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IF PARTISANSHIP WERE FIREWORKS, CONGRESS WOULD REALLY SIZZLE

In a weird version of the pleasure principle, the masochistic Congress, to keep the dubious privilege of its scruffy little perks, is willingly baring its back to the lash of public disfavor.

It is a well-deserved whipping, though perhaps not quite as well deserved as those who are applying it the most enthusiastically believe.A recent poll found that only 5 percent of us rate Congress as doing a really good job. The rest, asked what they think of Congress, stick their fingers down their throats, though the depth varies.

Small wonder. If empty partisanship were fireworks, this year's session would have everyone oohing and ahhing. Republicans, in particular, have been abandoning even recently held positions without so much as a by-your-leave when they sniff political advantage.

The GOP, for instance, supported the crime bill in its first pass through the House and Senate, then turned on it as if it were anathema in the final vote.

In addition, the much-vaunted prospects for congressional self-improvement from the putatively reformist class of '92 have played out as feebly as ever.

There are three reasons. All of them are money.

Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley remains a dead hand on serious reform.

To their relief and gratitude, Foley has so far spared members from having to vote between doing well or doing right. He has stymied one bill that would cut the influence of special-interest PAC money and another that would require lobbying disclosure and would kill freebies.

For his part, Newt Gingrich, the GOP House whip and ever holier-than-thou (if, that is, thou art a Democrat), presides over a huge stash of political loose change in his GOPAC, refusing to reveal its high-roller contributors.

The Senate remains mired by antique devices. Its filibuster lets a minority rule, and its grants of personal privilege allow, in some instances, any single, dyspeptic member to rule. The name Jesse Helms comes to mind. Often.

Not all of this is Congress' fault.

The public indulges radio ranters and other cheap-shot artists who in one breath denounce Congress for taking special-interest campaign money and in the next ridicule efforts to substitute public finds as "welfare for politicians."

The demagogues - and most of us along with them so far - would rather hate the problem than accept the solutions.

In such an atmosphere of retail cynicism, Congress has been unable to win much notice or credit for the changes it has made for the better.

The members' disavowal a few years ago of speaking fees that were often little better than bribes was lost in a phony furor about a companion, overdue pay raise.

Little notice has been paid to the decision of the House this year finally to live by the workplace rules it has enacted for everyone else.

Give or take a few percentage points, polling now routinely finds that fully a third of us don't trust either the president or Congress about anything, any time.

The incentive for Congress to govern well is weakened when so many of us declare ourselves functionally ungovernable anyway.