Paul Jacob

No matter who wins the presidency, we've already lost the Congress.

I don't mean as Republicans, or Democrats, but as Americans. And I don't mean on election day, because this election day, or any election day, is no longer where such things are decided. Not for Congress.

Through the wonders of incumbency, our Congress has overcome the electorate. Incumbents run in districts specially gerrymandered for their re-election, with all the advantages they can possibly vote themselves. And, cycle after cycle, 98 percent of incumbents win, with little or no competition and by yawningly large margins.

Healthy institutions must contain the ability to correct themselves, to reform. Clearly, Congress does not. Nothing shows the national out-of-body experience Congress has become more completely than this week's "public admonishment" of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

Mr. DeLay was brought before a committee of his lofty peers over three specific allegations:

  1. That he offered a quid pro quo benefit in exchange for a colleague's vote.
  2. That DeLay sold his influence in shaping government policy for contributions to political entities he controlled, or that it might have "looked that way."
  3. That he used governmental resources for a partisan political undertaking.

As to the first allegation, DeLay freely admits that he offered to endorse Brad Smith in a competitive Republican primary in Michigan, if only Brad's father, Congressman Nick Smith, would vote for a huge expansion of the federal government, in this case, the expensive Medicare prescription drug entitlement.

Immediately after the vote, Congressman Smith also said that he was offered $100,000 in campaign funds for his son, Brad, in exchange for his vote. But later, Smith backed off that claim. To Smith's credit, whatever attempted bribery took place, it did not entice him to switch his vote.

Certainly, DeLay broke House rules. But after months of investigation, here's what the watchdogs on the ethics panel had to say in a 62-page report: "In the view of the Investigative Subcommittee, this conduct could support a finding that Majority Leader DeLay violated House rules."

It could, eh? No more than that. On matters of ethics, politicians possess a certain gift for understatement.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.