FRED WOLFERMAN: Is Our Congress Beyond All Hope?
Only a congressman could make alcoholism a virtue.
Mark Foley (formerly R-Fla.), he of the lurid e-mails to congressional pages, checked himself into rehab, conveniently avoiding the press, while contending that his newly discovered alcoholism made him write those awful things. That's better than being a pedophile.
And, oh yes, he was molested by a priest when he was a teenager. It was such a traumatic experience he just had to pass it along. And, oh yes again, he's gay.
Well, fine. Foley is toast, and the Democrats are having a field day tarring Republicans with his residue. The Republican leadership knew or should have known about him, should have stopped him, forced him to resign, etc., etc.
That is probably all true; time will sort it out and Republicans will pay a price. One might ask, if Foley's proclivities were as well known as the Democrats say they were, why wasn't he long since outed by them? Could it possibly have something to do with the election?
There is a reason Congress' approval rating was 20 percent before the Foley scandal. People are just fed up with bad legislation topped off with immorality and plain old thievery. Let us not forget William Jefferson (still D-La.) and the $90,000 found in his freezer, or Randy Cunningham (formerly R-Calif.), presently in prison for bribery, or Jack Abramoff, spewer of goodies to congresspersons of both parties.
There are themes here which do not bode well for our national weal: money, power and insulation from reality and responsibility. You just can't turn 535 people, most of whom bought their way into office, loose in a marble city, give them control over trillions of dollars, and expect them to behave like normal folks.
Presidents come and go, administrations revolve, even judges eventually die, but Congress just goes on and on. It is too big to change. It is like your body: Individual cells die, but they are replaced to no obvious effect.
Even in this vitriolic political year in which pundits predict a possible switch in the majority party, it would require only about a 4 percent change in congressional membership to accomplish that.
One of my golf buddies, who is as cynical as I, put it very succinctly just the other day: "They're all crooks. They just haven't been exposed." A poor choice of words in the current context perhaps, but no less sincere for that.
When Congress was invented, there were 120-odd representatives and 26 senators. They met for a few months, then went back to their farms, law practices or whatever -- anything to get out of the malarial swamp that was the capital.
Then air-conditioning and television were invented, and nothing has been the same since. Now Washington is the focus of their lives. They commune with the famous, they bask in the limelight, they distribute manna to the masses in exchange for votes.
The Foley scandal is just the latest eruption in what has been and will be a continuing string of reprehensible events, because the incentives remain while restraints are nonexistent. Clearly, past examples, including political ruin and prison time, have had no discernible effect on people who think, "They won't catch me."
The Republicans have the current watch, and they will suffer the consequences of their arrogance, but don't get your hopes up. If the Democrats succeed in taking over, we will be smothered in platitudes and rectitude, investigations and possible impeachment, smoke and mirrors, as Shakespeare said: "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
It would be nice if there were a light at the end of this tunnel, but if there is, it is only a train coming this way. The culture of cash and unethical behavior is so ingrained in Congress, and so accepted by the electorate, that it seems impossible to change.
Congress' approval rating may be 20 percent, but the same guys keep getting elected. That is because their parties keep nominating them, and voters, always on the lookout for spoils heading their way, keep sending them back.
As far as I know, Foley didn't actually harm anybody, and had enough decency to resign when caught. That is more than some of his colleagues, past and present, have done.
Term limits. Line-item veto. A whole lot less campaign money. No air-conditioning. Enough said.
Fred Wolferman lives in Southern Pines. Contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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