Our Corrupt Congress

No political system is without corruption  — in fact, corruption is the driving force behind the governments of many third-world nations such as Mexico.  Here in the United States, we expect better.  But let’s face it.  Our Senate and House of Representatives are packed with corrupt politicians.

The list of current and recent members who have been embroiled in scandal, or who have seen prison time, knows no boundaries — not gender, not race and not party affiliation.

On the Republican side there’s Mark Foley, Rusty “Duke” Cunningham, Tom Delay, Bob Ney and lots of others.  On the Democratic side, there’s Edward M. Kennedy, Barney Frank, Harry Reid, William Jefferson, Dan Rostenkowski and many more.  The person considered as the Democratic front-runner for the presidential nomination is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton who has been involved in more scandals that any other member of Congress in recent memory.  She was a prime mover in several scandals — the cattle futures caper, the case of the missing Rose Law Firm records and the White House Travel Office fiasco.  Wikipedia even has an article entitled “Hillary Clinton controversies” and lists 23 of them.

We don’t ask much from our elected officials anymore.  And we don’t get it.

Reform is tough, because we have to ask the people who would be the subject of that reform to write the legislation and pass it.  Most of the time, our elected officials are too self-serving to allow real reform to slip into law.  So it’s hard to get it through.  But if it did happen, there are three little reforms that would restore the citizen legislature that our Founders envisioned.

First, let’s abolish the Income Tax Code.  It’s the Code that gives government its special power over us.  If government wants us to act in a certain way, the Code is the way to do it.  Bill Clinton talked endlessly about “targeted tax cuts,” meaning that if certain people behave in certain ways, the government will reward them with lower taxes.  It’s effective, but it has led to an incomprehensible Tax Code and a rush of lobbyists whose job it is to get their clients wishes fulfilled with regard to what’s deductible and what’s not.  Abolish the Code, and there’s not much need for McCain-Feingold or any other campaign finance laws.

Second, let’s install term limits.  This is an unfulfilled plank in the old Contract With America.   It was a great idea that will never be passed unless the electorate demands it — since it is another diminishment of the power of office.  If you’ve ever wondered why it’s so hard to defeat incumbents, it’s because they spend so much of their time building campaign “war chests,” and sneaking earmarks into bills to buy elections.  These officials believe that the most important issue to the well being of the country is their own reelection. A limit of 12 years seems about right.  Six terms in the House or two in the Senate.  Then, run for some other office, or hang it up.

Third, let’s install a lifetime ban on any elected official at the state or federal level from ever being a professional lobbyist.  The revolving door in our state capitals and in Washington is a tremendous source of corruption.  Sometimes, legislators stay in office long enough to vest themselves in the generous retirement they voted for themselves — and then head for K Street or whatever’s comparable in the state capitals. 

With these three reforms, look at the messes we wouldn’t be in right now.  Earmarks wouldn’t be as big, our system of entitlements could be repaired without all the political aspects figuring in, illegal immigration could be illegal again, April 15th would be just another nice day and no one would be indicted or doing jail time because of Jack Abramoff.  Teddy Kennedy would have been gone a long time ago.  So would pork pigs like Sen. Robert Byrd and Sen. Ted Stevens. 

We need a better brand of legislator working for us, but incumbents are unlikely to change.   The best way to make it happen is to extract promises from candidates, and then once we elect them, hold their feet to the fire.