I really did not know that I could still be so surprised, even shocked, by corruption in the Congress of the United States. I thought my coating of cynicism was already more than thick enough to be impervious to any new revelations. I was wrong. Consider the following.

Seven members of the House of Representatives steered hundreds of millions of dollars in largely no-bid contracts to clients of a lobbying firm, PMA Group. In fiscal year 2008 alone, the seven lawmakers sponsored $112 million worth of “earmarks” (construction and other projects paid for by the government) for PMA clients while accepting more than $350,000 in contributions from the firm’s clients and lobbyists.

Such behavior should be investigated by the House ethics committee, should it not? And it was. The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct issued a report stating unanimously that the Congressmembers had not violated any rules or laws. “Simply because a member sponsors an earmark for an entity that also happens to be a campaign contributor does not, on these two facts alone, support a claim that a member’s actions are being influenced by campaign contributions.”

Ethics watchdogs issued sharp denunciations, citing portions of the report that showed that the private companies themselves thought that their donations helped them win earmarks.

One of the seven Congressmembers investigated was Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.) The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), a government agency not composed of members of Congress, which conducts preliminary reviews, found probable cause that Visclosky sought contributions in exchange for steering federal contracts to contributors. The OCE was in possession of e-mails suggesting that Visclosky’s fundraisers were specifically targeted toward PMA’s clients who were seeking earmarks. Even though the OCE recommended that the more powerful House ethics committee subpoena Visclosky and his staff to answer questions under oath about his earmarking practice, the members of the House committee chose not to subpoena Visclosky or any of the pertinent records.

Wait, it gets better — The FBI actually raided the PMA offices as part of an investigation into whether the company had directed illegal campaign contributions to lawmakers who helped clients obtain earmarks, and in 2009 a federal grand jury issued subpoenas to Visclosky, one of his former aides, and his political committees.[2] But nothing — apparently nothing — could move the members of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct of the United States House of Representatives to condemn their comrades.

This is the kind of Congressional corruption that drives so many Americans – on the right and on the left — to think of forming a new party. At times, the thought hits me as well. But two factors interfere. One, the overwhelming role played by money in American electoral campaigns can trump the best of intentions. Wealthy elites have no need for any other party. The Democrats and Republicans serve their needs just fine, thank you.

And two, ideology. Gathering together a lot of people who are turned off by Congressional venality and amorality sounds good until the ideological shit hits the fan. There will undoubtedly be a wide range of ideological leanings in any such group because people who are serious about third parties like to be “non-sectarian” or “non-exclusionary”, but this typically leads to serious friction, disputes and splits. Even if you specify something like “the United States should get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible”, that can still take various conflicting forms; people’s politics are complicated, not to mention confused. To those who like to tell themselves and others that they don’t have any particular ideology I say this: If you have thoughts about why the world is the way it is, why society is the way it is, why people are the way they are, what a better way would look like, and if your thoughts are at all organized, that’s your ideology, even if it’s not wholly conscious as such. Better to organize those thoughts as best you can, become very conscious of them, and consciously avoid getting involved with a political party that is incompatible. It’s like a bad marriage.

Things are indeed polarizing in America. There’s The Tea Party on the right and The Coffee Party on the left. On the face of it, The Tea Party scarcely makes any sense. A seemingly burgeoning new movement semi-hysterically marching and screaming that their beloved free enterprise is threatened by the “socialist” Barack Obama. (What next, that he’s a committed “Marxist” or “communist”? They’ve probably already said that; if you’re going to be dumb you may as well go all the way and be retarded.)

A group of more mainstream conservatives gathered February 17 at a Virginia estate once owned by George Washington and called for a return to the principles of Washington’s time to fight the political battles that lie ahead. They produced a declaration, “The Mount Vernon Statement: Constitutional Conservatism: A Statement for the 21st Century”. It is a short statement, a mere 546 words, yet the idea of “limited government” or “self-government” is referred to seven times. These people, no less than the Teapartyers, are obsessed with the idea that government intrusion into society of virtually any kind is harmful, or at least much inferior to what could be derived from “free enterprise, the individual entrepreneur, and economic reforms grounded in market solutions”, as they put it. This is standard and familiar conservative doctrine to be sure, but now feeding and powering a whole new generation of right-wing activists.

To counter the arguments of these activists, progressives need to present their own doctrine about the role and value of government in people’s lives, a concise summary of which I just happen to have prepared in my essay: “The US invades, bombs and kills for it … but do Americans really believe in free enterprise?” It was written several years ago, as the examples I use make clear, but this matters not for the ideological principles have not changed. The essay concludes: “Activists have to remind the American people of what they’ve already learned but seem to have forgotten: that they don’t want more government, or less government; they don’t want big government, or small government; they want government on their side.” [2]

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[1] Washington Post, February 27, 2010

[2] http://killinghope.org/superogue/system.htm