Over the weekend, I reflected on the quality of our representatives in Washington, but not their politics. The political divide that plagues America is well known. I despair that we have lost the ability to find middle ground. Political passion is one explanation and when that passion is motivated by a yearning for social justice, economic fairness, or freedom, it can be a good thing.
Unfortunately, political passion also often results in an abandonment of civility. Politics has always been a contact sport (although I hesitate to call it a sport, because the impact of the outcomes transcends any sporting contest) and the reality that today’s lack of civility on Capitol Hill, statehouses, and even town councils may not be as bad as in some past eras.
Nonetheless, I wonder if we expect too little of our representatives today. Last week Texas Senator Ted Cruz, appearing on Newsmax, criticized “liberals” for suggesting that Americans limit themselves to two beers per week. That seems draconian to me, but the advice was only a recommendation. Cruz responded in his video by guzzling a beer and saying, “Kiss My A**.”
It is likely impractical, but perhap legislators who engage in unbecoming conduct for persons in their positions should be subject to some sort of discipline or even expulsion. The goal would be two-fold: To make legislators become role models for the rest of us. One reason that Congress is held in such low regard is because there are so many “crazy” people serving in it. If those “crazy” legislators faced the risk of censure of expulsion, perhaps they would think twice before opening their mouths.
The second goal is to facilitate more exchange between the right and left. It is all but impossible to reach a compromise with someone who is calling you a fascist or a communist, suggesting that the Congressional district you represent is rat-infested, or describing you as bought-and-paid for by monied interests.
And it gets worse. Sometimes citing the first amendment and claiming to represent their constituents, some legislators have engaged in openly anti-Semitic or otherwise racist behavior and rhetoric. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN), for example tweeted, ““Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” She also has suggested that Jews buy political support and “push allegiance to a foreign country.”
Antisemitism is not the only offensive behavior of Representative Omar. She also sells t-shirts on her website reading, “F**k around and find out.” I wonder how many young people will be inspired to pursue a career in public service by her example.
Omar is not alone. Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) told Alex Jones of “Infowars,” “it’s not that Jews are bad, it’s just they are the head of the Jewish mafia in the United States. They run Uber, they run the health care, they’re going to scam you, they’re going to hurt you. F**k around and find out.”
Let us not talk about the seemingly endless flow of sewage coming from Laureen Boebert (R-CO), Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), right-wing dentist Paul Gosar (R-AZ) and others. These legislators regularly flirt with white nationalists, pose for Christmas cards with guns, and throw slurs at their colleagues. Representative Alexandria Ortega Cortez (D-NY), for example has called Republicans fascists.
Many more examples could be cited, but is there anything either party can do to curtail unbecoming behavior? Probably not. Why? Because efforts to police the unruly behavior of some representatives would be dismissed as politically motivated and, counter-productively, would spawn more name-calling.
Conventional wisdom claims that Congress should limit its efforts to police itself by censuring only truly outrageous or openly illegal behavior and that voters should have the right to send barbarians to Congress if they want to.
I worry that voters are not up to the task. Despite their open antisemitism, Representatives Omar, and Rashida Talib (D-MI) are routinely re-elected to Congress. And George Santos (R-NY), who lied his way into Congress, is likely to complete his current term because Republicans are loathe to expel him given their small margin of control in the House.
Thus, we are not likely to see any effort to police “conduct unbecoming of a federal representative.” Expect more name-calling, lies, cozying up to racists, and other outrages. Do not hold your breath for all voters to say “enough,” but be grateful that Maryland is represented in Washington by people like Ben Cardin, Chris Van Hollen, Jamie Raskin and several others.
J.E. Dean is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant writing on politics, government, and other subjects.