Congress is the first institution in the American system of government, but it is last in American hearts. On Thursday, the New York Times released a poll showing that only 25 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing. This seems too high. In an effort to drive that number down to zero, here are three of my own reasons for disliking Congress.
1.The Timid Majority. Yesterday, I was one of a small group of reporters who ate lunch with a Republican congressman. He was thoughtful and blunt about the problems that face his party in the coming election—which is why I can’t name him. He has criticized the conduct of the war in Iraq in public and to the president in private. He believes that if there is not a change in strategy soon, Americans will not support a war strategy that he characterized as “just stay and let American kids die.” This member says many of his GOP colleagues have a similar view and privately articulate sharp criticisms and suggestions for new action. But they’re not going to say anything in public now. Why? They don’t want to hurt the GOP’s election chances by appearing to criticize the president. “Reality has been suspended for a moment,” says the member. “Republicans cannot speak out publicly on this issue right now.”
2.47 Days of Spit and Snarl. If you think you hate Congress now, just wait a few days. From now until Election Day, candidates will increase their low-minded attacks on their opponents. Republicans are likely to be the greater offenders. They have more money to spend on ads and a record to run away from. Better to focus on a Democratic opponent’s deficiencies than the GOP’s dismal congressional record or President Bush’s unpopular policies. The GOP offered a glimpse of the hardball they are planning during the recent Rhode Island GOP primary. Thursday, the GOP launched a set of attacks aimed at frightening voters about the prospect of a Democratic majority in Congress. But that doesn’t mean Democrats are going to offer sunrises and flower petals. Both parties know that while voters may complain about negative ads, the ads work.
3.Abramoff, Shabramoff. When disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff pled guilty, members of Congress made sweeping promises about ending lobbyist-paid junkets and meals, reforming the ethics system, and changing the rules that govern when and how former staffers and members can lobby. Then, the public forgot and so did Congress. Reform legislation was bogged down in disagreements between the House and Senate as members of both bodies tried to protect their perks. Stories of indicted lawmakers bought off with hookers and gambling trips still couldn’t break their resolve to hold firm and do nothing. As the session comes to a close, all that has been adopted is a flaccid internal rule in the House of Representatives that will force members to attach their names to special-interest earmarks inserted in tax and spending bills, often at the request of lobbyists. It was heralded as a major initiative by its proponents, but the resolution would address only a small fraction of such earmarks and, as an internal rule, will expire at the end of the current session—that is, in just a few weeks. The one time in the last year that both parties woke themselves to move quickly on the question of corruption was to complain that FBI agents had no right to search the office of William Jefferson, a Democratic congressman under investigation for bribery.
Please feel free to add these three to your own stack of complaints. And tell me some of yours, and I will add them to mine.