Boy, the liberal press is steamed this summer. The U.S. Senate is an "empty chamber," says
the New Yorker
. "Washington is broken," drowned in "systemic corruption," says
. The Senate took a whole "year-and-a-half" to pass financial and health-care reform, proving it is leaderless, says the
Manure, says Ted Kaufman, Delaware's lame-duck U.S. senator.
Democrat Kaufman's congressional career began and will end with President Obama's tumultuous first two years. He took the seat of his onetime boss, Vice President Joe Biden, used it as a pulpit to call for breaking up big banks despite his home state's ties to Citigroup Inc., Bank of America Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co., and will retire after his replacement is elected in November.
Kaufman, 71, says professional Washington-watchers don't understand real corruption. Look closer, he says, at those giants who dominated the early republic: Daniel Webster changed from railroad opponent to cheerleader after rail investors gave him a stack of cash. Benjamin Franklin bragged in his autobiography that serving in Pennsylvania government enabled him to direct public contracts to his famous printing press.
It's not worse now?
"Here's what happens: Let's say you're the NRA," Kaufman says. "I'm running against Harry for the Senate. You ask Harry about gun control. He says, 'I'm agnostic. Maybe a little anti-assault rifle.'
"So you ask me, I say, 'I own guns. I've been a member of the NRA since long before I entered politics.' And you give me $5,000. That's not corruption. You're just supporting what I already believe."
"The problem is," Kaufman explains, "for the rest of my career I'm on the NRA ticket. I can't evolve my position, or I lose their support. They lock me in place, if I let them."
"If I genuinely believe corporate America has too much power, so therefore Harry goes and says that he doesn't, he'll get all the money. That's the real corruption. It's not what happens with the issues you genuinely care about. It's what happens with issues you don't care about." Water projects in far-off states, for example.
"I believe there are fewer senators being bought than ever before," Kaufman says.
How's that possible?
"Because of the sunlight," Kaufman answers. "The financial disclosure. The transparency in campaign contributions."
We're just more aware of what corruption there is?
"Yes," Kaufman says. "The reforms in the lobbying law, the increased campaign disclosures, it makes us look more corrupt - when it's actually less."
The people don't see clearly?
"And it's the times," Kaufman says. "That's one reason I've got to get out of this: When things are bad, it's bad to be in power.
"Look, back in 1990, I asked Ed Rendell, 'Why do you want to be mayor of Philadelphia? It's an awful job.' He said, 'Ted, expectations are so low, I can succeed!' "
Kaufman is angry at the suggestion that Obama's Congress has accomplished little of the promised change - in energy, immigration, the deadly Mideast wars. He especially rejects the complaint that Congress bickered too long over the two fat landmark bills that passed.
"How long since we last really reformed the banking laws?" Kaufman asks. "Since the Depression," unless you count the anti-reforming deregulation of the 1990s. "How long since we fixed health care?" he asks. "Not since Lyndon Johnson [passed Medicare]."
"This Congress has accomplished more [than Johnson's Great Society reforms]," Kaufman says. "Count the bills we passed. Compare the record."
Sure, Kaufman wants to write a book. Set people straight. But his attention wanders to the story of his father, who lost his University of Pennsylvania basketball scholarship to injury, worked to pay for his fine-arts degree anyhow, took a job in the city's Public Welfare Department, and taught art in the public schools.
Not an auspicious career, but a thoughtful one, that made a difference in people's lives, says Ted Kaufman.