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.

And switching parties wouldn't be easy, even with a slim Republican majority. You see, incumbents have voted themselves so many advantages that voters wind up with almost no viable alternatives. Most political observers are familiar with the litany of freebies to which incumbents take advantage: radio and TV studios used to beam messages back home, mass mailings to voters. But the real advantage incumbents in Congress have is power. A large part of that power is the trillions of dollars they spend, some in slices of pork they can send back home, and for which they take full credit.

But their power doesn't just stop there. Congress also has the power to regulate. Congress can make or break any business in America. Got a competitor? Congress has regulations! We're talking power that is worth trillions more. Good, negotiable power. So, is it surprising that interested parties would hire lobbyists to protect themselves or advance their own economic agenda?

The solution? The power of individual congressmen must be reduced by limiting time in office. And the awesome power that the federal government has snatched from the people and the states must be pried out of the fed's cold, callous fingers.

As U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) put it, "The problem is us," adding, "We're not going to change anything till we change the motivation that the next election is more important than anything else."

But reforming themselves is not on the agenda of Congress. Nor is reducing congressional power. Instead, Congress is looking to enact band-aid reforms along with attacks on free speech by groups that might seek to take politicians to task. Somehow one way to reduce the public's disgust for Congress is to prevent the groups from speaking out about it.

Already the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law has silenced many non-profit citizen lobbies from speaking out on the public airwaves anytime close to an election, and Congress is still ruminating on to whether or not to regulate the Internet's blogs. Recently, a radio talk show host's comments were found to constitute a "contribution" in a political campaign and thus, according to a judge, would allow state regulation of his talk show.

That's not enough. U.S. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) are now looking to further restrict 527s that have been vocal during political campaigns and other vehicles for grassroots communications. As Lieberman put it, "We now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reach agreement on a broad set of lobbying reforms that will reduce the cynicism."

But cynicism is highly called for. Today, to be cynical about government just means you have your eyes open. To seek to squash cynicism is to suppress truth.

And good ol' Joe Lieberman and John McCain aren't alone in their desire to squash honest dissent. After all, how can they and their friends on Capitol Hill be sure of re-election if all of a sudden there was unfettered free speech and everyone started speaking truth to power? Why, the whole corrupt system might fall apart!


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.