Frailties and all, the system works

What you are about to read is not the column I had planned to write as recently as yesterday. However, the events of the last few weeks and the resignation of a United States senator over the weekend have prompted me to reflect on our institutions, both public and private, and how they are being perceived by the public. 

Over the last several days at various events that involve friends, family, neighbors and colleagues, I have heard not only the jokes about Congress and politicians but — more disturbingly — about the underlying sense that our institutions no longer deserve our confidence. This saddens me, because as a former member of Congress and now as a lobbyist, I am a staunch
and unwavering believer in our institutions, and particularly the Congress, which govern our society.

Having said that, the most recent situation regarding a senator, along with other troubling news events from the past year, could indeed undermine the support of even the staunchest believers. This past week, it was a lawmaker. A few weeks earlier, it was a nationally known athlete involved in dog-fighting. For a good part of the year, the spotlight was also focused on priests, ministers and religious leaders who had fallen from grace.

The business world was not spared either, with well-known, high-paid chief executives indicted or convicted, glaring at all of us from TV and the front pages of major publications. And in our world on K Street, of course, respect for lobbyists is at a low, following the Jack Abramoff scandal and conviction.

It seems that each of these reports or revelations, combined with the ones that preceded it, has taken its toll on the American psyche. With the latest incident pointing directly to the Congress, I believe perspective is needed.

Of course, there is no excuse for any crimes that have been committed or lapses that have occurred in ethical or moral judgment, and in each instance, the appropriate price must be paid for the illegal, improper or inappropriate action. That said, the institutions represented by those who have erred do not deserve blanket condemnation. Just as importantly, the actions of a select few should not create a loss of trust in the “system.”

For every athlete who runs afoul of the law, there are tens of thousands who are spending their personal time helping their communities. For most, if not all of the corporate executives who have ended up in prison, there are thousands upon thousands of employees who provide products and services and contribute on a daily basis to the nation’s economic success.

For the few lobbyists that do disservice to our profession, there are the many who prove that Americans can have their voices heard in a fair, legal and ethical manner. And all can be reminded of the ongoing and positive impact that religion and religious leaders have had on our communities, notwithstanding the record that has been tarnished by a few.

Of the latest incident, it has been and continues to be my belief that Congress is a microcosm of American society. It is diverse, it is broad, it is deep and wide, and it represents every aspect of our culture. Most of all, like every institution that has just been mentioned, it is composed of human beings with human frailties. The sports world, corporate America, the religious community and legislators make up the fabric of this vibrant democracy. Yes, even with those frailties in place.

Over 200 years of history, Congress has been tested many times. It has stretched, it has cracked, but it has never failed us.
Congress has overcome every national catastrophe and crisis, and I believe it will continue to do so. Now is the time to pick ourselves up, remain confident in our basic institutions, and work on ways to avoid — as much as humanly possible — the problems that cause so much concern and despair. True to the American spirit, we can move forward with determination and continue to make this the best system on the face of the earth.

Despite our periodic frustrations, we need to remember that millions of people around the world continue to find every way they can, both legally and sometimes illegally, to make themselves a part of our society and our country. Yes, individuals — including members of Congress — will falter and fail, but our institutions will lead us through the problems and deserve our active, though not blind, support.

Mica is the president and chief executive of the Credit Union National Association, which represents nearly 8,500 credit unions with 90 million members. Rep. Mica (D-Fla.) served in the House from 1979–89.