Washington Watch: The difference between Congress and a kindergarten

Washington Watch The di

I just spent several days with my granddaughter who recently started kindergarten, and I was reminded of the truth of the old joke about the difference between a kindergarten and the Congress. The kindergarten has adult supervision. You can add that they also play, work and behave much better than our nation's "elders" on Capitol Hill. The fact is numerous members of Congress routinely display a crass disregard for the truth, a determination to put partisan politics first on their list of priorities and outright corruption. Take Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), who said recently that questions about his statement that openly gay people and single mothers who live with their boyfriends should not be allowed to teach in public schools were "distracting from the main issues of the debate." In today's Congress, that's just a fancy way of saying he knew his comments were causing him some political tzuris but he wasn't backing down. Hypocrisy is a fine art on Capitol Hill. Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), who earned the nickname "Diaper Dave" following reports that he displayed a particular fetish during visits to a New Orleans brothel, was one of the outraged Republicans calling on President Bill Clinton to resign for his adultery, a standard Vitter rejected for himself. But perhaps most interesting was the response of his colleagues. Fellow Republicans gave him a standing ovation when he returned after refusing to resign, according to Hearst newspapers. They apparently feared he might quit and a Democrat would replace them. Another who called for Clinton's resignation was Sen. John Ensign (R-NV), who also said Republican colleague Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho ought to leave after being arrested in an airport men's room demonstrating his "wide stance." Ensign, however, apparently believes foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, because he was having an affair with his top aide's wife, paid off the aide with a cushy lobbying job and got his parents to give the couple $96,000, according to The New York Times, but said he wouldn't resign. These were just some of the "family values" politicians, along with now-retired Reps. Bob Livingston (R-LA), Henry Hyde (R-IL) and Newt Gingrich (R-GA), who were bellowing in moral outrage at the sinner Clinton while concealing their own adultery. My late boss, Rep. Benjamin S. Rosenthal (D-NY), once said that if we had laws like Saudi Arabia's on adultery, half the Congress could lose its heads. His colleagues were shocked - but I'm not sure which half. Bad behavior is bipartisan. THE 20-term Democratic chairman of the House tax-writing committee, a man who has helped write hundreds if not thousands of tax laws, wants us to believe poor memory and sloppiness led him to fail to report hundreds of thousands of dollars in income and to pay taxes on it. That's Rep. Charlie Rangel's version of "the dog ate my homework." The New York Democrat has no plans to quit, either, and says he won't do anything until the House Ethics Committee completes its inquiry. Rangel is 80 and could retire by then. Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), chairman of the Finance Committee, is a leading player in drafting health care reform - and chief water carrier for the health insurance and pharmaceutical industry, which coincidentally happen to be among his largest campaign contributors. The Center for Responsive Politics reports the health sector gave Baucus nearly $4 million between 2003 and 2008. Little wonder he opposes the public option. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) is chairman of the Banking Committee, which oversees the financial industry. He failed to disclose below-market-rate mortgages on two of his homes from scandal-hit Countrywide Financial, which had an interest in legislation before his committee. A friend sent me a cartoon captioned: "If a man yells 'you lie!' in a room full of politicians, how do they know who he's talking to?" Getting the nation's business done is increasingly irrelevant to lawmakers more interested in cutting down the opposition. Conservatives cheered news that the 2016 Olympic Games will not be held in the United States, not because they like Brazil more but because they hate Obama and were delighted his effort to win the games for his hometown failed. The reigning queen of the wingnuts, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), wanted to have her Congressional colleagues investigated to "find out if they are pro-America or anti-America." Her colleague, Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL), an heir apparent to Joe McCarthy, declared he has a secret list of 17 known socialists in the Congress. It's easy to say they're all a bunch of crooks and we should thrown the bums out. That's partially correct: we should give the bums the heave, but they're a minority. Most lawmakers I have known over nearly 40 years on and around Capitol Hill are serious, honest public servants. Unfortunately, it is the bad apples who get most of the attention - deservedly - and their colleagues are too often reluctant to do much about it. Term limits are too arbitrary. We have elections to decide who shall go and who shall stay. One answer is enacting - and enforcing - tougher campaign finance laws. Ultimately, public financing may be the better - and cheaper - way to go. For starters, Congress needs the bipartisan backbone to impose tough ethics rules administered by independent outside panels. If what we have now is the best congress money can buy, we deserve a refund. Big time.