Members of Congress return to Washington this week. After afall in which their tenure was characterized by unprecedentedinaction, politicians who occupy positions of public trust willattempt once more to act as public servants.
Unfortunately, the track record on which Congress returnscannot inspire confidence.
Consider the dramatic failure of federal officials to doanything that might merit their $12,500-a-month salaries during thelast months of 2001. A war was launched after four hours ofcongressional debate, civil liberties were undermined with just onedissenting vote in the Senate, and billions in corporate welfarepayouts were approved while laid-off workers were denied basicprotections.
Even as they constitute themselves anew, there are noguarantees that federal lawmakers will govern with the requisitecommitment to pursue the public good. Indeed, there were all too fewsigns on the eve of the new sitting of Congress that any good willcome of its gatherings.
This was the disturbing prospect we pondered Sunday in thesmall Wisconsin town of Sauk City, where I spoke to that community’shistoric Free Congregation on the eve of my return to Washington.
Members of the 150-year-old congregation had asked me todiscuss the subject of “Integrity in Politics.” We had agreed on thetopic before the whole Enron scandal began to spin out of control.But, even without the overwhelming evidence of political corruptionon the part of Republicans and a good many Democrats so far exposedin the burgeoning scandal, it would have been easy to make the casethat political integrity is in short supply these days.
I appreciated the invitation from the good freethinkers ofSauk City as an opportunity to discuss the current crisis with somegrassroots Americans before returning to the surreal world ofWashington, circa 2002. I did not insult them by restating theobvious: that campaign money has warped our politics. They did notneed to be told that reform of election financing is no longer a goodidea but an absolute necessity. What they were interested in was thedeeper question of how things got so bad in Washington that a scandalof the proportions of the Enron debacle could unfold without thecertainty that members of the Bush administration and Congress wouldbe removed from office for their blatant wrongdoing.
The notion I suggested was that the current crisis has lessto do with campaign money — as corrupting as it may be — than withthe most damaging of all forces in politics and governance: Theimpulse toward “bipartisanship.”
Bipartisanship is still regularly promoted by many in themedia and the political class — especially the Enron-financedaffiliates of the thoroughly corrupted Democratic Leadership Council– as the antidote to the messy work of governing. (It is notablethat, according to the Federal Election Commission records, the DLC’spolitical arm, the New Democrat Network, has collected more than$250,000 in contributions from firms tied to the Enron scandal. EnronCorp. gave the Network — for which scandal investigating US Sen. JoeLieberman, D-Conn., serves as a combination icon/rainmaker — $25,000in 2000. Enron’s “auditors” at Arthur Andersen gave the Network$20,000 last year.)
Bipartisanship as it is currently practiced in Washington islittle more than an excuse to get Democrats to help hold open thedoor through which corrupting influence enters the Capitol. And,while Center for Responsive Politics surveys show that Enron’spolitical action committee and Enron executives showed a 3-1preference for Republicans in their campaign contributing, enoughDemocrats collected those Enron-linked checks to prevent this fromever being an easy, Watergate-style scandal. Already, conservativecommentators have seized on the evidence of big-name Democrats withties to Enron — a substantial number of whom fall into the DLC camp,as Enron executives consistently used their campaign giving to rewardDemocrats who supported its pro-free trade agenda on votes regardingthe North American Free Trade Agreement and related legislationfavored by so-called “New Democrats.” (U.S. Trade RepresentativeRobert Zoellick, Bush’s pointman in the fight to win Congressionalapproval for a grant of “fast track” authority to negotiate a FreeTrade Area of the Americans agreement was paid $50,000 to serve on anEnron advisory board in 2000, at the same time he was helping toshape the Bush campaign’s trade policies. But among the high-dollarrecipients of contributions from Enron PAC and Enron executives wereDemocrats such as California Rep. Cal Dooley, the leading pointmanfor free-trade Democrats; and the top House recipient of Enron-linkedcash, in either party, was Texas Democrat Ken Bentsen, who hascollected $42,750 over the past decade.)
When Democrats join Republicans in practicing the politics ofcooperation and compromise, with both parties embracing acorporations-uber-alles ethic, Enron scandals are the predictableresult. As Democrats abandon ideological differences with Republicansin order to occupy a murky middle of the political spectrum, leadersof both parties no longer spend much time fashioning policy. Instead,they busy themselves collecting contribution checks from the samecorporate sources and integrity is invariably sacrificed on the altarof political expedience.
When, despite the best efforts of the CongressionalProgressive Caucus, the ideological divide between CongressionalDemocrats and Republicans on issues of corporate power and influencecontinues to narrow, the quality of the discourse is not the onlything that suffers. The failure on the part of too many Democraticleaders, especially those in the orbit of the Democratic LeadershipCouncil, to draw lines of distinction between a party of corporationsand a party of the rest of us has made sessions of Congress littlemore than seasons of posturing to please potential contributors.Anyone who doubts this reality need only consider the course of theeconomic stimulus package debate of December, in which Democrats andRepublicans displayed a unique form of bipartisanship: Determined toposition their parties for the 2002 Congressional elections,”leaders” on both sides were united in their willingness to donothing, even as hundreds of thousands of laid off workers edgedcloser to the cut-off point for their unemployment benefits.
This argument that bipartisanship does more harm than goodwas well accepted by the freethinkers of Sauk City; indeed, thecomments from the crowd regarding the failings of both parties were agood deal more scathing than anything the folks heard from theirspeaker. Experience with crowds in cities and towns across thecountry tells me that this sentiment is a common one. Citizens at thegrassroots do not want Congress to become a snakepit of partisanbackbiting. But they recognize that democracy cannot function so longas both major political parties report to the same corporatepaymasters.
Beyond the Beltway, there is not much confusion about whatails our politics. Citizens well understand that so long as Democratscontinue to position themselves as the second party of big business,the Enron scandal will not be the end of this dark passage. It willsimply be another reminder that political integrity is impossiblewithout political ideology.