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Another Reason Americans Hate Congress -- and Want Reform

David Callahan

Americans don't need more reasons to distrust Congress these days, with polls showing record levels of public disapproval of the legislative  branch. Yet the reasons keep coming -- like the fact, as I wrote yesterday, that so many lawmakers and congressional staffers morph into highly paid lobbbyists the moment they leave Capitol Hill. Or the insider trading by lawmakers that has been getting so much attention lately.

Today comes yet another discouraging report about Congress: The Washington Post reports that some lawmakers have used earmarks to "send tax dollars to companies, colleges and community groups where their spouses, children and parents work as salaried employees, lobbyists or board members. . . "

The Post story is extensive, with many examples of this practice that I won't recount here. And the story notes that nobody can ever recall a lawmaker being disciplined for channeling funds to a project involving a relative.

This story is so insidious because it underscores a major reason that Americans distrust government, which is that many believe that politicians and bureaucrats are out for themselves, putting their own interests above those of ordinary citizens. By and large, of course, that charge is way off: many of those working in government are making financial and personal sacrifices to serve the public interest. But enough stories about corruption keep coming along to make the reverse seem true, with the exceptions appearing to be the rule.

I have written elsewhere that tackling corruption in government is an essential step, maybe the most essential, if we want Americans to again start trusting the public sector. It's also essential that progressives, who have historically been on the forefront of fighting corruption, own this issue -- which, unfortunately, is not the case right now.

As for Congress, it's getting clearer every day that new reforms are needed to clean up this branch of government and that ethics rules have lagged behind here. As Craig Holman of Public Citizen told the Post:

The executive branch has far stricter ethics standards than Congress does — and Congress has set these standards. . . . The executive branch can’t steer contracts or work to businesses where family members work. They can’t even own stock in industries that they oversee, unlike Congress. It’s complete hypocrisy.

Things are not looking good for Congressional incumbents facing re-election in November. In fact, it's fair to say that no Congress in U.S. history has been more loathed than this one. Of course, there's lot of reasons for that which have nothing to do with corruption. Still, members of Congress should put the next eight months to good use and enact reforms that reassure Americans that government works for the public interest.