The assault on Congress

Last week, The Washington Post ran a series of articles focused on the congressional earmarking process. What they found is that a suspiciously high number of earmarks turned out to be targeted close to the homes of many members of Congress.

This follows a “60 Minutes” exposé that found that some members of Congress made some money investing in the stock market, and that some of those investments might have benefited from unusually good inside information.

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Both stories made it clear that the congressional action in both cases was probably legal, but hey, doesn’t it look bad?

Of course it looks bad. With selective editing and with the right quotes from the right “independent sources,” anything can look bad. 

And that is part of the problem these days. A whole industry has arisen that has one goal in mind: Make the Congress look bad. And guess what? It has worked. 

Congressional approval ratings are hovering at around 10 percent, which means that if you ask 10 people what they think of Congress, nine will say that they are a bunch of bums. Congress has never been particularly popular, but by historic standards, this rating is at the absolute bottom. This is no accident. Congress and its members have endured a near-constant assault for more than a decade from a variety of special-interest groups that see bashing the legislative branch as a convenient way to advance their own interests. 

First among them is a group of left- and right-leaning “watchdog” groups that make their living exposing corruption in Congress. It is unclear where most of these groups get their funding, but what is clear is that the groups get more funding and more notoriety when they can claim a few scalps. 

The media also have a vested interest in making Congress look bad. Nothing brings more readers or viewers than a good scandal. Sex scandals are the best for ratings, which is why the news media immediately put embarrassing revelations or pictures on their front pages, no matter what. It wasn’t always so. Jack Kennedy’s romps were pretty well-known by the media, and pretty well-hidden. But the days of editorial discretion are long since past. Now the media can’t help themselves when it comes to publicizing affairs, embarrassing incidents or silly Twitter posts, especially when it comes to Congress. 

The congressional campaign committees do their own part in making Congress look bad. Opposition research is the name of the game. And digging through every file, tracking every move and exposing every embarrassing situation are now the principal ways campaigns are run. 

The result of all of the scandal-mongering is a political process that has broken down. Every member of Congress has had to endure the constant onslaughts — and has launched attacks of his or her own. 

They don’t trust their political opponents and they don’t trust their colleagues. It is awfully hard to reach across the aisle or cut a deal with a group of people who have done their best to humiliate you in the media. 

Those who are faint of heart shouldn’t run for Congress, it’s true. But the process shouldn’t be so intensely negative, so bitterly partisan, and so terribly cynical. 

Our Founding Fathers envisioned Congress as the pre-eminent branch of our government, which is why its powers are spelled out in Article I of the Constitution. Congress is the cornerstone of our democracy.

I fear what will happen to our democracy if the assault on Congress continues unabated. We can’t have a Congress that doesn’t have the trust of the people. But Congress won’t regain the trust of the American people as long as those who have a vested interest in undermining that trust continue to bash away.

Feehery is president of Quinn 
Gillespie Communications and 
spent 15 years working in the 
House Republican leadership. He is 
a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at thefeeherytheory.com