Washington's Do-Nothing Patriots

They save the flag; everything else is on a back burner.

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

June 30, 2005

It will soon be the Fourth of July again. Do you know where your flag is?

Why there it is, inside the Capitol, being waved around by members delighted to solve a problem that doesn't exist while ignoring ones that do. Last week, your House of Representatives voted, 286 to 130, to amend the Constitution to save the flag from being burned. The measure now goes to the Senate.

You say you weren't worried about flag-burning? That's why the folks in Congress make the big bucks and you don't.

Since 1989, when the Supreme Court ruled that the 1st Amendment protected desecrating the flag, Congress has been grandstanding about it with little danger of actually desecrating the Constitution with a frivolous amendment. It gives Republicans something other than the morning-after pill, gay marriage and lesbian puppets on public TV to rail against.

If lawmakers wanted to do something really patriotic this Fourth, they might do their jobs. How about asking hard questions about the war, and beefing up the armor on those Humvees that keep getting blown apart? If Old Glory is so important, why have so few House members traveled to Dover to see it serving the high purpose of draping the coffins of the more than 1,700 soldiers who died for it?

They sure won't run into the ever-optimistic president there. His response to the fresh wave of carnage in Iraq was to take to the airwaves Tuesday night in a PR effort designed, White House senior advisor Dan Bartlett said, to "educate the American people" about "our strategy for victory." How about educating the president?

The soldiers at Ft. Bragg know better. They know Americans were not greeted as liberators in Iraq, and the rosy, unfounded assumptions that they would be created the catastrophe now killing their buddies.

The insurgency, not in its last throes, may well kill and maim thousands more soldiers as well as countless kids being recruited with everything but keys to a Lexus convertible.

If Bush had given that same myopic speech before Congress, there would have been at least 10 standing ovations, led by armchair patriots waving the flag. At Ft. Bragg on Tuesday, there was no applause until a presidential advance man conspicuously started clapping.

Congress is proof of Samuel Johnson's adage that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. Look at one of the flag amendment's loudest and proudest cosponsors, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham.

The Republican congressman from San Diego is under FBI scrutiny for a questionable real estate deal with a defense contractor, in which he made $700,000. "Ask the men and women who stood on top of the [World] Trade Center," Cunningham said. "Ask them and they will tell you: Pass this amendment."

Then there's Rep. Donald Sherwood (R-Pa.), who also wrapped himself in the Old Glory amendment. This is the Sherwood of the "Sherwood denies choking woman" headline in the April 30 Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. The married, 64-year-old lawmaker told the paper he was just giving an "acquaintance" (a former Hill intern) a "back rub" in his Washington apartment when suddenly she ran into the bathroom and called the police. The 29-year-old "acquaintance" proceeded to file a $5.5-million lawsuit against the congressman, alleging they had a five-year affair punctuated by bouts of physical abuse.

Sherwood has apologized to his family and constituents for causing "pain and embarrassment" but denied the assault allegations. Republicans who thought a president having sex with an intern was an impeachable offense have rallied round.

Every member who's expended an ounce of energy on this amendment should be ashamed. If they don't have guts on Iraq, how about restoring the House Ethics Committee, which should call before it every member lobbyist Jack Abramoff ever put up in a four-star hotel?

How about balancing the budget, or reforming healthcare so patients could have a real doctor in attendance rather than Bill "Video Doc" Frist making diagnoses from the Senate floor?

Even former Speaker Newt Gingrich is alarmed by how careless Republicans have been with their power. "When you are in the minority, you need to fight," he warned this week. "When you are in the governing majority, you need to produce." This from a man who in his day threw more cocktails than Molotov.

This Fourth of July, the flag will be flying over my parents' house in Pennsylvania. The country will be celebrating. But the sight of Congress doing its job would elicit more astonished oohs and aahs than any fireworks.