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.”