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Right Now, Congress Needs More People Like Ray LaHood

This is a sad week for Congress with the announcement of Illinois GOP Rep. Ray LaHood’s retirement. For a quarter century, as a staffer and Member, LaHood has been a model Congress guy — which fits for a protégé of former House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.), one of the most decent and capable public servants I have ever known. [IMGCAP(1)]

LaHood has tried throughout his career to find common ground on contentious issues, to cultivate civility in politics and in the House, to fight against tribal politics, and to protect the integrity of the institution. In all of these areas, the past few years have been brutal, especially through the Dennis Hastert era, when he was tugged and hauled by his own instincts and attitudes up against the worst period in modern Congressional politics — but constrained in what he could say or do by his Illinois link to the former Speaker. Add the ignominy of minority status and it is not surprising that one might get beaten down enough to call it quits. But it is a shame for the House, which can ill afford to lose solid citizens like Ray LaHood.

On to a much less savory character. The testimony last week of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee was the most embarrassing, cringe-worthy performance by a Cabinet officer — by any witness — I have seen in 38 years. The only close competition comes from earlier Gonzales appearances in front of various House and Senate committees. The combination of willful lapses of memory — “I don’t recall” on top of “I don’t remember” ad nauseum — and active dissembling has been simply astonishing. Perhaps it is just ineptitude. Maybe he is a clever lawyer bobbing and weaving to avoid giving Congress embarrassing facts, splitting hairs and parsing phrases to avoid telling the truth. It is probably a combination of the two, along with a substantial dose of sheer arrogance toward Congress.

The longer Gonzales stays as attorney general, the more the Justice Department will be stained by his presence, with top figures departing and morale sinking. The longer he stays, the more the stories of scandal and lying will dominate the news, distracting and undermining the administration and president he purports to serve. It is to President Bush’s discredit that he has elevated loyalty over accountability.

But the failure to change attorney generals also has left Congress in a position where it has used a lot of resources to pursue Gonzales-related investigations — a lot more than it would have if he had been replaced months ago (my candidate then and now: former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor). The investigations have by and large been appropriate, but the headlines they have generated also reinforce the idea that Congress is focusing too little on issues that matter to the daily lives of voters and too much on gotcha politics.

That impression has contributed to Congress’ sinking approval ratings, but it is not the only reason. There is a general public distemper out there, and a low view of all institutions, save the military. Congress got off to a meandering start, with the House and Senate, as is typical, out of sync with one another, and with no way to move beyond the Iraq issue or to significantly influence the conduct of the war. And Congress hit its own bumps in the road, with the indictment of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), the embarrassment brought about by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and the continuing investigations of several House and Senate Members, including Monday’s FBI raid of Sen. Ted Stevens’ (R) Alaska home.

The past couple of weeks have seen a concerted effort in both chambers to change the dynamic. High-priority policies are making it through the legislative labyrinth, some to be signed and others vetoed, but still underscoring that important issues such as children’s health coverage are being resolved. And importantly, the lobbying and ethics reform package, long delayed in pre-conference limbo, is finally on track.

The package is a solid one, making real changes in disclosure and lobbying regulation that complement the initial strong package of reforms that the House enacted early on this year. It is a tribute to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who never has wavered on the ethics front, and to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who had to find ways to overcome the unreasonable blocking tactics used by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).

The bundling disclosure provision, a major point of contention, was resolved nicely by Democratic Reps. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and Chris Van Hollen (Md.). Van Hollen, of course, is the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, succeeding Emanuel in the post. Both recognize far more than many of their rank-and-file colleagues that the failure to enact credible ethics and lobbying reform would only reinforce and amplify the already-high public cynicism about Congress, which is showing signs of bleeding over into cynicism about voters’ own representatives, not just the institution as a whole.

The other embarrassment this week, Roll Call’s report that Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) broke his pledge of recusal and voted on a funding provision for the FBI, shows that Congress still has work to do to fulfill its pledge to clean up its own act. The House task force soon to recommend an independent ethics arm will provide the next big test.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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