If we wanted a lesson in whatís wrong with Congress, the House of Representatives delivered it loud and clear in the initial rejection of the Wall Street bailout package. The country is getting the worst of both worlds Ė politicians who are almost impossible to defeat but who run from their own shadows. One of the advantages of a safe seat should be that a lawmaker will do the right thing, even when itís unpopular. Not so with this Congress.
Take a look at the breakdown of the votes against the plan supported by the Bush administration and congressional leaders of both parties: Aside from a handful of members who are in tough re-election campaigns this November, the naysayers were conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. These are members who won their last elections by anywhere from 20- to 90-point margins.
But the warnings about dire consequences to the economy coming from the president, the speaker, the treasury secretary, the majority and minority leaders, the head of the Federal Reserve and, eventually, the nominees of the two political parties didnít move them. Instead, they responded to the streams of e-mails flowing into their offices, many of them generated by conservative talk-radio hosts and liberal Internet bloggers.
No wonder the congressional approval rating rests so low. If George W. Bush has the highest disapproval rating in history (70 percent in the most recent ABC News poll), he can take some comfort from the fact that Congress scores even worse Ė 75 percent in a poll average by RealClearPolitics.com. Pandering to the angriest voices in the electorate doesnít impress the majority of voters.
The presidentís low ratings made his leadership on even this vital economic issue ineffectual. He canít provide cover for Republicans who might have rallied round had Bush been in a stronger political position. But they donít need that cover. Of the 228 members who voted against the plan, only 17 are in serious danger of losing their seats.
Opponents of the bailout protest their objections were substantive, not political. Liberals balked at the idea of rescuing the fat cats on Wall Street. And they have a point. In 2007, the five biggest firms paid themselves $39 billion in bonuses while their shareholders lost almost twice that much in declining stocks.
Conservatives cringe at the expansion of government and the power of the treasury secretary the bailout creates. And they have a point. Running the nationís financial system out of Washington could be a risky enterprise indeed.
But leadership sometimes requires taking risks, doing the hard thing and explaining why it is necessary. Members of Congress are expected to educate as well as react when the nationís economic future is at stake.
Those stakes made defeat of the bailout bill unthinkable. No one expected it, including, apparently, the voters. In the wake of Mondayís vote, a quick ABC News poll found fully 88 percent worrying that the inaction by the House could make the economy worse. And some members who voted against the bill started hearing from constituents angry that they were suffering the consequences of the market collapse and credit crunch.
Why? Why would a Congress charged with saving the nationís economy act in such a wildly irresponsible manner? Especially when the members have nothing to lose, sitting smugly in safe seats? Because of the way the congressional district lines are drawn. Incumbents work with state legislatures to build fortress districts. Computers help determine ideologically pure liberal democratic and conservative republican strongholds where the opposition party doesnít have a chance.
But the members elected from those bastions live in fear of some yet purer primary challenger taking them on. They point to members like Chris Cannon of Utah and Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland, who were considered insufficiently orthodox and lost in their bids for renomination this year. The fact that they were two of only four incumbents defeated doesnít matter to their colleagues Ė they are held up as horrible examples of what happens if you dare to compromise.
Without compromise, nothing can get done. But even as the nation sits on a credit market in need of gallons of governmental Drano, House members judged that it was better to listen to the shrill voices telling them not to budge than to the experts telling them they had to act. That way, they can be sure to hold on to their totally safe seats. Itís truly the worst of all worlds.
Cokie Robertsí latest book is ďLadies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our NationĒ (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2008, Steven and Cokie Roberts. Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.