Not long ago, a reader reminded me that Members of the U.S. Congress, House, and Senate must meet no experience or qualifying credentials to pursue or hold public office. That disquieting thought sparked this reminder spoken by Abraham Lincoln, "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power." My personal observation over a few score years watching elected representatives is that, as a general rule, they are of poor quality character. So it is not unexpected that chicanery, bribery, and theft are not uncommon on Capitol Hill, the seat of our government, a place where law and money intersect and overwhelmingly out of the public eye and control. Recent news indicates various types of illegal behavior for a disproportionately large percentage of Members compared to the general population. The number of felony and ethical failures in a small body of 435 Representatives plus 100 Senators is appalling.
Members of Congress William Jefferson (D-LA) and Randy Cunningham (R-CA now in prison) provide blatant examples of corruption. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) and Patrick Kennedy (D-MA) provide the world a role model of people who believe themselves above the laws that others must follow-McKinney hitting a Capitol policeman who had not recognized her in her exalted position, and Kennedy driving "under the influence" and reckless without being held to any accountability. We also have Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) steering $48.7M to the spouse of his office senior staffer for 13 "earmarked projects"; Congressman John Doolitle (R-CA) arranging $37M in earmarks for a firm whose political action committee gave his re-election campaign $85,000; and Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) accepting $8,000 for her 2006 campaign from an agent (Hassan Namazee) for Iranian President Mahmoud Amhadinejad. These infractions, real or alleged, smell bad and are bad, but because each Member has high probability of no retribution, they act with impunity. Any reasonable person could examine the records and determine that these are all people building a legacy of lies, arrogance, and greed. Notice that they carry all political stripes, and a transgression catalog (real and alleged) can be seen www.corruptionchronicles.com.
More than a thousand U.S. officials, military, and law enforcement personnel have been convicted over the past two years for illegal conduct (177 federal, 158 state, 360 local, and 365 law enforcement), a 25% increase between 2004 and 2005, with a current 2,200 open investigations underway at all levels and consuming resources of 600 FBI agents. But what is so riveting are the overwhelming instances of impropriety and illegality among the 535 Members of Congress. Think of this: 1 in 136 Americans (0.735% of the population) is in prison today for whatever various reasons. My inference is that at least three to five times the criminal population rate are Members of Congress. But don't take my word for it. Mark Twain said, "There is no distinctly native American criminal class...save Congress."
Further, the arrogance of many Members is palpable. Two current examples come to mind. One regards the vast majority of U.S. citizens (90% in polls) wanting illegal immigrant curtailments but most elected politicians, pandering to the marginal fringes for perceived favor and gain, completely ignore constituent views. One staffer stated that the Member "doesn't care what you think because he's not up for election." A second example regards social security reforms and the fact that nothing has happened to correct the system's coming insolvency. Our major concern should be that Members are exempt from contribution to social security and have a private pension plan that pays 100% of salary for life after five years of "elected" status. It is often suggested and might be a good idea to not vote for incumbents, if they refuse to require making Member retirement via social security like all other Americans. The quality of Congressional governance would be greatly improved if Members could not exempt themselves from any law or regulation.
A way to assist this happening is for private industry to begin education programs for employees, not to indoctrinate them in how to vote but to teach them facts about how government operates, conveyed with a strong message about the foolishness of allowing incumbency to be a rule instead of an exception. Term limits are not the answer. A well-educated electorate that is willing to make their voice heard by not reelecting incompetents and crooks is the answer.