I’ve been bothered lately, not just by the recklessness by certain members of Congress, but by the blatancy of it all.
Florida Representative Tim Mahoney defiantly telling reporters that the issue of extramarital affairs he had while in office is a “private matter.”
Louisiana Representative William Jefferson indicted on 16 corruption-related charges, unashamedly telling constituents that, in spite of $90,000 in cash found in his freezer, “I will be vindicated.”
Idaho Senator Larry Craig who pled guilty to indecent conduct in a Minneapolis bathroom announces he will resign his office at the end of September, then changes his mind. (He’s gone now. Finally!)
And now, Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, convicted on all seven counts of corruption, has the temerity to run for re-election with the support of local Party officials; officials who areurging voters to return a convicted felon to the U.S. Senate.
Frustrated, I went looking for some answers.
Late yesterday, I tracked down a 15-year Washington staffer who would be willing to offer some clarity, but only agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.
Let’s call her Betsy.
Me: I realize that the majority of elected officials are honest, hard-working people. Then there are the other folks, Betsy: Tim Mahoney, William Jefferson, Larry Craig; individuals who are not only demonstrably unethical but seem to take pride in defending themselves at the cost to their constituents.
Ted Stevens, for example: here you have the Alaska G.O.Purging Alaskans to vote for a convicted felon! What’s going to happen if this guy gets re-elected?
Betsy: If he is re-elected I would be surprised if he is not expelled by the Senate. The minority leader [Mitch McConnell] has called for him to resign as has McCain and Palin.
Me: Don’t you get angry when you see people abuse the system?
Betsy: It’s not a perfect system. It’s like the old line about sausage being made, you don’t want to watch it! However, the whole process would work a lot better if people would just be nicer. But you can’t legislate that. My hope is that a new president may just lower the temperature a few degrees, get away from the partisan rhetoric and focus on the issues at hand.
But, lowering the temperature requires both sides, and if one side starts throwing brickbats, the other side is going to throw back.
Me: However, we elect these people to act like leaders. It’s there job to get in there and debate, form consensus and compromise where it’s needed.
Betsy: I think that a new administration and new president would go a long way to change the current situation. I guess I take a long view on this thing.
Me: You’ve been there for 15 years, how long do you have to wait to see a meaningful change in behavior?
Betsy: If you look at the history of politics for the last 200 years or so, there really wasn’t a time when this kind of thing wasn’t going on.
Me: Shouldn’t we expect better?
Betsy: People are passionate about certain issues, and their representatives are passionate about getting things accomplished. Sometimes they get a little out of control.
The hope is that leaders on both sides will help bridge the differences and allow a more civil dialog to take place that leads to positive action on the issues people care about.
I think it’s when times are toughest that people begin to focus and get things done. My hope is that that time has come.
Me: I hope you’re right, Betsy.
* * *
There’s a building in Washington bounded by Constitution Avenue, C Street, First Street, and Second Street N.E. It’s named after Senator Philip Hart. The front of the building bears this inscription:
“This building is dedicated by his colleagues to the memory of Philip A. Hart with affection, respect, and esteem. A man of incorruptible integrity and personal courage strengthened by inner grace and outer gentleness, he elevated politics to a level of purity that will forever be an example to every elected official. He advanced the cause of human justice, promoted the welfare of the common man, and improved the quality of life. His humility and ethics earned him his place as the conscience of the Senate.”
I offer this advice to members of Congress: When considering any questionable or difficult issue, ask yourselves, “What would Philip Hart do?” Then, act accordingly.