Paper #2 – The ethics (or lack thereof) of the United States Congress

The United States Congress is arguably the most powerful legislative body in the country, responsible for financial and budgetary policy, national defense, and the oversight of the Executive Branch. And in August of 2012, its approval rating amongst Americans was 10% (Gallup 2012), a thirty-eight year low. Yet despite this appallingly low rating, members of Congress have historically been re-elected over ninety percent of the time (Congress of the United States 2012). Such a dichotomy seems absurd- if the American people are so thoroughly disgusted with their government representatives, why have they continued to re-elect them? And with such widespread public disapproval centered on Washington, why have those representatives not altered their behavior?

The U.S. Congress is a bicameral legislature consisting of the Senate, the upper house, and the House of Representatives, the lower house. There are one hundred Senators, two for each of the fifty states, and four hundred and thirty-five representatives, determined by the populations within specific congressional districts. Senators and representatives are selected through direct elections, with Senators serving six-year terms, and representatives serving terms of two years. Additionally, unlike the presidency, there is no limit to the number of times that a Senator or a Representative may run for, or hold office (Congress of the United States 2012).

As one of the three branches of the United States government, Congress’ power is checked by the Executive and Judicial branches, just as Congress checks those branches in turn. In fact, one of Congress’ main powers is executive overview, which includes the power to impeach and remove the president from office. Additional Congressional powers include the ability to lay and collect taxes, regulate commerce with foreign nations, declare war, and “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers bested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof” (The United States Constitution 2012). This last phrase, from the Constitution’s Necessary and Proper Clause, has granted Congress implied powers, as opposed to those directly stated in the Constitution. The president might be the most visible figure in the United States government, but Congress passes the laws and holds the purse strings.

In the wake of one of the worst financial collapses in the country’s history, followed by a nation-wide economic recession, there are several significant problems facing Americans today. Among the most pressing are high levels of unemployment, a fair solution to health care, financial system reforms that will effectively regulate big banks, and addressing the fallout from the mortgage crisis that cost so many people their homes (Greene 2012). These problems are daunting, divisive, and far-reaching. No single individual or private sector organization can be relied upon to solve them. Unfortunately, it would seem that the most powerful legislative organization in our country cannot be relied upon to solve them either.

Robert Brownstein notes in his book The Second Civil War is that the current political era is defined not by the polarization of the American public, but by the polarization of the American government (Beinart 2010). The two dominant political parties disagree at such a fundamental level that crossing party lines to resolve disputes has become painfully rare. How has this body of lawmakers strayed so far from the spirit of the constitution that created it? The answer to that question can be found by examining recent political history, specifically presidential elections. When Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1993 and the Republican Party lost power in the federal legislature, a new political strategy was born- use government failure to win elections (Beinart 2010). Rather than focusing on the strengths of their own party, Republican rhetoric began to focus on painting the Democratically-controlled Congress as ineffective and conflict-ridden, which they guaranteed through their own actions.

Two rules within the Senate enable such divisive tactics. First, the United States Senate is the only legislative body in the world that permits its members to engage in unlimited debate over proposed legislation. Additionally, Senators are able to offer unlimited amendments to legislation under consideration, whether those amendments are relevant or not (Lemos 2009). Senators can also ask for proposed amendments to be read, in full, aloud on the floor of the Senate. Such subversive tactics only serve to prolong already tiresome debate over what are often utterly useless amendments, created to waste time and prevent a bill from passing.

One of the most divisive tactics employed by Congressmen on both sides of the aisle is filibustering. A filibuster occurs when a single member of the Senate attempts to delay or prevent a vote on proposed legislation by extending debate. Thankfully, as membership of the House grew much larger than the Senate, a permanent rule limiting the duration of debate was enacted. Within the Senate however, filibustering takes place when any piece of major legislation is brought to the floor. In recent years, a sixty percent majority is needed to head off a filibuster, and if that cannot be reached, the majority party will often move away from an issue if a filibuster is so much as threatened (Congress of the United States 2012). Paul Krugman notes that while there were filibusters in the past, most notably by segregationists trying to block civil rights legislation, “the modern system, in which the minority party uses the threat of a filibuster to block every bill it doesn’t like, is a recent creation” (Lemos 2009). According to political scientist Barbara Sinclair, in the 1960s, threatened or actual filibusters affected only eight percent of legislation. In the 1980s, that number had risen to twenty-seven percent. However, when the Democratic Party gained control of Congress in 2006 and the Republican Party was in the minority, that number soared to seventy percent (Lemos 2009). In 2009, Senate Republicans filibustered eighty percent of major legislation. GOP leader Mitch McConnell actually led a filibuster against a deficit-reduction committee that he himself had demanded.

Politics within the United States Congress has devolved into a blame-game, with each party blaming the other for ineffective leadership and legislative incompetence. And while this sort rhetoric dominates the political discourse, each party blocks the other’s legislation at every turn, ensuring that the blame-game continues. Nothing of significance has been accomplished within the House or the Senate of late. The few pieces of legislation that do manage to pass are a mockery, such as the recent Congressional ruling that the tomato paste on pizza in school cafeteria lunches be considered a vegetable (Jalonick 2011). The Congressmen themselves are occasionally the source of public ridicule, such as Representative Paul Broun, who believes that evolution and the big bang theory are “lies from the pit of hell” (Wing 2012). A video of the statement can be viewed here. Just a few months ago, Representative Todd Akin created a veritable storm of outrage when he made a comment regarding a women’s ability to repel unwanted pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape”. Both of these men sit on the House Science Committee.

The graph above paints the Congressional national approval rating in a somewhat humorous light. But it raises a serious question- if Americans are so thoroughly disgusted with Congress, why do they continue to re-elect individual Congressmen more than of ninety percent of the time? In the four elections that have taken place between 2002 and 2008, only twelve Representatives were defeated in primaries. Over the same span of time, thirteen died in office. “God creates higher turnover in the house than primaries do” (Linbeck 2012). The answer to the re-election issue is complicated. On the one hand, campaign reform consistently favors incumbents- why would they pass legislature that would help someone take their job from them? On the other hand, no matter how unpopular Congress as a whole is, individual Representatives and Senators are often popular within their own districts and states. The legislative interests of a Congressman’s district often conflict with the interests of a country, and in order to remain popular at home, Congressmen push pork barrel legislation that benefits their constituents, even if such spending is not in the best interests of the country.

Is such behavior ethical? Advancing the interests of specific constituents, even if such behavior threatens national interests, might win a candidate re-election, but is it right? Following Emmanuel Kant’s moral philosophy, it could be assumed that Congressmen have a duty to serve both their constituents and the nation as whole. However, at a more specific level, Congressmen have a categorical imperative to serve the nation, since the laws that they enact have far greater reach than merely their own constituents (Kant’s Moral Philosophy 2012). Thus, pork barrel spending such as the unfortunately named Bridge to Nowhere would be considered unethical, even though that Congressman’s constituents would probably disagree.

Would the behavior of these Congressmen be considered ethical if viewed through a different lens? The theories of R. Edward Freeman and Milton Freidman regarding stakeholder and shareholder ethics are essentially opposites of each other. And yet in the case of the United States Congress, it is easy to imagine both men taking issue with the behavior of the Senate and the House. Freeman espoused a stakeholder-centered theory of business ethics, wherein managers have a duty to all stakeholders, not just shareholders. In this case, individual constituencies and states can be viewed as shareholders, while the nation as a whole can be viewed as stakeholders. When Congressmen focus their legislative efforts on their ‘shareholders’, it is often to the detriment of all stakeholders. Conversely, Friedman’s theory of business ethics is focused on stakeholders, regarding increasing profits as the only goal of the executive. If Congress were viewed as a business, the alarming national deficit and lack of meaningful legislation could be regarded as a distinct lack of ‘profits’. Freeman and Friedman would likely both find the behavior of Congress to be unethical.

Leaving aside the issue of re-election, the behavior of elected Senators and Representatives within the Senate and the House is distinctly unethical. These people were elected with the expectation that they would fix the nation’s problems. Their inability to raise to debt ceiling, come to an agreement on health care, or reach any sort of meaningful compromise is astounding. They waste time with pointless bickering and useless debate, more concerned with defeating the opposing party than with working to improve the country. By electing them into office, Congressmen are essentially being hired to do a job. And instead of confronting their responsibilities and doing that job, they accept campaign contributions from major companies in exchange for passing favorable legislation. They filibuster. They use every trick in the book to avoid actually doing anything. Such behavior is absolutely deplorable, irrational, and most of all, unethical.

Works Cited

Beinart, Peter. “Why Washington Is Tied Up in Knots.” Time. Time, 18 Feb. 2010. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.,9171,1966451-1,00.html.

“Congress of the United States.” Credo Reference. Credo Reference Limited, 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

“Gallup.” Gallup.Com. Gallup, Inc., Aug. 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

Greene, Bob. “Why Do We Pay Politicians for No Results? –” CNN. Cable News Network, 01 July 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

Jalonick, Mary. “Pizza Is a Vegetable? Congress Says Yes.” Msnbc Digital Network, 15 Nov. 2011. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

“Kant’s Moral Philosophy.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

Lemos, Charles. “A Broken United States Senate.” My Direct Democracy. MyDD, 21 Dec. 2009. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

Linbeck, Leo. “Why Congress Doesn’t Work.” The American Conservative. The American Conservative, 25 June 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

“The United States Constitution.” The U.S. Constitution Online. US, 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

Wing, Nick. “Charles Darwin, Georgia Write-In Candidate, Cast Into ‘Pit Of Hell’ By Paul Broun.” The Huffington Post., 07 Nov. 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

2 thoughts on “Paper #2 – The ethics (or lack thereof) of the United States Congress

  1. I wouldn’t say diversity=ethics. Still, this infographic seems promising that there is progress towards the house of the people reflecting, you know, the people.
    Most Diverse Congree Ever

    • This is pretty cool! As of the recent election, there are 20 women in the Senate, historically the highest number that there have ever been. Progress!

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