An article of constitutional faith that fails in practice

This column originally was published by the author on his blog “From the Cheap Seats” on Aug. 8, 2009

CommentaryIn the waning days of George W. Bush’s presidency, there was another political entity with even lower approval ratings than his: the United States Congress. Since the inauguration of President Barack Obama, and the installation of solid Democrat majorities in both chambers, the approval ratings for Congress have continued to languish. This despite the initially stratospheric ratings of the new president.

Unfortunately, the approval ratings for President Obama have begun to slip in recent weeks. The American people apparently feel less optimistic about his effecting the change that was so anticipated with his election. Even more unfortunate is the proximal cause of any delay or diminution of his efforts or intent: the United States Congress.

Our founding fathers crafted a constitutional republic which relied significantly on legislative power for the enactment of laws and the transaction of the people’s business. The executive and judicial branches were seen as having their respective importance, but in addition to serving as a check on the power of the legislative branch.

What our founding fathers did not anticipate is the degree to which the Congress would become a virtual cesspool of unchecked corruption, rendering it, at best, an ineffectual squanderer of the people’s – and nation’s – resources and, at worst, as a suppurating abscess on the buttocks of the body politic, which threatens to destroy the entire organism.

In 1887, Britain’s Lord Acton famously wrote that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Let’s forget for the moment his stark warning about absolute power. Although attempted at various times in our national history – most notably in the last eight years – such a state of total control has never been achieved. Instead, let us deal with the equally sinister admonition about the negative effect of power – to corrupt.

During the earliest days of our republic, those serving in the Congress often found themselves there by fiat populi: The people approached those of high reputation and esteem and encouraged – sometimes demanded – their service on behalf of a willing constituency. This is not to say there was no one for whom political ambition was a principle motivation. However, many begrudgingly accepted the mantle of public service, aspiring to discharge their duty and, as quickly as practicable, return to private life. Few, if any, of the drafters of our constitution could have anticipated how an entire class of self-serving, ethically-challenged malefactors would strive to become the dominant element of our legislative branch of government.

Abraham Lincoln, arguably our greatest president, said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” By the time of the Civil War, the Congress already was well along the road of wretched excess in furtherance of wildly disparate ends on behalf of a heterogeneous population. We might assume, therefore, that Lincoln was alluding to a part of the government that was as vexing for him as secessionist states.

The first article of our constitution, which created the legislative branch and defined its scope and powers, has weathered the intervening years far more poorly than any other part of that hallowed document. To say that curruption and self-interest is rampant in our Congress is to state the obvious. And because the Congress has become a self-perpetuating club of symbiotic ass-coverers, any expectation of ethical self-governance is fatuous. Those occasions when lapses of personal integrity or even outright malfeasance wind their way into the public consciousness are the proverbial tip of the iceberg. How much more despicable behavior might be obscured from the public eye when the Congress self-protectively closes its collective ranks?

There is a solution to this execrable state of affairs, of course – a return to the earliest form of solicitation to public service. In short, if someone wants to become a member of Congress, he or she should be cast aside as one of suspect motives. Instead, the people must once again approach those in their midst who are of the highest reputation and esteem, unassailable in their modeling of integrity and ethics to others, and encourage them to shoulder the burden of public service.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest.” Sadly, honesty is in short supply in our nation’s capital. It is incumbent upon each and every one of us to demand that virtue of our elected officials. Otherwise, we are doomed to continue in our national degeneration as a result of a citizenry in servitude to its own elected servants.