Members of Congress will return to Washington this week, as members of the Legislature return to Madison. After a fall in which their tenure was characterized by unprecedented inaction, politicians who occupy positions of trust will attempt once more to act as public servants.
Unfortunately, the track record does not inspire confidence.
Consider the dramatic extent of the failures of federal and state officials to obey their oaths of office during the last months of 2001.
In Washington, a war was launched after four hours of congressional debate, civil liberties were undermined with minimal dissent, and billions in corporate welfare payouts were approved while laid-off workers were denied basic protections.
In Madison, a state budget crisis was allowed to fester, legislators failed to address the need for fundamental education-funding and tax reforms, and caucus leaders spent more time covering their corruption than governing.
Even as they constitute themselves anew, there are no guarantees that our federal and state lawmakers will govern with the requisite commitment to seek the public good - as opposed to positioning themselves for the next election. Indeed, there were few signs on the eve of the new sittings of Congress and the Legislature that any good will come of their gatherings.
This was the disturbing prospect we pondered Sunday in Sauk City, as I spent the morning with members of the historic Free Congregation of Sauk County.
Members of the 150-year-old congregation had asked me to speak in their Park Hall - surely one of the loveliest gathering spots in Wisconsin - on the subject of "integrity in politics." We had agreed on the topic before the whole Enron scandal began to spin out of control. But, even without the overwhelming evidence of political corruption on the part of Republicans and Democrats so far exposed in the burgeoning scandal, it would have been easy to make the case that political integrity is in short supply these days.
I appreciated the invitation from the good freethinkers of Sauk City to consider the current crisis. And I did not insult them by restating the reality that campaign money has warped our politics. They did not need to be told that reform for election financing is no longer a good idea but an absolute necessity. What they were interested in was the question of how things got so bad - not merely in Washington but in Wisconsin, a state once known for the purity of its politics.
The notion I suggested was that the crisis has less to do with campaign money - as corrupting as it may be - than with the most damaging of all forces in politics and governance: bipartisanship.
Bipartisanship is still regularly promoted by many in the media and the political class - especially associates of the Enron-financed affiliates of the thoroughly corrupted Democratic Leadership Council - as the antidote to the messy work of governing. But it is the door through which corrupting influence has walked.
When Democrats join Republicans in practicing the politics of cooperation and compromise, when both parties embrace a corporations-uber-alles ethic, Enron scandals are the predictable result. As Democrats abandon ideological differences with Republicans in order to occupy a murky middle of the political spectrum, where leaders of both parties busy themselves collecting contribution checks from the same corporate sources, integrity is invariably sacrificed on the altar of political expedience.
When there is no clear ideological divide between Democrats and Republicans on issues of corporate power and influence, the quality of the discourse is not the only thing that suffers. The failure on the part of too many Democratic leaders - especially those in the orbit of the Democratic Leadership Council - to draw lines of distinction between a party of corporations and a party of the rest of us has made legislative sessions at the federal and state level little more than seasons of posturing in order to please potential contributors.
This argument was well accepted by the freethinkers of Sauk City, as I suspect it would be by most Americans. Citizens at the grass roots well understand that so long as Democrats continue to position themselves as the second party of big business, the Enron scandal will not be the end of this dark passage. It will simply be another reminder that political integrity is impossible without political ideology.
Copyright 2002 The Capital Times