeth out of Barack Obama’s (D-IL) proposed Office of Public Integrity, thereby doing nothing to reform the current system of lobbying?
• Congress mandated that “certain ethics training” must be provided “once per Congress to each … employee.” Employee? How about the elected representatives who claimed they weren’t too knowledgeable about why they shouldn’t take money from Jack Abramoff or others for that matter?
• As The New York Times reported, certain lawmakers “tucked inside [an] emergency spending bill … a farm-program provision totaling $4 million, along with $700 million to relocate a rail line in Mississippi and $1.1 billion for fishery projects, including a $15 million seafood promotion strategy.” The emergency bill, requested by the President to cover post-Katrina rebuilding efforts and materials needed by our troops in Iraq, was supposed to total $14 billion. By the time the unfocused Senate finished, the bill had a $106 billion supplement. (By comparison, the Department of Homeland Security’s Budget is $41.1 billion).
• The Transportation Equity Act earmarked a record 6,371 special projects including the infamous $931 million “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska?
• Senator Thomas Coburn (R-OK) introduced Senate Resolution 157 (on May 26, 2005) to congratulate Ms. Carrie Underwood for winning American Idol. Ok, this was a nice thing to do, but during a time of war?
Meanwhile, larger issues such as education, healthcare, Iraq, poverty and paying down the enormous national debt are swept under the rug.
I will concede that Congress is taking some action. Both the House and Senate have introduced bills on global warming, Darfur, and securing nuclear materials. However, nobody can tell what specifics these bills will contain, especially after the “fish lobby” gets its way.
Senator John McCain did push through an anti-torture bill that took a whole lot of teeth pulling, but should have been a no brainer. Congressman John Murtha rolled up his sleeves and developed a timetable for leaving Iraq. (Unfortunately, his colleagues found it necessary to silence him before he could make any real progress there). And Senator Hillary Clinton is finally talking about alternative energy sources to free us from dependence on oil. With luck, her proposals will be more substantial than your average sound bite that receives nothing more than air time. Alternative energy policies are imperative for the future of not just the U.S., but the rest of the world.
These last initiatives represent some progress, but not nearly enough. It’s time for Congress to jettison petty partisanship, take back its responsibility and band together for the good of the American people. On the international front, our military prowess is being questioned around the world and anti-Americanism is at an all- time high. These and plenty of serious domestic problems are being ignored in favor of gimmicks designed to appeal to the “base” of both parties or even worse the news networks.
Pork, unfettered lobbying, and nonsense resolutions rule the day. How do any of these improve our nation’s condition and that of the people?
My students have asked me, “What should be done about Congressional ineffectiveness?” I stop short of saying that the whole lot needs to be replaced. I think perhaps they should. But I say, instead, perhaps Congressmen and woman need to be reminded that they’ve been elected “by the people for the people” to do their best to represent our interests.
This country needs Congress to check and balance, so we aren’t plunged into another war, this time with Iran. We need Congress to get serious about issues like the environment, healthcare, and poverty. We need a Congress who is serious about illegal immigration – one that knows building walls instead of implementing laws just creates more animosity and, like New Orleans, falls dangerously short of keeping the water out.
Furthermore, we need Congress to get serious about ethics, listening to lobbyists without transforming government into one “of special interests, for special interests.” Congress must demonstrate that it is accountable. Creating an oversight office to provide transparency may be a good first step, but true responsibility lies within each representative and the whole of our legislative bodies.
Finally, I would really like to blame it all on Congress, but I can’t. After all, it is not all up to them. It is also up to us – the voters. (And may I remind you that elections are coming up!) It is our duty to remind our leaders loudly and clearly that they must either represent our interests, or step aside. Wake up, America. Speak up, America. Our future, no our survival, depends on it.
Confucius said, “The fish rots from the head down.” If the “broken Congress” continues to crumble, the rest of us, not to mention our future generations, will spend a long time cleaning up the mess – a mess that could have been avoided had we been more aware and courageously taken action.

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