The United States House of Representatives is an official disgrace. This is really nothing new. We the people, the voters, expect that the people we elect to serve in Congress will do so with integrity, decency and accountability. All too often, we learn that these very people often turn their backs on their constituents. Our expectations that they will not let us down have not been met.
I remember my time working in and around Congress and seeing examples of terrible alcoholism and sexual excesses. Since all of it was reflective of what was going on in the larger society, I was not terribly upset. In truth, I was amused by a lot of what I saw. So people drink and have sex. Nothing new there. Many of us don’t see anything particularly wrong with this but now the curtain has been ripped away one more time and things are different.
What we are learning now is not personal. We might not really care whether or not the denizens of the Congress are having sex. But when we find out that the members of Congress are doing things that we ourselves would not do and that they are not keeping their oaths to really re-present us, it affects us in different ways. Some of us laugh, some of us are disgusted, and some of us are jealous that our representatives are having too much fun. Those of us who get angry when we hear about Congressional misbehavior confuse me as to their motives.
I have been interviewing members of Congress for many years. Most are very good people. I see no real differences between them and most of the rest of us. When I worked amongst Congress persons and their staffs, I was fascinated by the differences between those who had actually been elected and those who worked for them. Although it is hard to generalize about what I saw, I will tell you that the elected officials acted differently than those who staffed their offices. Putting it a little differently, when someone is elected it can give them a sense of irresponsibility because they often believe that being elected by others makes them special.
When I was a selectman in Alford, Massachusetts, I did not believe that my election made me special but, of course, that was a tiny little town. The work was often demanding, the pay was negligible, and I couldn’t wait to quit my job. When we relocated to a larger town, I was amazed to see that there were people who used their public office to personally help themselves. I saw one elected official ask to borrow money from one of our richer citizens. The Congress and state legislatures are filled with people who believe that to the winners go the spoils. It really makes you scratch your head and wonder why so many of these folks would endanger their reputations.
The temptations, no matter how small, that are put before our public officials can corrupt them. When one runs for public office and wins, a sense of entitlement will often accompany that win. I have heard of many institutions that offer ethics training, so sure are they of how often people “mess up” and try to trade in on their public offices. I have no doubt that many of you reading this can name such people. No matter how many of us have seen such corruption, and that’s what it is, it is unlikely that we would seriously consider blowing the proverbial whistle. Just ask yourself whether you would, should you witness such cheating.
In the end, we know that human behavior has the potential to be self-serving and predictable. I hope that people will recognize how self-defeating that can be.
Alan Chartock is professor emeritus at the State University of New York, publisher of the Legislative Gazette and president and CEO of the WAMC Northeast Public Radio Network. Readers can email him at email@example.com.
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