Right now, Congress is not in session. They are taking some time off. Yesterday was a national holiday, so as is customary, our legislators have taken leave of the capital for the entire week. Would it be unnecessarily burdensome were they to stay away for the remainder of the session? Do we really need them to pass any more laws this year?
A legislative branch is not a luxury, something that a constitutional democracy can do without, yet it is interesting to ponder a couple of the consequences were Congress to throw up its hands, take the ball and go home, lower the shutters, and just stay away until January.
There would be no ethics reform. But no real progress has been made on that front anyway. On the day Jack Abramoff pled guilty, members of Congress were falling over each other, pledging to end the culture of corruption that had poisoned the House and the Senate to any reporter willing to listen. There were going to be hearings, laws were going to be passed, corrupt members were going to be outed and prosecuted. Two members of the House did find their careers ended; House majority leader Tom DeLay was forced to resign (not specifically regarding his relations with lobbyists, but more to do with his indictment for money laundering), and California Representative Randall Cunningham is currently serving jail time for accepting bribes. A week ago, Representative Richard Jefferson of Louisiana had his home and office searched in connection with another bribery investigation. The wheels would seem to be turning, but they are not.
The most significant action Congress could take to deterring corruption on Capitol Hill is by passing full disclosure laws. The connections between dollars and votes these laws could establish is essential, yet Congress predictably has placed only as much emphasis on real reform as mirrors the public’s attention span. In this case, staying home would be good for the country, because at least then there would be no Congressmen in town to bribe.
Of course, other than passing laws, another essential function of Congress is oversight. Our system of checks and balances was set up by the framers to prevent one of the three branches from garnering too much power for itself. Congressional oversight in particular is a way to keep the Executive Branch honest. Without the prying eyes of our duly elected representatives, George W. Bush’s transition from president to emperor would proceed unabated. Without the tough questions asked by our legislators, the president would be able to appoint a man to the Supreme Court who at times in his career has championed the idea of the unitary executive, or he could appoint an Attorney General who was instrumental as White House Counsel in developing the White House’s legal justifications for condoning torture and denying prisoners due process. Worst of all, without oversight, the president could wage an unprovoked war using manipulated intelligence while at the same time failing to anticipate the messy aftermath of toppling a regime, all without being held accountable by the people holding the purse strings.
Those purse strings are important. Congress levees taxes, cuts them, and distributes the revenue that makes our government go. But seeing as how we are running a huge deficit, maybe it would be better for Congress to stay away from the ATM for a while for anything but emergency appropriations for the coming hurricane season. The budget may not be able to handle any more Congressional action at this time.
Would it be good for our country if the hot wind blowing off of Capitol Hill were to cease for a few months? Legislators would have you think that such a sustained gale is necessary to keep the facades of Washington from toppling into the streets, but beyond cutting the checks to keep this great nation humming, perhaps there is no good left to be done this year by the 535 men and women who legislate, or don’t legislate, in our names.
Addendum: June 6, 2006 — Now that both houses have returned to their duties, the above rant seems like a reasonable request. This week, Congress will, among other things, consider three issues. Two are designed for no other reason than to rally the Republican’s ultraconservative base, which the GOP fears will stay home on election day. The third further distances our fiscal bottom line from reality, and is dangerous to the economical health of the country. Make no mistake, some Democrats will cross party lines to vote with the GOP, but this week is yet another typically shameful example of just how poorly Republican leadership has represented the interests of the American people.
This week Congress will tackle the pressing issues of anti-gay marriage (prompted by the White House) and anti-flag burning amendments to the Constitution. Neither of these amendments has a hope of passing the Senate, the supposedly even-headed of the two houses, but that is not the point. It is parliamentary trickery which forces members of Congress to vote and establish their records, which the Republicans can use to rally their base. Never mind that these amendments devalue the Constitution (an anti-gay marriage amendment would have the dubious distinction of enshrining discrimination into our most important document). The Republicans are up against the ropes, and anything that raises the blood of their base and gets them motivated to vote rather than stay home is fair game. In addition, by attacking gay marriage, the GOP is carrying out yet more of the wink wink nudge nudge bigotry that it has used to its advantage ever since the Democrats lost the south due to the civil rights laws of the fifties and sixties.
Also this week, the Senate is expected to vote to abolish the Estate Tax. The assault on this tax by interest groups and political leadership has been quite the exercise in sophistry, if not outright deception. The GOP in particular has successfully portrayed the Estate Tax as a crushing burden on regular families who wish to pass on the fruits of a lifetime of hard work to their children. They have stoked the flames with images of farms being auctioned off and small business sold, all to cover the tax on the dead. Never mind that these images are false. The tax only affects the estates of multimillionaires — an inconvenient fact shielded from the bulk of the country.
One of the vehicles of this success has been the incredible belief of a large portion of the American public that they will be rich someday. Much of the high approval rating that repealing the tax receives in polls must come from this interesting demographic. It could be this rating that is driving Congress to attempt a repeal, but it could also be their current blind focus on cutting taxes no matter the country’s fiscal straits, or it could just be another instance in which Congress protects the wealthiest among us at the expense of the less fortunate. Don’t forget that while this tax break for the well off is being pushed through to a vote, Congress has been cutting programs that help the poor. All of this while paying for a war, and hamstringing our ability to get out from under a growing burden of debt. Congress, go home.