In a year when the label “worst Congress ever” is being invoked as never before, a movie about the most over-the-top corruption scandal in congressional history is topping the roster of Oscar contenders.
But will that prove to be bad luck, or a bit of good fortune, for the Capitol’s currently dismal reputation?
It’s easier to predict that the success of “American Hustle” will reinforce the public perception of the Hill as a metaphorical (and sometimes literal) den of thieves. But it’s possible, and arguably more appropriate, for the audience of voters to come to a somewhat different conclusion: While the lawmaking system may have become deeply frozen by partisanship during the past three decades, the baseline for congressional morality actually looks to have gotten a bit better since then.
Of course, there remains the expansive and minimally regulated gray area in which campaign contributions cross paths with legislative interests, with the best-connected lobbyists always figuring out ways to enjoy insider access to the lawmakers who matter most. And a dozen or more allegations against members, most of them relatively petty, are moving through the ethics process at any time. But only twice in the past decade (Republican Rep. Duke Cunningham of California in 2005 and Democratic Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana in 2009) have members been convicted for taking straight-up bribes.
There’s a persuasive argument to be made that corruption at the Capitol has decreased because sunshine on lawmaker behavior has increased. Self-policing by Congress, though improved a bit in recent years, is only partly responsible. Sharing the credit are investigative journalists, government watchdog groups, the new monitors of social media — and also the old-line purveyors of the popular culture.
So the film’s director, David O. Russell, should be credited with performing a valuable, if unintended, public service, along with spinning a terrifically entertaining and financially successful caper yarn. (It has been nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. Already the winner of the Golden Globe for Best Comedy and the Screen Actors Guild’s Best Ensemble prize, “Hustle” has taken in $117 million after six weekends in theaters.) Full story