In this bittersweet time of year the adult of sensibility is compelled to balance the manifold sorrows of memory with the gifts of the present: the excitement of children, the love of a few and, less significantly, the adjournment of Congress.
It is a minor blessing at best, but for a few weeks the supreme legislative body of the republic will do no harm to the general well-being. The torrent of hypocrisy, cant and righteous self-importance will cease, and the people will have a silent moment to realize that they alone can arrest the deterioration of social justice and economic progress left unmolested by their representatives in Washington.
The unaccustomed tranquility of the season will permit wisdom to inform us that this last Congress did almost nothing to enhance the secure prosperity of the country, or to obstruct the continuing assault on America's forgotten majority: the huge, hopeful, hard-working, naively trusting middle class that bears the costs and mistakes of government and then, battered and cynical, patriotically marches off each Election Day to send another troupe of rogues to Washington.
It is with great pain that I feel forced to inscribe so harsh a polemic. Indeed, I originally intended this piece as a Christmas tribute to legislative courage and foresight. Then I looked at the record. And the record speaks for itself.
On the national deficit we were given the euphoniously titled Gramm-Rudman Act, which proclaims that Congress cannot imagine any way to rescue us from mounting heaps of debt, and, therefore, the budget will be forced to cut itself. Almost every congressman who voted for it knows that it won't work.
As for the injustices of our tax system, they were conquered with a name. A bill has been shrewdly crafted to continue the special privileges of the wealthy under the resonantly virtuous title of "tax reform." Let us, more truthfully, call it a tax-tinkering bill. Under this bill, should it pass, rich individuals and corporations will still be able to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.
And what about the other great issues of the day?
On the trade deficit that is sending American jobs and productive wealth to foreign countries: nothing.
On the undeclared war in Central America: nothing.
On the transfer of income from the middle class to the affluent that has reduced the median family income of the forgotten majority: nothing, of course--nothing at all.
On the incredible fusion of giant American corporations--the so-called mega-mergers--in flagrant violation of existing antitrust laws, accomplished by creating corporate debt that drains away private funds needed for investment and modernization: nothing.
And on education, nothing. On modernization of industry, nothing. On the poisoning of air and water, nothing. On arms control, nothing.
I am not making a case for the abolition of Congress. There are worse things than nothing. Nor can we frame a simple remedy, since the causes for the corruption of this occasionally great institution are manifold. The prime among them is the collapse of coherent party structures, especially that of my own party--the Democratic Party. It still exists, but without principles, policies, programs or any organizing ambition for America's future. A party without convictions or guiding values is nothing more than an organized conspiracy for the acquisition of public power. And that is what the Democratic Party has become--a group of office-holders and functionaries who measure success by the number of offices won, and by the possibility--should 1988 be a year of miracles--that the presidency will be theirs.
Success by this measure will not heal the afflictions of America. Voters can provide a man with an office, but they cannot outfit him with values and courage.
To revive vigorous congressional government, the Democratic Party must be reformed or replaced. That will not happen from within. It must spring from an organized effort of the concerned, the educated, the young--and all the other elements of the coalition of ideas and energy from which the party structure has severed itself. The formation of a progressive coalition is not only essential, it is possible. We have the example of the successful conservative movement to sustain us.
The subject requires elaboration. But this week, in the immortal words of David Letterman, our time has run out.
Meanwhile, should you, during this holiday season, chance upon a congressman or two, advise him to follow the 1835 counsel of Nicholas Biddle to the advisers of Benjamin Harrison: "Let him," he wrote, "say not one single word about his principles or his creed--let him say nothing--promise nothing. Let no committee . . . extract from him a single word, about what he thinks now, or what he will do hereafter. Let the use of pen and ink be wholly forbidden as if he were a mad poet in Bedlam."
Happy Holiday Season. And may the blessings of it fall mightily on the New England Patriots.