Maybe Americans are being too harsh on Congress.
For sure, partisan gridlock and acrimony on Capitol Hill has produced a steady stream of budget crises, including a near default on U.S. debt in 2011 and the repeated risk of a government shutdown. Democrats and Republicans fan the do-nothing stereotypes, with both the farm bill and immigration reform appearing to have reached dead ends in the House.
The roster of lawmakers convicted of corruption and theft is an eye opener – ranging from former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and GOP Rep. Duke Cunningham of California to former Democratic Reps. William J. Jefferson of Louisiana and Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois.
Taxpayer disgust with all of this couldn’t be clearer. Confidence in Congress has tanked to a historic low of 10 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll. In ranking the popularity of 16 different institutions, from cops and banks to small businesses and labor unions, Congress for the fourth straight year finished last.
And yet, our Congress looks spectacular compared to Brazil’s. Things could be so much worse.
In a story with the headline “Public Rage Catching Up with Brazil’s Congress,” The New York Times reported that one politician was elected to Brazil’s Congress while under investigation for murder, after having an adversary killed with a chainsaw. Another is wanted by Interpol after being found guilty of diverting more than $10 million from a public road project to offshore bank accounts. What’s more, Brazil’s highest court convicted another congressman of arranging to have impoverished female constituents surgically sterilized in exchange for their votes.
All and all, almost 200 legislators – a full third of Brazil’s Congress -- are facing charges in trials overseen by the Supreme Federal Tribunal. The charges range from siphoning off public funds to far more serious claims of employing slave labor on a cattle estate, or ordering the kidnapping of three Catholic priests as part of a land dispute in the Amazon.
The Times report is useful in helping to explain the root of the protests raging across Brazil, beyond complaints about a 9-cent increase in bus fare and excessive spending on facilities to host the summer Olympics and World Cup. Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist, was quoted as saying “Congress is without a doubt the most despised institution in Brazil.”
Feeling the heat of the public’s disgust, Brazilian lawmakers are scrambling to fix their tarnished image. They have discussed using oil royalties for education and health care and imposing stiffer penalties for government corruption. But it probably will take a lot more than that to wash away the stains left by some of the most notorious legislators.
Take, for example, Hildebrando Pascoal, who is commonly called the “chainsaw congressman.” And that nickname is not for cutting the budget.
When Pascoal ran for office it was well known that he was being investigated for operating a death squad in a remote corner of the Amazon, according to The Times account. He employed tactics like throwing victims into vats of acid or dismembering them with a chainsaw. Nonetheless, he won a congressional seat by a sizeable margin and served in Congress before he was stripped of his seat, convicted and sent to prison.
Welcome to democracy, the Brazilian way.