WASHINGTON — CONGRESS, badly rattled by the check-kiting scandal in the House of Representatives, is braced for its roughest election year in decades. Many members could lose their seats.
Yet as public anger with Congress rapidly escalates, some members of the House and Senate argue that they are being unfairly pilloried in the press and besmirched by voters.
Lawrence Hansen, a research professor at George Washington University, says congressmen are reacting to the storm of public criticism with a mixture of "acceptance, disappointment, alarm, bewilderment, and defensiveness." Professor Hansen, who spent weeks interviewing senators and House members, says many of them are "as fed up as the public is with the country's current political situation."
He found that Congress, while shouldering some of the blame, also insists that neither the public nor the news media have clean hands. Hansen conducted his study with a grant from the Joyce Foundation and the Centel Corporation. His primary focus was on 12 representatives and four senators from all parts of the United States who are considered some of the best thinkers on Capitol Hill.
He discussed his research as House members reeled from the check-bouncing scandal, which is being called "Rubbergate."
It already is taking a heavy political toll. Two veteran House members, Democrats Charles Hayes and Gus Savage, were defeated for renomination in Tuesday's Illinois primary. Public anger spilled into the Senate race in Illinois as well. Sen. Alan Dixon (D) lost his first election since he began running for office in 1949, even though the Senate is not involved in Rubbergate.
Republicans are predicting that the check scandal could put 100 new faces into next year's House. They suggest the GOP could take over control of the House in this year's elections for the first time since the 1950s.
Stunned congressmen complain that they are the victims of a massive, and perhaps misguided, "civic temper tantrum" directed at Congress for months.
A Democrat from the West with 14 years on Capitol Hill says: "The public complains it is not getting from government what it wants. But the truth is, people are getting pretty much what they asked for. In that sense, government is quite representative, probably too much so."
A Midwest Republican with 12 years of service makes a similar point: "We are so hypersensitive to what people think on a day-to-day basis that it has made it even more difficult to [make] politically courageous decisions."
A Midwest Democrat laments: "There is a deep distrust of us personally. Most think we are dishonest, that we have our hand in the till."
Hansen concludes that congressmen, just like the general public, know what the problems are, but the solutions remain elusive. However, he says, several ideas stand out:
1. This year's presidential election should be a "referendum on the candidates' visions and plans for the nation's future" - not a battle waged with symbols and feel-good themes. The nation needs new ideas, not banalities.
2. Voters should think twice before splitting their ballots between the two major parties - one party for president, another for Congress. The result is policy gridlock.
3. Congress needs to streamline its rules and committee structures, which currently impede action.
4. Congress and the White House should agree on campaign finance reform which restores public confidence in the integrity of the electoral process.
Of divided government, a Republican senator from the Southwest observes: "I don't think the Founding Fathers in their deepest and darkest nightmares ever imagined [this]. For 30 of the past 40 years, the American people haven't put anybody in charge."
However, there is another problem that no one in Congress seems to have a good answer for - namely, how to get members to make the very tough, politically risky decisions, like cutting programs. It's like "committing political suicide," they told Hansen.
The study says congressmen believe the public's anger is largely justified. But the public, like Congress, is sharply divided over solutions to complex problems.
And congressional anger with the media is growing.