A Useless Congress

by Derrick G. Jeter

On the whole, I’m overjoyed when Congress doesn’t do anything—nada, nothing. They’re more apt to get us into less trouble that way. I subscribe to the baby and hammer theory regarding Congress: “This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as we do when a baby gets a hold of a hammer. It’s just a question of how much damage he can do with it before we take it away from him.”1 So, unlike some who experienced heartburn when the government closed its doors in the mid-1990s, fearing economic and political catastrophe, I was elated. And history proved that my celebration was correct. The United States didn’t cease to be, and the government—if not the American economy—continued to grow at an exponential rate.


My penchant for a do-nothing-Congress notwithstanding, however, I reach a slow boil when Congress could do something of real benefit for the American people but does nothing. Or when they act for the benefit of the few and leave the many to pay the tab. One is a boondoggle and the other is just plain boneheadedness.


The home mortgage mess left by Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac—at an estimated $25 billion—is like a chicken that lays rotten eggs. Its neck ought to be wrung, but the Senate in passing a bailout bill recently made an omelet of the egg and served it up as breakfast, wishing the American taxpayer bon appétit. This and Senate Majority Leader Reid’s and Speaker Pelosi’s gag on debate of any energy bill that includes drilling, refineries, or nuclear—to says nothing about the proverbial bloated pork projects that should be made into bacon—is unappetizing indeed.


The way this Congress is led I can only concur with Will Rogers—it’s not just a baby with a hammer but Baby Huey welding a sledgehammer. It’s not a question of whether damage will be done, just a question of how much.


We elect representatives, both to the House and the Senate, to speak for our interests. But more importantly, we elect them (whether the vast majority of voters know it or not) with the notion that they will act wisely—regardless of our individual or regional interests, or their own. The English parliamentarian Edmund Burke understood this dual duty.


It is his duty [that of the representative] to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs [his constituents]; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.2


Our representatives have failed to live up to this standard, though they have succeeded in one area: they haven’t sacrificed their opinion for ours. We might congratulate them for this achievement, if it really were their “unbiased [and] mature judgment.” It is not. And this is not my opinion, but the judgment of one of their own—Senator Tom Coburn.


In a speech delivered from the floor of the Senate on the day the bailout bill passed, Senator Coburn opened with these words: “This week the Senate has failed. Miserably failed. We just passed a housing bill that fixes only short-term and doesn’t fix the long-term problems associated with Fannie Mae.” He went on to say,


There’s no question we have helped a lot of people with the bill as passed. But you have to ask the question what’s this going to do with everybody else who’s paid their mortgage and anybody who wants to get a mortgage in the future and continue to keep their commitments. What we’ve done is raise their interest rates. We’ve raised the cost of financing anybody else’s home in this country for the next fifteen years. . . .


And concerning the energy fiasco, Coburn said:


We’re worried about the political fallout of perhaps having amendments to drill where the oil is, and that might not fit one political party’s agenda. But I tell you what, it fits the American peoples’ agenda. . . .


The fact that we will not be allowed and are not allowed to have a true debate with true amendments . . . says that we are highly dysfunctional. That [its] all about the next election and its never about the good, long-term interest of the country. That has to stop in his body. . . . It has to stop for the future generations of this country that we quit worrying about whether we get re-elected; that we start working for the best, long-term interest of this country. . . .


It’s time to think . . . about how in fact [we] do the work the American people need us to do—to secure their future and do it in a way that says, “I’m willing to give up my Senate seat to do what’s best for this country in the long run.” Anything less than that from us is cowardice. . . .


We need to be about the country’s business. And my great regret is we’re about politicians’ business.3


The United States Congress has looked the American people in the eye and grinned. With one hand holding our gas money behind their backs, they reach around with the other and pickpocket more from our thinning wallets by passing a boondoggle bailout bill.


“John Adams” was right: “I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is a disgrace, two are a law firm, and three or more are called a Congress.”4 Maybe, if we could elect a few more like Tom Coburn, Congress could become a useful body—knowing when to do nothing and when to do the right thing for the American people.


1. Will Rogers, Will Rogers’ Daily Telegrams, Volume 2: The Hoover Years, 1929–2931, 1230, rev. ed., ed. James M. Smallwood and Steven K. Gragert (Claremore, OK: Will Rogers Memorial Museums, 2008), http://www.willrogers.com/papers/daily/DT-Vol-2.pdf (accessed July 29, 2008).


2. Edmund Burke, “Speech to the Electors of Bristol,” November 3, 1774, http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch13s7.html (accessed July 29, 2008). Also published in The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, vol. 1 (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854–56), 392.


3. Tom Coburn, “Congress Must Put America’s Priorities First,” July 26, 2008, parts 1 and 2, transcribed from video by Derrick G. Jeter, http://src.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Senators.Television&Senator_id=9d15187d-b0a9-4a86-87c7-0a1ac69fc09b (accessed July 29, 2008).


4. “Mr. Adams,” 1776, DVD, directed by Peter H. Hunt (1972; Culver City, CA: Columbia Pictures Industries, 2002).