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The Abominations of Congress

Our last best chance to save the legislative branch from itself

More than twenty years ago Charles Lewis noted in The Buying of the Congress that for most Americans the national legislature is “a distant abomination.” You can put the emphasis on “distant”—fewer than half the citizenry can name their representative and even fewer can name both their senators. Or you can emphasize the “abomination,” since most people are aware that Congress is perennially in the grip of the high-paid influencers who haunt its marbled lobbies and fund congressional campaigns. It’s part of our national folklore to believe, as Mark Twain put it, “There is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”

In a simpler age it was customary to find humor in the fact that some of the most, um, ordinary intellects stumbled into the august chambers of the United States Congress. Today’s longest-serving House member, Alaska Republican Don Young, is known for sometimes brandishing a penis bone of a walrus—and for once pulling a knife on former Speaker John Boehner. Louisiana Democrat Rep. William Jefferson was indicted in 2007 for taking about a half million dollars in bribes. The FBI found $90,000 in his freezer.

Most people are aware that Congress is perennially in the grip of the high-paid influencers who haunt its marbled lobbies and fund congressional campaigns.

When I was a grade school student, I became aware that there was a man who represented me in Congress, sent to Washington, D.C., from our Second Congressional District in Indiana. His name was Earl Landgrebe, and he was a Republican, as were most people in the district of small towns in Northwest Indiana’s Lake and Porter counties. Yet in the summer of 1974, when I was riveted to the televised Watergate hearings and was becoming aware that the president was corrupt, and that some Republicans were beginning to acknowledge as much, I also learned that my own representative was unable to speak intelligently about the national crisis.

The House had voted earlier that year 410–4 to authorize the Judiciary Committee to start impeachment hearings. Rep. Landgrebe was among the four dissenting voters. He was loyal to Nixon all the way to the end: the day before Nixon resigned Landgrebe made himself famous by telling a reporter, “Don’t confuse me with the facts. I’ve got a closed mind. I will not vote for impeachment. I’m going to stick with my president even if he and I have to be taken out of this building and shot.” That was the year the magazine New Times named Landgrebe to their “Ten Dumbest Congressmen” list.

To be young in America, in every generation, is to become at least vaguely aware that an incompetent and malignant Congress is not entirely funny. These people can get you killed. It was a clear and present danger when neither party was able to put a stop to the Vietnam War, and again when Congress authorized George W. Bush & Co. in 2002 to launch an invasion of Iraq. And it’s true today, as any high school student knows who walks through metal detectors and endures “active shooter” drills at school: Congress, despite its constant protestations, has a long record of negligence when it comes to meaningful national security—especially for young and marginalized people.

Yet it’s a feature of #resistance politics today to focus almost entirely on the abuses of presidential power. We’re stuck in a president-centric political system—and the unlimited goonery of the current president makes it almost impossible to gain perspective on the depth of our democratic dysfunctions. But a corrupt president can be voted out after four years. Congress can be impervious to reform for generations at a time.

An incompetent and malignant Congress is not entirely funny. These people can get you killed.

It’s not as if no one has tried. All along, we’ve seen earnest would-be reformers attempt to rally the citizenry to care about Congress. Eleanor Roosevelt founded in 1948 the National Committee for an Effective Congress. In 1970 the moderate Republican John W. Gardner launched Common Cause, in the hopes a “people’s lobby” could counterbalance big business special interests. “Most of the political process has become, behind the scenes, a vast game of barter and purchase,” Gardner wrote in 1972, “involving campaign contributions, appointments to high office, business favors, favorable legal decisions. . . . It is a game that is going on all the time at every level of government.”

At that same time, Ralph Nader’s efforts to battle corporate power led to the creation of Public Citizen, which later set up a Congress Watch project to advocate for consumer and environmental interests. Yet, as such groups seemed to gain momentum in the early 1970s, and as the political establishment was rocked by the Watergate scandals, organized money planned its counterattack. In 1971, the corporate lawyer Lewis Powell (later to become a member of the Supreme Court) wrote a confidential memo to a friend at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. As investigative reporter Mark Dowie has detailed, Powell “warned that American business was ‘under broad attack’ from political and social interests and organizations that wanted to institutionalize ‘socialism or some form of statism.’”

The subsequent supercharging of the U.S. Chamber was a large part of the decisive corporate takeover of government machinery that solidified during the Reagan and Bush years in the 1980s and held strong during the 1990s—as once-laughable backbenchers like Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay became Congressional kingpins.

Every week brings an example of the grip that this moneyed interest has on both parties in Congress. Just as the dreaded April 15 date for filing taxes approached, the House Ways and Means Committee—with a Democratic majority—rolled over for the giant tax-preparation firms Intuit (which sells TurboTax) and H&R Block and approved a bill that would prevent the IRS from offering free online tax assistance improvements. You might think it would be in the public interest to make tax filing easier and less expensive for a few million people, but it is not in the private interest of the firms that spend millions to lobby Congress.

This is a matter of daily business. Just as it has been the business of Congress for two years to refuse oversight and accountability of the most corrupt presidency since, well, at least since Bush & Cheney. How is it possible to watch the abhorrent executive branch campaign to round up and detain immigrants and refugees—and to separate children from their families—and not put a stop to it? Any decent legislative branch would recognize family separation as a fundamental human rights violation.

Likewise, if we want to step back and truly understand the longer-running “abomination” that is Congress we need only think about this institution’s sanction of rampant American gun violence. Imagine a collection of the nation’s supposedly elite leaders who are able to witness the cold-blooded slaughter of children in schools—not once, but multiple times—and being incapable of taking action. Yes, the body has been in the grip of the gun lobby, the National Rifle Association and the gun manufacturing industry, especially since the NRA became a modern amped-up lobby of zealots in the late 1970s. But the right to bear assault weapons?

Congress understood in 1994 that there is no Second Amendment right to wield any conceivable weapon a person might want. For a brief time the manufacture and possession of semiautomatic assault weapons was banned. (Although the law had a huge loophole in that such weapons made before 1994 were still in circulation.) But when the law expired in 2004, the gun lobby reasserted itself, and there were enough subservient Republicans and frightened Democrats in Congress that it was not renewed.

There have been reports in recent months that the NRA is losing support. And yet, as Lachlan Markay wrote last year in the Daily Beast, the operation still took in $98 million in contributions in 2017, with $312 million in annual income. One single anonymous donor threw in about $19 million. The NRA claims about five million members across the United States, but as the Washington Post reported last year,

Membership revenue seems to spike following mass shootings and the resultant national discussions about gun control and gun rights. For instance, that 2007 peak came in the year that a gunman murdered 32 people on the campus of Virginia Tech. And in 2013, membership revenue increased by 63 percent over the previous year, following the killings of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in late 2012.

This societal sickness is apparent to an increasingly activist group of high school and college students. Yet their political education is also teaching them that Congress, as currently constituted, will not lift a finger to address it.

The “people’s lobbies” have failed. There is no competing with Big Money in the “barter and purchase” game. The only remedy is to take control of Congress by electing members who won’t be bought.

The only remedy is to take control of Congress by electing members who won’t be bought.

After Watergate, the so-called Class of ’74 entered Congress and promised a new era of reform. It was an almost entirely white male cohort, though much younger than the dinosaur committee elders. There were some worthy liberals and populists elected—Tom Harkin of Iowa, Henry Waxman of California, Tim Wirth of Colorado, Abner Mikva of Illinois. In Indiana, Earl Landgrebe, who had expressed his disapproval of giving eighteen-year-olds the vote, lost his seat to a Purdue professor and Democrat named Floyd Fithian.

The liberals and moderates of that era were absorbed into the system as they sought ways to “go along to get along.” The Democratic Party was unable to stand against the onslaught of Reaganism, even with Tip O’Neill as Speaker of the House—because there was still a solid block of mostly Southern Democrats (then referred to as Boll Weevils, later as Blue Dogs) who sided with Republicans.

What of today’s Congressional Democrats? They are anything but a cohesive force. Still, the new class elected in 2018 is not just made up of white male liberals. There are signs of what could be the beginning of a transformation. In watching the “Squad” (as they call themselves) of newly elected, strongly principled women, we are witnessing something unlike anything else in Congressional history. Congress may still be an abomination, but it is no longer distant in the way that Charles Lewis meant when he wrote those words in 1998.

Suddenly videos of these new leaders in new roles are traveling far beyond the traditional audience of C-Span viewers. And so last week we saw California’s Rep. Katie Porter challenging JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon about why with his $31 million salary he is unable to figure out how to pay his bank tellers a living wage.

We saw New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in February asking Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen a series of detailed questions that showed what serious preparation looks like for a congressional leader who is serious about corruption.  And we saw, that same month, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar confront the Iran-Contra felon Elliott Abrams about his past crimes, as Trump attempted to rehabilitate Abrams with a special envoy post to Venezuela.

The new leaders in Congress are finding ways to call attention to corruption, to climate change, and to inequality of wealth and power.

In the case of Dimon and Abrams, you could almost imagine them standing up and shouting “Who are you to question me?” And for the most part that has been the reaction of both the Democratic and Republican establishment. The reaction of the right-wing propaganda machine, especially Fox News, has been vicious and remorseless.

There’s an obvious reason why. These women are not showing meekness or deference. This new class of leaders understands that one of the ways you use power is to put subjects on the table. The president of the United States has vast power in every era to stoke fear—of Soviet Communism, of Islamic terrorists, and now of a supposed immigrant invasion—and focus a nation’s attention on whatever threat serves his purpose. The new leaders in Congress are finding ways to call attention to corruption, to climate change, and to inequality of wealth and power.

They are a threat to the kind of abominations we’ve all become accustomed to. Last week it was Rep. Omar who provoked the most vitriolic reactions. A New York man was arrested for telling a staffer in her office that “I’ll put a bullet in her fucking skull.” Nobody can doubt that she is the subject of death threats because she is a Somali-American Muslim who is causing panic—not just because of her views but because of who she is.

The courage of these new leaders is something that comes along rarely. They may literally be putting their lives on the line because Congress has helped create a country that is crawling with heavily armed psychopaths. They may make verbal missteps in their young careers. They might make comments that some find offensively “incorrect.” But you know for a fact that every one of these new left-wing leaders would vote in a heartbeat for any measure to reduce gun violence or to prevent U.S. human rights abuses along the border. The lives of young people are not some distant concern for them. They are embattled on all sides as a mere “Squad.” But they are showing the way to reclaim Congress from the abominable.