Saturday, July 31, 2010

Congressional (Dis)Approval

Recent polling data shows that the American people are not particularly happy with the current crop of elected representatives supposedly serving them in Congress. Of course this might have something to do with the fact that Congress turned a deaf ear to the greater part of the American public during the health care debate, and that even now after its passage we find support for health care reform hovering at about 38%. 

With the subsequent passage of a financial reform package that was going to curb the excesses of Wall Street and protect John Q Public from evil banking institutions, we now see that few of Mr. Public's extended family (about 32.8%) believes that the country is going in the right direction. But certainly the recent exhibition of a serious hearing disability from Congress can't be the only reason that voters are so disgusted. 

Perhaps then, it's disappointment felt when promises by the current Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (who might still have some questions of her own to answer about the use of military aircraft) to end some if not all of the corruption committed by law makers were less than fulfilled. Yes, we saw lawmakers from Louisiana to Nebraska showing just how ugly the legislative process can be while attempting to secure special privilege for their respective districts during debate and negotiation for final vote counts. (R) Scott Brown has proved equally disappointing, sweeping in on a tide of Conservative votes in Massachusetts only to show himself far less principled than promised (though he was taking Sen. Kennedy's seat after all) by casting votes with the Democrats that he campaigned against. 

But it wasn't merely the so-called "sausage making" of legislation that has cast a pall over Congressional credibility, but the corruption as well. We barely had time to forget the $90,000 found in (D) Rep. William Jefferson's freezer (and apparently the over $470,000 that he funneled into shell companies under his family's control), when we were confronted recently with the potential lapses of judgment by (D) Rep. Charles Rangel. Rangel, the former head of the House Ways and Means Committee (the Committee that writes tax laws) has been cited for 13 potential ethics violations for everything from misusing four rent control apartments to not declaring income and assets properly to Congress or the IRS. 

But such behavior is not limited to the House of Representatives, nor is it limited to Democrats. Republicans have had their share of offenders over the years and as a consequence have no claims to sainthood. While Rangel is the latest poster child for corruption in the national legislature, he is far from the only member operating under questionable circumstances. And while many are asking how Congress can let him remain in their midst, few are asking how someone on a Congressional salary can afford the rent on four apartments in NYC, a vacation home in the Dominican Republic, and bank accounts totaling some $500,000. 

Fewer still realize that if he manages to resign from office, he will undoubtedly be able to keep a Congressional pension that should land him about $150,000 per year and a medical retirement program that would be the envy of any of us. Those of us looking however, do not see Rangel as exceptional. 

Far too many enter Congress claiming to want to 'serve the people' and find themselves millionaires by the time of their eventual departure. Far too many then leave lucrative government service to enter even more lucrative government lobbying or media punditry. The few that choose to forgo such 2nd career windfalls still manage to make the rounds on the paid speaking circuit, get lucrative contracts to write their memoirs, and live in quiet luxury after performing a job that the Founding Fathers considered no more than a temporary position. 

The Founders it seems, had an expectation that after serving their country for a time, legislators would return to the private sector and to 'honest labor'; and would support themselves and their families through their own efforts. I expect that they would be shocked to find Washington DC (named after a politician who retired after 8 years of service to the nation, and without a pension by the way) populated by 'professional politicians' living off of the largess of the American taxpayer. 

The pursuit of power has always been dangerous to both the ruling elite and the ruled, and this appears to be especially so with today's 'public servants'. In fact, one cannot help but feel that for many of those in Congress, their public service turns out to be little more than self-service; with the office providing ample opportunity for greed, graft, and self-gratification (could it be merely coincidence that the House chamber is semi-circular). It should therefore be no real surprise that as yet another election cycle approaches, we now seem to hold those in office with relative disdain. Polling data compiled by Real Clear Politics in fact shows the average for Congressional approval hovering around 21%. 

I suspect however, that this number is even higher than it should be and as the fateful day approaches, that voters will show even less approbation to those running for office this year. I fear that many of our legislators are like to receive a considerable amount of (dis)approval.


Roland Hansen said...

IMHO, based upon my active participatory experience in the political arena on several fronts:
The real root and underlying cause of the problem is the lack of active support (emphasis on active support) by the general public that constitute the electorate to candidates who are not "in it for themselves."
Sign me "Been there, done that."

Tim Higgins said...


Certainly the lack of citizen participation in the process is deplorable behavior, but as you have correctly deduced, that does not excuse equally deplorable behavior on the part of legislators (at all levels, come to think of it).