Nobody's perfect

Posted: Oct 10, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

The committee went on to recommend no further investigation and suggested that the "public admonishment" of mailing their mealy-mouthed letter of rebuke would terrify the frail DeLay and be punishment enough.

DeLay was also accused of using his powerful position as House Majority Leader to shake down contributions to various political entities under his influence. A Kansas-based energy company named Westar sought more favorable federal rules and regulations. During consideration of a major energy bill, Tom DeLay held a fundraising event where he raked in a good deal of dough from Westar executives.

But here, again, the committee has no standard with which to hold DeLay to account. Virtually every member of Congress raises money from those with interests before the Congress, especially since Congress has an interest in everything from the snacks I feed my kids to the amount of water in my toilet.

The letter of rebuke tells DeLay that "other aspects of the fundraiser that would have been unobjectionable otherwise had the effect, in these specific circumstances, of furthering the appearance that the contributors were receiving impermissible special treatment or access."

But how can one know how something will "appear" to others? To most of us with eyes, ears and brain cells, the appearance of corruption in Congress is pervasive.

Lastly, Mr. DeLay is accused of using federal government resources to further his own political ends. During a redistricting squabble, a number of Texas Democratic state legislators fled their state by airplane to deny Republicans a quorum for passing legislation to redistrict the state's voters. Tom DeLay contacted the helpful people at the Federal Aviation Administration, asking them to find the plane. He wanted to make sure that his redistricting plan would put five seats held by Democratic incumbents in jeopardy.

DeLay is in the wrong here. The FAA is not his personal flight tracker. If he didn't break the law or House rules, the law and the rules need to be updated. But again, he is not held to account. Nor are others.

In the letter that serves as the tough penalty meted out to DeLay, the House ethics tribunal acknowledges it functions outside any sensible rules of justice, writing, "As you are aware, it does not suffice for any House Member to assert that his or her actions violated no law, or violated no specific prohibition or requirement of the House Rules. The House Code of Official Conduct broadly requires that every House Member, officer and employee 'conduct himself at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House.'"

But, as I've had repeated opportunity in my Common Sense e-letter to demonstrate, the Congress has no "credibility" left to reflect badly upon. Sure, this is an argument for term limits. But it is also a terribly sad recognition of how degenerated the flagship institution of American democracy has become. And the enormous job ahead of us to turn it around.

Of course, Democratic House Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi now champions reform, calling for more investigations and for DeLay to step down. Yet, that only makes one wonder why this committee hasn't investigated her illegal funneling of $100,000 to various Democratic incumbents in the last election, for which the FEC fined her.

DeLay's behavior, performed either more or less skillfully, is the norm, it is the everyday business of the career politicians who have hijacked our Congress. Power at all costs.

Let this column be "public admonishment" for Mr. DeLay and the entire Congress. But while we still can, let us go to work at the state and local level, where voters can still make a difference, to restore citizen control of government.

Then, over time, maybe more power can be wrested from a Congress that today is so hopelessly lost.