The sorry state of Congress

October 21, 1994|By Martin D. Tullai

THE 103RD CONGRESS is coming to an end to the lament of few. It is sad, indeed, to realize that the Congress of the United States is one of the least respected institutions in the nation. Public Opinion Quarterly (Winter, 1992) reported on a survey which revealed that only 17 percent of the public approved of the way Congress does its job.

Alan Simpson, the straight-talking Republican Senator from Wyoming, lamented this woeful situation in his own inimitable style when he said: "The reputation of Congress is lower than quail crap."

This is shameful, but it is not a phenomenon of recent origin. When efficiency is the major criterion for evaluating Congress, it always loses.

Listen to what a variety of folks have said about our national legislative body.

Some two centuries ago John Adams declared: "I have reached the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace; that two are called a law firm; and that three or more become a Congress."

Unfortunately, this impression has continued. From then until now, Congress has been the butt of jokes and the target of sharp criticism.

Mark Twain lambasted it with relish. "Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can," he once said. Another time he railed, "Readers, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself."

The antics of Congress provided humorist Will Rogers with a barrel of material. "People ask me where I get my jokes," he jibed. "Why, I just watch Congress and report the facts; I don't even have to exaggerate." His witty, albeit perceptive, analogy evoked chuckles but also dismay. "This country has come to feel the same," he said, "as we do when a baby gets hold of a hammer. It's just a question of how much damage he can do before we take it away from him."

Russian writer Boris Marshalov commented after observing this body in session: "Congress is so strange. A man gets up to speak and says nothing. Nobody listens, and then everybody disagrees."

Historian Henry Adams noted: "A Congressman is a pig. The only way to get his snout from the trough is to rap it sharply with a stick."

In 1933 William Randolph Hearst wrote in an editorial: "A politician will do anything to keep his job -- even become a patriot."

James H. Boren, a political writer familiar with activities on the Hill, quipped: "Einstein's theory of relativity as practiced by Congress, simply means getting members of your family on the payroll."

Newspaperman George D. Prentice concluded: "There are two periods when Congress does no business: one is before the holidays, and the other after."

Congressional watcher Edgar A. Shoaff, having seen and heard enough about the legislators, was impelled to crack: "Politicians make strange bedfellows, but they share the same bunk."

Columnist Earl Wilson said about the nation's capital: "Washington appears to be filled with two kinds of politicians -- those trying to get an investigation started and those trying to get one stopped."

Journalist Frank H. Simonds observed about those he covered, "There is but one way for a newspaper man to look at a politician, and that is down."

Even comedian Charlie Chaplin felt it appropriate to offer a critique. He declared: "I remain one thing only -- and that is a clown. It places me on a far higher plane than any politician."

Baltimore satirist and editor Henry L. Mencken told Newsweek magazine that a good politician "is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar."

George Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright and critic, took a swipe at legislative tactics as he observed: "A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul."

Yes, much humor has been generated about Congress. But the elements of truth shining through scream out for members of Congress to clean up the awful mess which diminishes them and deprives the citizenry of an effective law-making body. While Dooley might proclaim, "Politics ain't beanbag," neither should it be the domain of empire-builders who grab power at the expense of the electorate.

Of course, Congress contains a number of able persons. But too many seem to have forgotten the good advice of Samuel Johnson: "Knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful."

Whatever other principles influence the actions of lawmakers, an indispensable guide was enunciated by the Greek playwright, Sophocles: "Nobody has a more sacred obligation to obey the law than those who make it."

0 Martin D. Tullai writes from Brooklandville.

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