Congress: a threat to respect for the rule of law and to the separation of powers?

I invite you to read Larry Lessig’s Declaration For Independence, Draft 1.0.  His description of our Congress is what led me to pose the question in the title of this post.

The rule of law is based largely on consent.  If citizens lose all respect for Congress and that loss of respect continues for a long time, can loss of respect for the laws passed by Congress be far behind?

And if, as Lessig argues, Congress has become dependent – has lost its most valuable attribute: independence – what kind of government do we have? 

In my view, unless more people read more about what is going on in their local and state communities, in our country and in the world, think things through for themselves (rather than simply nod in agreement with their favorite or the loudest, most obnoxious talking head), and exercise their own independent judgment (rather than being human echoes of talking heads), there is no reason to expect Congress to be any better than the country.

As things are eventually the country reaches a conclusion about what government has been doing and demands change.   After the endless scandals, incompetence, ruthlessness, lies, manipulations and greed of the past seven and a half years, the country is demanding a change.

But it is we who must change.  We need to pay closer attention.  We, individual citizens, need to exercise independent judgment as citizens and voters.  We need to demand more integrity, honesty and trustworthiness in all aspects of public life.  This is something that voters have traditionally done…..eventually. The problem is that “eventually” may no longer be soon enough.  Our sons and daughters may be sent off to war before we have thought things through on our own, while we are trusting a government that, based on the past seven and a half years, has proven itself untrustworthy.  Global warming may reach a point of irreversibility while we are not paying attention and while our government gives us scientific data corrupted by politics.  The gap between rich and poor, between those with health care and those without, and between those struggle to support their families and those who make more in a day or a week than 99.9% of workers make in a year or in a lifetime is something that everyone ought to at least think about.

The solution is not government. The solution is the exercise of collective responsibility which includes participation in government at all levels.  Individual votes matter.  Individual voices matter. The notion that “it’s hopeless,” and that “nothing can be done” is self-fulfilling.  In different ways and to different degrees, some private, some public, some infinitesimal, some obvious and influential, fulfilling the obligations of citizenship does matter.

And so as we ask more from Congress, we ought to do the same of ourselves.  I think it was Henry L. Stimpson who said, “Cynicism is the only deadly sin.”  While there are countless reasons to be cynical about government and about those who exercise power, justifiable cynicism is no excuse for not trying to fulfill the obligations of citizenship.  The first obligation of citizenship is to be well informed.  The second obligation is to think things through.  The third is to exercise independent judgment and do something to make things better.  Here is an example of something to make things better:  a petition to stop the re-building of a bridge on a small, lovely back road so that it will be able to accommodate 18 wheelers and other extremely heavy trucks.  The road wasn’t built for such trucks.  Truck traffic will ruin the road and make it unsafe for bikers and walkers.  Apart from the merits of the petition, the fact that citizens are participating makes things better.

Lessig’s Declaration For Independence, draft 1.0 is another example of “something.” Lessig has extraordinary gifts.  He is brilliant, thoughtful and eloquent. He has for years been an articulate, relentless advocate for the freedom of ideas.  Following a Supreme Court ruling upholding a law bought and paid for by corporations intent on prohibiting anyone else from making use of very old and wonderful ideas that long ago should have been freed from corporate control, Lessig turned his attention to Congress, which, dependent on corporate campaign contributions, voted repeatedly to enslave ideas long after the period contemplated by the Constitution.

Lessig has turned his disappointment at the Supreme Court’s ruling into an opportunity for others to help him mobilize citizens to call Congress to account.  You can find the Change Congress website here, where, among other things, you can learn more about the Change Congress project and can make a contribution.  I urge you to do so.

Lessig’s website is a place to visit for interesting ideas and inspiration.  

Make the effort to fulfill your obligations as a citizen.