Congress doesn’t know when to stop digging

John Boehner’s got a problem — a statistical trap that’s going to take some real work to get out of.

His drive to completely discredit the institution of the Congress has stalled: 9 percent of Americans still somehow approve of the way our legislature functions. And those 9 percent must be kind of stubborn: I mean, 16 percent of Americans approved of the way BP handled the Gulf oil spill, and 13 percent approve of polygamy. If that hard-core 9 percent didn’t mind, say, threatening to shut the government down three times last year, it’s going to be next to impossible to turn them off.

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Happily, the House Speaker seems to have a plan. 

Having attached a rider to the payroll tax cut that forces the President to make a decision on the Keystone pipeline in the next 60 days  — a rider the administration says will force it to deny the permit — he now is attempting to punish those representatives who didn’t go along. The National Republican Campaign Committee last week sent out press releases to 55 recalcitrant members of Congress, insisting they speak out against the president. 

In other words: Boehner wants those “vulnerable” representatives to join the harem he maintains on behalf of the fossil-fuel industry. Yes! That should do it — get everyone in Congress in bed with the industry everyone hates the most and maybe you really can persuade the last 9 percent to pack it in. 

Because here’s the deal: the reason, above all, that everyone despises Congress is because they think it’s bought and paid for. And Keystone is the perfect example. When the House took its vote on the issue in December, 234 members voted to “expedite” the pipeline. They’d taken, between them, $42 million dollars from the fossil fuel industry, as compared with only $8 million for the 193 on the other side. 

I know that this is legal — and I know that Congress has come up with a dozen rationalizations for why it’s OK for them to take money from companies on whose interests they will then rule. But Congress needs to know that virtually no one else in America believes those rationalizations.

What most Americans believe is simple: If you’re going to judge something — a gymnastics meet, a traffic court, a piece of legislation — you should not take money from one side. We don’t just think this for some abstract reason of justice; we think it because we’re honest enough to know that we’d be influenced by that cash. And we don’t believe people in Congress are more virtuous than we are.

In fact, we tend to believe that most of them are rather less virtuous. Take the Keystone fight: Having taken more than $1 million from the fossil-fuel industry, it was simply inevitable that people like Boehner would ignore the effects of climate change that drove so many to protest. 

The year that just ended saw more multibillion-dollar weather disasters than any in history, but other than fight to prevent federal money from going to the victims Congress has done nothing to address the problem. And Boehner and other pipeline backers didn’t just stop with ignoring disaster — they also repeated endless lies about: for instance the jobs the project would create. Even the pipeline company only claims 6,000 very temporary workers; when the Speaker pretends that the pipeline (which, remember, is built specifically so almost no one will ever have to work to move that oil) will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, most people hear it as a cruel attempt to play on the hopes of desperate people that have otherwise been left stranded. 

Here’s my prediction for how Boehner et al. will try to drive Congress’s reputation even lower this year: I’m willing to bet he and the harem will offer a full-throated defense of subsidies for the fossil-fuel industry. Because surely an industry that has made more money than any industry in the history of the planet in the last five years deserves some extra tax dollars! I mean, they’ve given small presents to legislators who now wish to give them big presents with our money. That’s how it’s supposed to work, right?

I’m guessing that if they play their cards just right, they’ll manage to push their approval rating down another notch or two. Remember the rule of holes: When you’re in one, always keep digging, especially if the oil barons tell you there’s black gold down there somewhere! 

McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and founder of 350.org, the global grassroots climate campaign.