It’s a phrase that goes through my mind whenever I see the latest depressing story about political corruption or malfeasance in my home state: “Ill-Annoy” – a real time documentary about scandal that’s been playing out in front of the eyes of Illinoisans for decades.
But I must say, I’m particularly Ill-Annoyed today, as this afternoon former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert will be arraigned in federal court – a spectacle that will be spoon-fed to millions of Americans consumed yet again by political scandal.
Every state has its own sordid political baggage. Such is the nature of politics. But the historical lineage of Ill-Annoy leaders is infamous for its land mine of convicted felons. Walker, Blagojevich, Ryan, Kerner, Rostenkowski, Reynolds – the list goes on and on. And then it expands even further once you start looking at local governments. Now, a former high school wrestling coach who rose to become the third highest officeholder in the nation is soaked in the spotlight of shame.
It should go without saying that the first concern in this case goes out to anyone who suffered abuse from Hastert, if the charges are true. But beyond the sickening alleged acts, it is terribly annoying to watch helplessly as this latest Ill-Annoy political fiasco distracts from the larger problem in our government – the structural obstacles and defects that have helped to drop congressional approval ratings to record lows. The salacious charges against Hastert place the focus of D.C. dysfunction back on the individual, again, when there is a far greater need to look more closely at the rules that are wreaking havoc on our legislative branch.
After the story broke, Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd explained on NBC: “I always try to tell people, ‘Congress is not full of crooks and creeps, though you think it might be.’” Despite the latest soap opera headlines, I believe Todd to be right. There are a great many good people representing voters in these legislative seats. I believe this because I’ve covered them as a reporter, I’ve worked for them in their employ, and I’ve worked with them on various issues as a citizen. There are hard-working, well-intentioned members from both parties – both in the Illinois General Assembly and in Congress. I have seen them do good things, for no other reason than that they believed they were working to “promote the general welfare.”
And yet we’ve seen public confidence in Congress swoon to 7% within the last year. This perception cannot simply be ascribed to the high profile scandals we witness from time to time. This is about performance, or more accurately, a glaring lack thereof. And this is where a sharper focus on the system’s rules will serve us better than letting the lens remain reflexively trained on individual scandal.
I’m talking about the rules that not only permit, but encourage a flood of money to drown out the voices of the majority of Americans. As well, redistricting and winner-take-all rules team up to rig election races and serve to further divide our leaders once they travel to Washington. And then there are the rules that clog up the Senate and allow one member to kill proposed legislation via the filibuster – when 99 other Senators may be in favor of moving the country forward on an issue.
Discerning whether Hastert was well-intentioned during his legislative career is a judgment call. But we do know that he benefited from the rules that allowed him to retain his seat in a safe district with the help of an intimidating campaign fund, and profited from his political power after he left office by shuffling through the revolving door to become a lobbyist. The money he earned then allegedly helped him make the payoffs he is now accused of using to hide misconduct involving a student.
There are a number of non-partisan organizations working to reform the rules in these areas to make our Congress a more effective and representative body. Groups like FairVote, Common Cause and MayDay.US are putting in the time and sweat equity every day to unrig election contests, increase fair representation, and decrease the money flood’s influence on our politics. They are working on these reforms because they care passionately about preserving and improving our democracy.
A big part of this collective mission is coalescing Americans around the cause, and that requires working with the media to communicate the message far and wide. Now, sadly, the new Hastert case promises to play out for a good long stretch, as most of these debacles do. And whether guilty or innocent, the scandalous stench will distract from the more important political fact: we have a defective legislative system that needs diagnosis and reform. Fellow Americans, don’t let Ill-Annoy head fake you away from the real disease. Take a good look at the rules.