Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Elementary Civics Lesson

I’m not sure when this insidious, downward spiral of evaporating morals and ethics in politics actually began. Perhaps those elected by us to govern and protect our Democracy have always had a ‘dark side,’ but it seemed so much less prolific.

As a child, taking Citizenship classes in elementary school meant acquiring the belief that only honorable men and women sacrificed higher salary and commercial gain to work for the public through government service. My history and civics teachers cited examples of elected officials as exceptional leaders to be emulated and revered. They taught me about James Madison, who wrote that the Senate should be a “temperate and respectable body of citizens,” that operates in “a cool and deliberate way.”
Today, combining the terms ‘political’ and ‘ethical’ in any sentence is considered more paradoxical than plausible. Or as George Orwell wrote, “Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Holding the highest levels of government to the highest standards also means holding the President and members of Congress as the most culpable. The upward trajectory of money and expense of getting elected has made whores of most officials. When it takes an average of eight million dollars to gain a seat in the House of Representatives, with a service term of two years; that translates into the need to raise $10,000 per day in order to ready themselves for the next term election. Is it any wonder most in Congress spend more time finding sources of income, rather than caring about our welfare, our future, or taking on tough issues for the greater good of all? And is it any wonder they are able to be cajoled through bribery; trading legislation like baseball cards, selling off closely held beliefs in order to occasionally help a bill get through and hopefully have a special interest throw some cash their way.
A Senator, serving for a six year term, requires even higher bankrolls. With greater power, comes greater cost of elections, but also greater temptation. Most recently, ‘Uncle Ted’ Stevens, Republican Senator from Alaska since before its statehood, is now under federal indictment for accepting gifts from VECO Corporation, an oil services contractor. The last sitting Senator indicted in Federal court was David Durenberger (R) of Minnesota in 1993. He, too, filed less than honest reimbursement forms, but was able to plead down to a misdemeanor, resulting in a fine of $1,000 and one-year probation. The list of honorable mentions is long, including Senator Larry Craig (R) of Idaho, whose charges of soliciting sex in an airport men’s restroom remain await trial.
It pains me to inform you that the list of criminal charges among our Congressional members is beginning to sound more like a rap artist’s rap sheet, or Hollywood Hall of Famous-for-the-wrong-reasons.
I sadly present to you a sample of offenses of which our current Congress has either been accused or convicted: 36 for spousal abuse, 7 for fraud, and 19 for bad checks. 117 have bankrupted at least two businesses, and 71 can’t get charge cards due to their past credit history. While 21 are currently defendants in a lawsuit, 14 have been arrested on drug related charges, 8 for shoplifting, and in the last year alone, 84 have been arrested for drunk driving.
There’s that great country western song, “Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys…,” but I’m thinking we should substitute “a member of Congress” in the refrain. Admittedly, I can’t get past my rather schizophrenic admiration on one hand, and disgust on the other. I have repeated confirmation that politicians are the least trustworthy of all professionals, yet I still cling to my elementary school belief that our Representatives, Senators and Presidents are noble and wise.
I saw a bumper sticker recently that put our current political state of affairs into perspective: I never thought I’d miss Nixon. Perhaps those with a leaning toward criminal behavior or a loosening of moral fiber are most likely to be successful. I do know that once elected the pressure to raise money in order to maintain power and influence might taint the ethics of even Mother Teresa. But we have to have hope. The challenge is that we must have a corrective plan of action designed and demanded by the public, not left to those tainted by the very system they’ve corrupted.
What is at stake is nothing less than the legitimacy of American democracy. As measured by my elementary school days of innocence, democracy itself has been so corrupted by the cost of elections; its very existence hangs on life support. One need only look at the youngest ‘model of democracy’ currently unfolding in Iraq, where bickering, bribery and roadblocks to compromise demonstrate what levels of hedonistic self-interest their government has fallen in their emulation of ours.
We must do better. Reinventing our system of government is not a threat to the American tradition. It is the American tradition. And that’s one Civics lesson I’ll hold onto.


Croninger said...

Are you on my right leaning downstate Illinois cousin's email list? The crimes of congress email has been going around since 1999. See Snopes http://www.snopes.com/politics/crime/congress.asp

Joe Allegretti said...

And it's interesting, isn't it, Loretta, that so many of the criminal and "moral" transgressions in recent years have been committed by standardbearers of the Grande Olde Party?

So much for the arbiters of alleged "upstanding" behavior (not to mention their supposed concern for fiscal integrity). Hypocrites should keep their noses out of my and everyone else's bedrooms.