Paul Jacob

Congress is a mess — and so is the federal government it controls. But this is nothing new. The realization that Congress is a cesspool of corruption may have been heightened by the Abramoff scandal, but is not exactly a shock. Americans have long held Congress in low esteem.

How low? A New York Times poll finds that 77 percent of us believe that lobbyists bribing members of Congress is "the way things work in Congress." Only 16 percent think the recent scandals are "isolated incidents." A Rasmussen Reports release on its polling tells us, "Americans Not Shocked by Abramoff," and that 40 percent of Americans judge used-car salesmen to be "more ethical than members of Congress."

The problem of a corrupt Congress is compounded by three bigger problems:

  1. Congress has effectively escaped citizen control,
  2. Congress has far too much power, and
  3. Congress will use this scandal not to clean up its act but to further entrench itself.

Many will quibble with the assertion that Congress is somehow beyond our control. As Lily Tomlin once joked, "Ninety-eight percent of the adults in this country are decent, hard-working, honest Americans. It's the other lousy two percent that get all the publicity. But then — we elected them."

So why not just blame the voters? Well, put it in perspective. Voters are given two choices. They switched parties barely a decade ago, replacing a corrupt Democrat-controlled Congress for one under Republican control. The new members, half of them never having served as politicians before, enacted some meaningful reforms. But the old guard Republicans remained and the incentive structure in Congress quickly turned the new Congress into nothing better than a more brash version of the power-mad Democrats they had replaced.

The voters asked for a revolution . . . and they got a slight re-arrangement of deck chairs. Sure, there are new people skimming and scheming, but there's been no substantive change.

No wonder voters have become more and more disgusted with Congress.

So how do you explain re-election rates that are consistently over 98 percent? Well, the voters could switch parties again, if they thought it would do any good. But a Rasmussen Reports poll showed that 63 percent of Americans think corruption would be as bad or worse under Democrats.

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.