A Matter of Accountability

The low regard in which American elected government leaders are held by the public derives not merely from the combination of poor legislation, paralysis in matters of pressing importance, and pork-barrel projects. It is fueled also by the personal, political, and financial transgressions of its members, the reluctance to deal with these members, and the failure to admit and correct mistakes or to exact any meaningful penalties for egregious behavior.

Any corporation or manufacturer whose products or services fail to perform as promised can be subject to severe civil and/or criminal penalties -- even if the potential defects were initially unknown. Likewise, physicians and other professional practitioners who, even inadvertently, harm their patients or clients can be subject to malpractice suits.

Contrast this with recent actions by the Obama administration. The stimulus package has not performed as promised. Numerous examples can be found of money squandered on wasteful and inconsequential projects. Yet despite the fact that it has added materially to an unsustainable national deficit, there has been no effort to freeze stimulus funds that, as yet, have remained unspent. 

The lack of accountability extends even to congressional staffers. A Wall Street Journal investigation found that "At least 72 aides on both sides of the aisle traded shares of companies that their bosses help oversee." Veronique de Rugy points out that if these staffers had worked for private companies instead of Congress, they would go to jail for such insider trading (profiting from information the public does not have access to).

The so-called "crown jewel" of the administration's agenda is the ObamaCare program, which the public was assured would result in lower health care costs and wider coverage. We are now boldly informed that neither is to be the case. Yet despite this, and numerous other problems that have arisen since the bill was signed into law, there has been no action on the part of the administration to, as Thomas Jefferson would put it, "alter or abolish it." Further, the majority of the American public believe that the president and Congress who passed ObamaCare should be forced to live with it and give up their preferential health programs, but both refuse to do so. 

The president and Congress demean themselves, insult the public, and betray representative government when they pass and sign a bill that they have not read, much less debated. Without knowing the content and consequences, how are the interests of the people to be judged or protected? All those who voted for such legislation, and especially those who created it, egregiously violated the trust placed in them by their constituents.

Again, consider the recent Financial Reform Bill. It was signed by a president who accepted over $300,000 in real estate considerations from convicted felon Tony Rezko. It was prominently witnessed by Representatives Barney Frank (who not only failed to oversee Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but also misrepresented their condition) and Chris Dodd, one of the recipients of the Friends of Angelo mortgages from Countrywide. Such actions fly in the face of moral sensibility and simple decency. The swamp has not been drained. It has been turned into a cesspool.

Corruptibility in government is nothing new, nor is the reluctance to deal with it. Because of the power inherent in legislation, lawmakers are subject to opportunities, both financial and personal, to misuse their positions. Some are clearly identifiable, others less so. The rarefied atmosphere in which the political system works is a large factor. Ego is prominent in the makeup of most political figures.  It can easily become inflated to the point of distorting the real, and the moral, factors involved in any decision. "What the public needs" becomes confused with "what I want."

Another difficulty exists in the collegiality necessary to the work of government. The president, senators, and representatives must work across party lines to facilitate the governing process. Today's opponent can become tomorrow's ally. Over time, friendships and associations are formed. And it can be extremely difficult to be part of the process of embarrassing and disgracing a colleague. As at the Courts of the Caesars, it is much easier to prescribe banishment or exile.

The founding fathers suffered under the capricious and arbitrary behaviors of the king, Parliament, and any number of appointed governors. They were well aware of the fallibility of man, and both the separation of powers and the provisions for impeachment reflect their realistic appreciation of human nature.  With occasional exceptions, the system has worked well.  Of course, in the past, standards of public behavior were higher. In our own time, the problems have become much more acute.

In 1969, when Edward Kennedy returned to the Senate following the Chappaquiddick incident, many were outraged. Though the incident was legally a local matter, his excuses for it were not credible. An ordinary citizen in similar circumstances would likely have served time in jail. Teddy continued to serve in the Senate. 

When Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon and precluded any further legal pursuit, he also institutionalized an excuse that would be overused in coming years. Excusing criminal acts to help the country heal or for the good of the nation is neither plausible nor defensible. 

The assorted antics of Bill Clinton -- personal, professional, and legal -- and the enablers in Congress who never ceased to defend him brought confidence in government and public officials to a new low. So did the only penalty affixed to a president who attempted to deprive a woman of her civil rights through perjury -- the suspension of his law license (a profession in which he was not actively engaged) in Arkansas (where he had ceased to live). 

With the election of 2008 and the assumption by the Democratic Party of control of the Executive and Legislative branches, the situation went from bad to critical. Congressional leadership and the Executive Branch embarked on an ideological frenzy that not only flouts the law, but ignores it completely. The seizure of private property and an agenda designed to redistribute incomes and void rights long-cherished have brought us to the point of critical mass. 

If there is a major change in the makeup of Congress in the midterm elections, the first job will be to restore congressional credibility. And the only way in which that is possible involves the prosecution and punishment of those of either party who, for whatever reason, have broken the law. 

When asked what avenue he felt Charles Rangel should pursue following the ethics charges leveled against him, Barack Obama suggested that he "retire with dignity." That is not enough. Politics aside, Mr. Rangel seems to be a likable individual -- so much so that even some of the leading conservative pundits have suggested that the accusations against him are not particularly significant. He deserves his day in court and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. 

If the verdict goes against him, however, it will be imperative for those sitting in judgment to remember that as head of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rangel should be held to a fair but high standard. He, and other officials like him, should be looked on not just for the offenses committed, but for having betrayed a public trust. 

The people will not be satisfied until elected officials are subject to the same procedures, and penalties, as the people themselves are. Anything less makes a mockery of equality and law.