It is often said, and usually supported by polls, that Americans distrust Congress but like their own representatives. That's why they can simultaneously be angry at the institution yet return its incumbents to office in overwhelming numbers (as of two weeks ago, Gallup reported that just 33% of Americans viewed congressional Democrats favorably, and just 28% believed congressional Republicans were doing a good job).
Sometimes that distinction can seem irrational — how can individually appreciated members be so bad collectively? But there are other times when it is useful to distinguish between the whole and its parts, and one such moment was on display this week during the climactic conclusion of the debate over raising the national debt ceiling, as one member of the House, Arizona Democrat Gabrielle Giffords, staged a triumphant return, while another, Oregon Democrat David Wu, slunk away for home.
Wu's story is an all-too familiar tale of sexual recklessness and the elevation of self-indulgence over loyalty to family, party or principle. According to the Portland Oregonian, which broke this particular scandal, Wu last year pressed himself on an 18-year-old woman who happened to be the daughter of a supporter. She says the encounter was against her will; he reportedly defended himself to aides by saying it was consensual. He stuck around in Washington long enough to cast his vote in favor of raising the debt ceiling, after which he said he would resign his office and head back to Oregon, where he belatedly plans to tend to his family. It is safe to say he will not be widely missed on the floor of Congress — nor, in all likelihood, much welcomed by his family.
By happy contrast, the return of Giffords also was linked to the fateful vote. Giffords, of course, was the congresswoman shot in the head seven months ago while speaking with constituents at a Tucson mall. At first feared dead, she bravely fought back and returned to the floor of the House on Monday just as the vote was being tallied. Her colleagues cheered lustily for the congresswoman, whose radiant smile survived her ordeal. She, too, voted in favor of raising the debt ceiling, perhaps the only thing the gutsy Giffords and the sleazy Wu have in common.
Members of Congress are smaller than the Congress itself, for better and for worse. Some joyously come; some thankfully go.