Before Rep. Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the House, she promised during the Bush administration that if voters allowed Democrats to regain a congressional majority Democrats would establish "the most ethical Congress in history." Pelosi pledged to "drain the swamp" of corruption in Washington.
Not only has the swamp not been drained, Democrats have begun treating it as a hot tub. The party is a long way from achieving anything close to ethical purity. But then, so are Republicans. To most people it doesn't seem to matter who is in the majority. The results are the same.
One story serves as one of many examples of the problem. Carol Leonnig of the Washington Post reported last week about senior executives at a McLean, Va., defense firm who debated which of them should buy a ticket to a wine-tasting fundraiser for Rep. James Moran, (D-Va). Moran is a member of the Appropriations subcommittee on defense. In 2007, the company was seeking help from Moran's office for security contracts it wanted. The firm pursued special earmarks it wanted Moran to add to the defense bill.
In an email exchange, Leonnig writes, "one senior officer said he didn't understand why he had to attend the fundraiser when he didn't even drink wine.
'You don't have to drink,' Innovative Concepts chief technology officer, Andrew Feldstein shot back in an email. 'You just have to pay.' "
The fundraiser was hosted by the PMA Group, a powerful lobbying firm with "unusual success" in obtaining earmarked contracts from members of the military subcommittee. PMA has been a focus of an inquiry by the House Ethics Committee. The Post reported Moran raised "$91,900 in campaign checks to his personal campaign and leadership PAC" from the event. "He secured an $800,000 earmark for Innovative Concepts in the 2008 defense appropriations bill." But of course there was no quid pro quo. How could you think such a thing? Everyone denies such suggestions and questions the sanity of those who believe otherwise.
There are 13,740 active registered lobbyists in Washington, D.C., today, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Do the math and that comes to a little more than 25 lobbyists for each of the 535 members of Congress.
The latest to have their names added to the list of the corrupt include Charles Rangel (D-NY), David Paterson, New York's Democratic governor, and Rep. Eric Massa (D-NY). Republicans have their own hall of shame, most recently those associated with Jack Abramoff.
The problem in Washington has at least two dimensions. One is the virus of corruption that does not discriminate between parties. The other is the character of the individuals voters send to Washington, too many of whom become corrupt because they stay too long and appear too weak to withstand the pressures of lobbyists, money and the pretense that Washington power is real power.
There is a way to fix this, or at least make it better. But it would require an act of selflessness not usually associated with politics and politicians.
In the 10th district of North Carolina, the Iredell County commissioner is challenging first-term Republican congressman Patrick McHenry in the May 4 primary. Leaving aside whether one term is enough, commissioner Scott Keadle has the right attitude about serving in Congress. He told the Gaston Gazette, "The U.S. Congress is not a career. You can't possibly be a conservative and say your only job is being a legislator." Keadle has signed a pledge to serve no more than three terms. He has also promised not to vote for congressional pay raises (now automatic) and says he will not accept a congressional pension.
In the 1990s, term limits got some traction when voters demanded them for state legislators, governors and mayors. But in 1995, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that states could not impose qualifications for prospective members of the U.S. Congress stricter than those specified in the Constitution. The decision invalidated the Congressional term limit provisions of 23 states.
Another way to the same end must be found, even if it means turning out the party in power in every election until one party gets it and starts acting in the public's interest.