ATLANTA -- If a GOP-controlled Congress loses in November because its leaders failed to rein in a sexual predator, so be it. But that's hardly the worst act this bunch has perpetrated against the country.
Congressional Republicans have cut taxes for the wealthy while also handing out new entitlements, ensuring that the current crop of kindergartners will struggle to pay off the debt. They have siphoned off billions in tax dollars for countless "earmarked" pork-barrel projects for favored members.
They have enthusiastically joined the White House in fearmongering and painting their critics as unpatriotic. They have pandered to the worst instincts of reactionaries, bashing illegal immigrants and demonizing gays.
Giddy with power, they have allowed a festering culture of corruption that led to the excesses of Tom DeLay, Bob Ney and Randy "Duke" Cunningham. And worst of all, they have been complicit in the lies that the White House spread to defend its misbegotten war in Iraq.
Congressional Republicans had intended to spend the next month repeating the same storyline they've relied on since 9/11: Democrats are unpatriotic whiners who cannot be trusted to defend the country. (Heaven knows, inept Democrats, lacking a coherent policy to thwart Islamist jihadists, have allowed that storyline to dominate previous election campaigns.) But the GOP finds itself suddenly thrown off stride by accusations that House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and others failed to protect teenage pages from the illicit attentions of former Rep. Mark Foley of Florida.
It's curious that the public only recently grew alarmed by the failure of Congress to protect 18-year-old enlistees from the predations of an ill-advised war. It's bad enough that GOP leaders took Vice President Dick Cheney at his word when he insisted that our troops would be greeted as "liberators" in Iraq. It's criminal that Republican congressmen have not insisted that the Pentagon give our troops the proper armor to defend against improvised explosives.
Nor has Congress done any better about protecting American soil. Instead of setting aside parochial interests in a time of clear and present danger, they have played games with homeland security funds, cheating New York and other major cities while sending hundreds of millions off to rural settings more likely to endure an invasion of the relentless Borg of Star Trek than a terrorist attack. Even now, only about 5 percent of the goods shipped into U.S. ports are inspected.
This is a Congress that has not only failed to protect the public interest but has also failed to protect its own prerogatives. When President Bush issues a "signing statement" declaring, in essence, that he is not obliged to obey the laws that Congress passes, its members meekly bow before the imperial presidency.
Most recently, a handful of GOP senators grabbed headlines when they insisted that they would not allow the president to make a mockery of American ideals by ignoring civilized standards in the treatment of detainees. But when the smoke cleared, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John W. Warner of Virginia had once again caved in, allowing the president to strip detainees of habeas corpus. That puts our interpretation of human rights on par with that of the Spanish Inquisition.
House Republicans were reckless and irresponsible in failing to investigate Mr. Foley's cyber-communications when they learned of his personal interest in a teenager last fall (or earlier, by some reports) - a failing magnified by their claim to be the party of moral superiority. And some of them have been shameless in their response to the fallout, deliberately conflating homosexuality with predatory behavior or blaming the Democrats for trying to score points from the revelations. (Republicans would never, ever take advantage of a sexually titillating scandal for partisan advantage.)
But this Congress has abused the public trust in far more scandalous ways than this. The Foley affair is an ugly and visible lesion. But why have voters missed the malignancy spreading underneath?
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is email@example.com.
Steve Chapman's column will return Wednesday.