Not too long ago in our frontier days, snake oil salesmen roamed the land claiming cures for "everything that ails you."
Now the Republican-led Congress, which claimed it would heal us from 40 years of "corrupt" Democratic Party rule, has gone into full "reform" mode, promising to cure the disease from which too many of them now suffer.
"Step right up, my fellow Americans, here's what I'm gonna do. If you buy this stuff from us - yes us, the Republicans who helped perpetuate the disease of entitlement programs, deficit spending and pork barrel legislation - we're going to make you feel better . while keeping ourselves in office."
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Rep. John Boehner, who wants to replace Tom DeLay as House majority leader, says, "The Republican agenda is at risk because of a growing perception that Congress is for sale." A growing perception? Could that have anything to do with the reality that Congress appears to be for sale?
It's not just about the corrupt lobbying of Jack Abramoff. He is a symptom of a greater problem. The problem being that too many in Congress - Republicans and Democrats - come to Washington less to serve the nation than to serve themselves. They become drunk on power and perks, acquiring their own sense of entitlement. Their goal is to stay and die with their expensive shoes on.
Boehner continues: "The guilty plea of Rep. Randy 'Duke' Cunningham for bribery . and rumors of future indictments have all cast a pall over the public perception of the House of Representatives and corroded the public trust in our collective commitment to principle."
Now there's a laugh. A collective commitment to principle? Can Boehner name one beyond tax cuts? My standard opening line on the lecture circuit is "I'm happy to be here tonight from Washington, D.C., where the only politicians with convictions are in prison." People get it.
Republicans are supposed to be about less spending and smaller government. Instead, they have presided over larger and more expensive government, creating a new entitlement government of the kind they used to rail against when Democrats were in power. It doesn't help that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi claims Republicans have created a "culture of corruption," because House Democrats are part of that same culture and have their own history with it.
A recent Wall Street Journal editorial lays out a proposal for meaningful reform that includes ending spending earmarks through which individual members can take our money to waste on projects near and dear only to them; a rewrite of the 1974 Budget Act, sold as a reform, but which has made it easier for Congress to tax and spend; and six-year term limits on the appropriations committees to "neutralize the power of the 13 subcommittee chairmen - known as the College of Cardinals - who are a major obstacle to budget reform."
Here's another idea: Congress should be forced by public opinion to submit to what in labor disputes is known as binding arbitration. An independent commission - not unlike the Grace Commission of the Reagan years - that identified waste, fraud and abuse in government and made some headway before members fell off the spending wagon - should be given the power to impose reforms on Congress in order that "we the people" might benefit for a change. Among them should be term limits for everybody. The Founding Fathers did not foresee a permanent political class, out of touch with the people and in touch only with their careers and self-interests.
The people in the institution that brought us the problem are unlikely to solve it. They have tried and failed many times. Only an outside commission (or putting true reform-minded members in charge, like Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana) will accomplish real and long-lasting change.
Unless Congress and the public get serious about reform, things won't get any better, even if the Democrats win a majority in the fall elections. So what will it be, real reform, or more snake oil?