I’ve always had a soft spot for Congressman Mark Foley. You see, when I was a House page in high school in the summer of 2002, Congressman Foley was the only representative who would speak to me.
You know the tiny droids on wheels in “Star Wars” that scurry away whenever Darth Vader strides by? That’s sort of what being a page was like. Most congressmen — especially on the right — tend not to pay much attention to the lowly pages squatting in the back of the House chamber, unless it’s to glance at them with annoyance when they make too much noise. (I was once snarled at by Henry Hyde in an elevator when I said hello to him.) Don’t get me wrong — the page program was a terrific experience. But that was in spite of, rather than because of, the attitude of the congressmen.
In that environment, Mark Foley was different. He would come over, sit with us, chat with us, smile at us. He knew my name. He explained the House rules of procedure and helped us understand what was being voted on. Foley seemed a rare creature on Capitol Hill: a kind, thoughtful, courteous man who took time out of his busy congressional life to chat with us “little people.” For the last four years, I have always smiled at occasional press references to the Florida representative, secure in my knowledge that there are least some good citizens in Congress, even in its Republican half.
The revelations of the last weeks have, of course, given me cause to reflect on some other, less noble motivations the congressman might have had for chatting with us “little people.” And of course, like the rest of the country, I find Foley’s graphic e-mails and IM chats with 16-year-old pages luridly revolting and morally bankrupt. But as outraged Republicans and salivating Democrats across the nation leap eagerly into an orgy of self-righteous condemnation, it’s worth taking a breather from the Foley-bashing. Because at some point, the question has to be asked: Are Foley’s 230 Republican colleagues really morally superior?
Yes, Mark Foley asked his pageboy all sorts of anatomical questions the News would most likely not let me print. It was cyber-sexual harassment, and of a minor, no less. It was an abuse of power, and it was wrong. This sort of behavior was probably upsetting to a number of pages Foley interacted with — maybe even mildly traumatizing. But while Foley was busy composing what Tony Snow described as “naughty” e-mails, House Republicans have been at least as naughty in their own, distinctly congressional way.
Two weeks ago, the Republican Congress did something truly unusual: It managed to pass a law. Granted, it could have chosen to pass a lobbying reform bill or a congressional earmark overhaul. These are both priorities that the GOP promised it would address in the wake of DeLay-gate, Abramoff-gate, Cunningham-gate and any number of other -gates that the wildly successful Republican fundraisers managed to leave ajar over the last six years. Or it could have chosen to pass an immigration bill. On the one hand, given the Republicans sitting in the House, it probably would have authorized a program of mass deportation that would have made Andrew Jackson’s relocation of the Cherokee Indians seem benign. On the other hand, at least it would have been something other than the current stifling inaction on this urgent national priority. It could have passed the first minimum wage increase in nearly a decade. It could even, heaven forbid, have chosen to enact a budget or any of the nine unfinished spending bills required to keep the national government operating past the start of the new fiscal year in October. (Congress did manage to fund the military before its recess, so if worse comes to worst, we could just turn the reins of power over to them.)
The clever congressional Republicans didn’t do any of those things. Instead, they voted into law the Military Commissions Act of 2006, an atrocious bill that significantly expands the executive’s legal powers to detain, convict, execute and torture anyone designated an “enemy combatant,” and significantly undermines (some would say officially guts) such “quaint” documents as the Geneva Conventions. So that’s the final word from the Republican House — Mark Foley likes to think about violating pageboys, and a sizable majority of the members like to enact laws violating the most fundamental international laws of civilized society.
This country is obsessed with child molesters — we are singularly horrified by them, and yet, we love reading about them and watching them on TV. We hear about Jon-Benet Ramsey and we watch NBC’s new hit show, “To Catch a Predator,” and we delight in all the lurid details. Whatever our own private transgressions, whatever crimes we may be complicit in as a society, we can always point to the sicko down the street and feel righteous and pure again.
The country, and this Congress, should not be let off so easily. Outrage over one fallen congressman is easy to muster. Outrage over an entire congressional system run amuck — over a national legislature so dysfunctional it is no longer capable of legislating on behalf of the people — is harder to sustain. The Foley affair, useful though it is for Democrats at this moment, is a massive distraction from a debilitating problem. Let us hope Speaker Nancy Pelosi will be able to fix part of it.
Roger Low is a senior in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.