WASHINGTON -- Five out of six Americans think Congress stinks. Can this republic be saved?
It's been a terrible, horrible year for the legislative branch. Lawmakers got virtually no work done, including passing the spending bills required by law, but they whined a lot.
We've lurched from one smelly scandal to another, month after month. Four Republicans who held influential posts in the House -- Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California, Bob Ney of Ohio, Mark Foley of Florida and Tom DeLay of Texas -- are gone in disgrace.
Not one top leader, from House Speaker Dennis Hastert to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, has escaped unscathed. The page scandal happened on Hastert's watch; Reid's land deals came under scrutiny. Senate GOP leader Bill Frist became known as the man who couldn't make the trains run on time. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi became the other woman Republicans love to hate and demonize (the first being Hillary).
So, new polling indicates that just 16 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing. (One wonders where those 16 percent have been for the past 12 months.)
The good news, such as it is, for incumbents is that many Americans personally like their own representative or senator, but can't abide all those other goofballs on Capitol Hill. While voters are angry at Republicans, they aren't much enamored of Democrats.
The issue now, as the crucial Nov. 7 elections approach, is whether Americans will be so disgusted that they won't vote or whether they'll be inspired to vote to try to make a difference, take a serious look at the candidates, plow through the forest of negative ads, read up on the candidates' records and decide that voting is the best revenge.
That's asking a lot of overworked citizens who are scrambling to make a living, watch over their children and parents, contribute to the organizations they support and care for themselves and their property. Voting guides are often meaningless or confusing; political ads are deceptive and mean-spirited.
If it weren't for the much-maligned (and often rightly so) news media, Americans wouldn't even know about the scandals on Capitol Hill. As it is, most have no idea who Cunningham, Ney, Foley, DeLay, Hastert, Reid, Frist and Pelosi are.
Nation at war
But this is a nation at war, and we need to do some thinking about what that means. Putting aside, for the moment, the rightness of the rationale of the war in Iraq and the validity of the president's motivations, watching Iraq slip so easily into chaos should give us pause. Don't we have a duty to provide an example to the world of what a real democracy is?
We're sending our sons and daughters to Iraq, where too many of them are dying or returning home disabled for life, ostensibly to keep Iraq a viable country. Yet, at home, no serious sacrifice is being required of us. How can we tolerate having another U.S. election -- one that will decide who controls Congress -- where only a third or so of eligible voters turn out to cast ballots?
It's true we have the freedom not to vote. But is that something to be proud of -- being too lazy to choose? It's true that in some races this year, our choices are dismal, and it might seem easier to cry, "A pox on both their houses!" But politicians live in fear of being turned out of office, not by their die-hard opponents, but by those in the middle. It's not the insipid ethics committees that politicians worry about, it's the voters who start paying attention to what the pols are doing as well as saying.
Despite all the hype that this could be a landslide election, there is just as much evidence that it will be close. Many races will be decided by just a few votes. We won't know the results until Election Day night or even later.
It would be a wonderful gift to our soldiers and the rest of us if we had a stupendous turnout Nov. 7, if millions who usually don't vote made the effort to go to the polls.
It might even inspire the next Congress to do its job, stop quarreling, choose new leaders wisely and make us proud. At the least, maybe we could have a Congress where nobody gets indicted or goes to jail.
Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.