In the past, whenever I heard that Congress had voted itself a raise (Shh! Don’t spread the news around, Comrade!), I shrugged it off. “Nice work if you can get,” was my basic reaction. I did not think highly of members of Congress as a group–a preening bunch of socialistically-inclined bureaucrats, most of them, I thought–but they were necessary, as in a “necessary evil.” Somebody had to mind the wheels of gummint, and better they than I.
Somehow it was different this time. The sotto voce announcement that Congress, after wagging their collective head over executive pay and perks, decided to vote itself a $2.5 million raise was a depressing portent. “With economy in shambles,” read a headline in The Hill, “Congress gets a raise.”
A crumbling economy, more than 2 million constituents who have lost their jobs this year, and congressional demands of CEOs to work for free did not convince lawmakers to freeze their own pay.
PR-wise, this should be a Car-execs-take-private-jets-to-Washington-to-ask-for-taxpayer-bailout moment. (For the record, while I oppose bailing out Detroit, I don’t see why the CEOs of those companies shouldn’t travel any way they see fit. Sure, it was awkward PR, but Detroit is not in trouble because their executives travel by private jet but because 1. they are burdened with unsustainable labor contracts, 2. ruinous pension and health-care obligations, and 3. they make cars that people do not want to buy.) So where, as Bob Dole memorably asked, is the outrage? Don’t hold your breath. What makes this Congress-takes-some-more-money-from-your-pocket-and-puts-it-into-theirs scenario so depressing is that people seem to have given up holding our duly-elected representative accountable for anything short of outright peculation. And to listen to Rod Blagojevich try to to brazen it out, even flagrant corruption may turn out to OK.
Meanwhile, Al Franken is acting like Santa Claus, making a list and counting it twice, and–mirabile dictu–has pulled ahead of Norm Coleman in the Minnesota Senate race. Are people really going to sit by and watch Franken steal the election? It just may turn out that way.
What is so depressing about such episodes is the fact that they dramatize the decadence of our democracy. An institution becomes decadent when it maintains its outward scaffolding but loses its inner vitality. The inner pulse of a modern democracy lies in citizen involvement and public accountability. Where have those ancient desiderata gone? A few days ago, I asked why people weren’t up in arms about the 137 new taxes and fees with which the governor of New York was proposing to saddle his subjects (can they still be called citizens?). Glenn Reynolds speculated that these days people
only riot over select ethnic grievances; matters of governance, civil rights, and taxes — once the main reason to riot and engage in “out of doors political activity” — are now left to shouting pundits on TV.
Meanwhile, larger and larger swathes of the U.S. economy have been colonized by the federal government, with the predicable result that larger and larger swathes of private initiative have been usurped by bureaucratic insinuation.