Letters have been trickling in to inquire. "What do you think of convicted felons serving in Congress?"
Most who write are upset about Rep. Charles C. Diggs Jr. retaining his seat in Congress. Some include phrases like, "I'm anxious to hear what you have to say about cases of this kind."
It would be more to the point to know what the Constitution says. Article 1, Section 5, Clause 1, states: "Each house shall be the judge of the elections, returns, and qualifications of its own members . . ." Clause 2 adds: "Each house may determine the rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member."
The framers of the Consitution were well aware that an occasional miscreant would be elected. One can assume that their decision to avoid specific mention of convicted felons was deliberate, and that it was made after careful deliberation and debate.
The issue has been aired often, and I have no wise words to add to the many that have already been put forward. However, Lee J. Farrington may have something of value for us in a letter on a seemingly unrelated topic.
Farrington works for a congressman and writes: "For the past six months we have been getting mail from people who are burned up about government spending. They say they hate spending and regulations and deficits - everything you would expect voters to hate after the passage of Proposition 13.
"Yet I am simply astounded that whenever Congress does try to cut a program or reduce spending, those individuals that would be affected come shrieking to Washington, outraged that the 'fathead' Congress would even consider reducing expenditures for 'one of the most necessary programs in the country.' They threaten, cajole, plead, persuade, cry or bludgeon the congressman into opposing the cut. 'Cut somewhere else,' they all say.
"It doesn't make any difference whether they're left-wing, right-wing or in between. Teachers, veterans, farmers, civil servants, environmentalists, unions, retired military, senior citizens, nurses, students, welfare mothers, church groups, city administrators, state government officials, artists, domestic servants and a thousand and one other groups are agreed on this: They don't want their programs cut, they want their benefits increased.
The American people seem to think there is some magic way that the budget can be brought into balance without affecting them personally. Government spending is always regarded as the fault of some other group. Spending for me is fine, but spending for you is a waste of tax dollars.
"In recent months I have not seen one letter from a constituent that said, 'Congressman, cut whatever you think necessary to balance the budget. Even if you cut a benefit that affects me. I won't complain because I know the good of the country is more important than the well-being of my own interest group.' Not one person has written this.
'The public's position on regulations is quite similar. After a plane crash, many people write in to ask, 'Why doesn't the government do something about this?' After an oil spill, letters arrive asking, 'Why doesn't the government do something?' If a trash dumpster falls on a child, people want to know why Congress doesn't write some new regulations. Everybody wants the government to 'do something' about each problem - but to stop passing so many regulations.
"A cousin so mine from a tax revolt state visited here recently. He raked me over the coals for the sins of a Congress that spends too much and regulates too much. Then he turned right around and asked whether a bill that would give him extra $ $ $ was going to pass. I tried to point out the contradiction, but he didn't see any connection."
When I introduced this letter, I said it was "on a seemingly unrelated topic." It is not about congressmen convicted of crimes but about selfish constituents who put venal congressmen to a test they cannot pass. But there may be a connection.
Congressmen who learn to respond to pressure from self-interest groups instead of to the call of statesmanship can then go on from there to pass across the line that distinguishes self-interest from criminal activity.
And at the point we must ask: Whose fault is it that some congressmen have me-first attitudes? Who voted tham in? Who kept them in? And who taught them to grab everything that isn't nailed down?
Perhaps our congressmen are what we make them.