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The Sunday Take

Lawmakers stoke the public's disgust

Congressional approval ratings are at all-times lows, and as the ethics case against Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), above, plays out in the coming months, the publicity isn't likely to help Congress's image.
Congressional approval ratings are at all-times lows, and as the ethics case against Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), above, plays out in the coming months, the publicity isn't likely to help Congress's image. (Alex Brandon/associated Press)

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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2010

It's hard to imagine what could drive public approval of Congress even lower than it has been this year. But a pending public ethics trial of one of the House's most senior Democrats (and possibly a second) and an angry, prolonged tirade on the House floor that has gone round the cable networks and YouTube just may be the answer.

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Anyone who has ever spent time talking with voters -- in shopping malls or on soccer fields, at their doorsteps or in focus groups -- has heard the most common complaints about politicians in Washington.

One is an expression of disgust over what people perceive as elected officials' sense of privilege. Many Americans believe that elected officials go to Washington and lose touch with where they came from. Instead of representing the people, the politicians adopt an attitude of entitlement. Instead of protecting the public interest, politicians are seen as being in bed with lobbyists and looking to line their own pockets.

The other complaint is irritation over the way Washington works. Partisan bickering takes precedence over common civility. Scoring points becomes more important than getting things done. Even at a time when the most engaged part of the electorate has become almost as partisan as the politicians, many Americans are still frustrated by what they see happening in Washington.

Those two sentiments represent tarring with a broad brush, often unfairly. Nonetheless, they add up to an indictment that has made Congress consistently one of the country's least popular institutions -- and especially so this year.

The ethics charges lodged against former House Ways and Means Committee chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) present major problems for the Democrats. Having run against what they called a culture of corruption by the Republicans in their successful 2006 takeover of the House, Democrats now head toward the final months of the midterm elections with the prospect of a highly publicized trial that alleges corruption on the part of the well-liked Rangel.

Many months ago, White House officials were privately expressing concern that the Rangel case could balloon into a major political problem for the Democrats unless House leaders dealt with it expeditiously and forcefully. Now it threatens to become a nightmare scenario for the Democrats on the eve of the fall elections.

Rangel has been stubbornly resistant to striking a deal that would avoid a public trial by the ethics committee. Proud and defiant, he so far has given no sign that he intends to do anything other than fight the charges, despite the desire of House leaders to avoid such a spectacle.

President Obama added to the pressure on Rangel to yield when he told CBS News on Friday: "I think Charlie Rangel served a very long time and served his constituents very well. But these allegations are very troubling, and, you know, he's somebody who is at the end of his career, 80 years old. I'm sure that what he wants is to be able to end his career with dignity, and my hope is that that happens."

The ethics committee, which has often been slow to move against fellow House members, now has outlined a serious, 13-count case against Rangel that will have to play out over the next few months unless the congressman changes his mind.

Now there is another ethics case brewing, this involving another senior Democrat and member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Maxine Waters (Calif.). The Waters case involves her actions in helping banks, including one in which her husband had a financial interest, receive federal bailout funds. Politico reported Friday night that, like Rangel, she has decided to fight the charges and proceed to a public trial.

The ethics charges are another stain on the institution of Congress. What happened on the House floor Thursday underscores why many Americans have lost confidence in the institution and its members. Anyone watching cable news the past 48 hours has probably seen Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) in a full-throated diatribe -- aimed at the Republicans.

Weiner may have had good reason to be upset. Republicans added a politically charged amendment involving illegal immigrants to an otherwise seemingly popular bill that would enhance health benefits for first responders to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, who continue to suffer respiratory and other ailments.

Weiner knew that the bill was being held up by politics. But he lost control on the floor of the House. His behavior, not the merits of his argument, became the story. Aficionados of New York politics contend that Weiner's attention-getting display is part of a strategy to make himself mayor after Michael Bloomberg finishes his third term. Whatever his motives, Weiner turned into the poster child for congressional distemper.

Not content with that, he and Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) went on Fox News on Friday and put on another startling display of discourtesy, shouting over one another, pointing fingers and ignoring the host's repeated pleas for civility. That may feed ratings and produce clicks and eyeballs on Web sites, but it further undermines the image of Congress.

Gallup puts congressional approval at 11 percent, one point lower than its worst-ever rating. Congress stands last in a list of 16 institutions in terms of public confidence. The legislative branch is now eight points lower than health maintenance organizations, 11 points lower than television news and 14 points lower than newspapers. By about 2 to 1, Americans say they would prefer to vote for a candidate this year who has never been in Congress.

Between now and November, partisan warfare will only increase. Republicans have been attacking Obama's policies for more than a year. Democrats believe there is no other way to hold down their losses than to attack, attack and attack. What Americans will see and hear about their elected representatives and the challengers seeking to replace them, particularly in television commercials, will be overwhelmingly negative.

What has happened over the past few days can only add to the public's dissatisfaction with politics in Washington. For the next few months, politicians will set aside those concerns in an all-out battle over control of the House and Senate. Then they and the president will return in January and attempt to govern again.

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