By Marie Cocco
WASHINGTON—Oh, how I wish I could get all worked up about the Mark Foley/Internet sex predator/Republican leadership coverup scandal. Sadly, I cannot.
The exposure of the former Florida congressman’s penchant for electronically stalking teenage boys who served as House pages and the congressional leadership’s transparent failure to investigate don’t move the needle on my moral outrage meter. It got stuck in the red zone long ago.
Was it before Abu Ghraib, or after? It might have been the day the Bush administration’s internal memos justifying torture became public—and Congress did nothing, save for confirming as attorney general Alberto Gonzales, the former White House counsel who was complicit in developing the abusive interrogation practices.
Was it the Iraq invasion, or the preview to it, when administration officials—and Republican lawmakers who made the House an echo chamber of deceit—tried to convince us that Saddam Hussein was somehow connected to the 9/11 terrorist attacks? Was it the congressional abdication of responsibility for holding anyone responsible for the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—a striking absence that United Nations inspectors already had revealed before the American invasion?
Or was it the many ways congressional Republicans corrupted the very conduct of House business, and not just by selling their offices to the likes of Jack Abramoff, the now-convicted lobbyist? The needle on the meter ticked pretty high during the shameful shenanigans over the Medicare prescription drug legislation. The GOP leadership lost the initial vote but then held the roll call open for three hours while arms were twisted and rewards promised to those who switched sides.
When it was over, the drug companies had won. Medicare would be barred from negotiating discount prices, as it does routinely for hospital stays and other types of treatment. Elderly patients would just have to shell out more for their medicine. Looking back on it now, I do believe it was this gouging of old, sick people that set my moral outrage meter to a permanent high.
That was nearly three years ago. It was before Congress, joined by the president, effectively stormed into Terri Schiavo’s hospice room in a spectacularly ugly pander to the Republican Party’s conservative Christian base. It was before the House leadership tried to marry a modest increase in the minimum wage—under which a full-time worker earns $10,700 a year—with a cut in the estate tax to benefit heirs who inherit $3.5 million or more.
The sex-capade that so excites the airwaves is only the latest squalor this Congress has ignored, encouraged or endorsed. Why, just before the Foley imbroglio seized the spotlight, both houses passed radical antiterrorism legislation that grants the president the powers of a monarch—authority the Supreme Court already ruled he does not possess.
Congress approved lifelong detention without trials, an ancient practice that civilized nations abandoned beginning with the Magna Carta in 1215. It gave the president power to define the extreme tactics that interrogators may use on terrorism suspects. It effectively granted retroactive absolution to those who might already have committed war crimes in carrying out the depravities that were authorized as part of the Bush administration’s war on terror.
As for U.S. citizens, we may be declared—solely on the say-so of the president—to be “enemy combatants.’’ The definition of such an enemy can include any person who has “purposefully and materially supported’’ hostilities against the nation, whatever that means. It could mean having once donated to a charity that later turned out to have some terrorist connection; it could mean agitating for an immediate end to our involvement in Iraq.
Through much of the past six years, the congressional practice has been to hold no one accountable for anything. Why would anyone now be shocked at the failure to check its own worst impulses? The blinkered approach mimics that of President Bush, who famously told The Washington Post in 2004 that he would not examine any mistakes or misjudgments about Iraq because his reelection had served as an “accountability moment.”
It is awfully late to experience a prick of political conscience when it comes to deciding the fate of those who have acted so unconscionably, for so long. But another election does approach. And we have to seize our accountability moments when we can.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.