Congress Needs to Reassert Leadership in Public Debate

Article excerpt

CONGRESS is worried, as always, about its public image, and rightly so.

For a partial explanation, Congress needs to look no further than the nearest mirror. Members accept too much corporate or trade association hospitality and then make up a lame excuse about how they are raising money for charity or getting a different point of view on an important issue. If members of Congress want to help a charity, they can write a check. If they want to see a lobbyist (and these contacts are useful, notwithstanding the public perception), a Congress member's office is the place to do it.

The issue of free, reserved parking spaces near the terminals at Washington's National and Dulles airports tied the Senate in knots last month. This is a small matter when compared to the problem of welfare reform, but the sight of such spaces - which are often empty - does not sit well with ordinary travelers who park two or three miles away and ride shuttle buses. Every member of Congress has a junior staff employee who could drive him or her to and from an airport. Bill Clinton used to do this for members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he was a part-time committee messenger working his way through Georgetown University.

Congress needs to clean up its act with respect to perquisites, but its problem is more profound. Congress gives the impression that it does not believe the public is interested in serious discussion of serious issues. Try having such a discussion with a member and see how quickly it lapses into slogans or jargon, such as "Three strikes and you're in for life" and "No work, no welfare."

Television has accelerated this decline in political discourse; but Congress has acquiesced in it and the public has contributed to it, because the public expects the wrong things from Congress. In this respect, Congress's bad public image is the public's fault.

Congress was intended to be a parochial body. Any member who does not represent the legitimate interests of his or her state or district is not going to remain a member long, nor should he or she. …