THE BLOG
02/24/2011 11:56 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the Case of David Wu, Mediocre Representation Beats No Representation

Would you rather the emperor had no clothes, or lolled about dressed as a tiger?

Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), plagued by reports of erratic behavior, publicly apologized on Wednesday's telecast of Good Morning America for sending "unprofessional" e-mails to members of his staff. The pièce de résistance, it so happened, was a shot of Wu from Halloween, in a tiger costume.

Amy Sullivan, writing for TIME's Swampland blog, likened Wu's remarks to "your teenage son throwing an out-of-control bash that culminates in a Snickers-and-deep-fryer incident that burns down the house, and then apologizing for not watering the plants while you were gone." Recent revelations concerning Wu's personal conduct include his accepting of prescription painkillers from a supporter during the 2008 campaign and that one of his aides urged him to seek treatment for his "hostile and erratic behavior" last fall. Last January, six staffers resigned following reports of various outbursts, and just a week ago Wu had to take the unorthodox step of naming himself his own campaign treasurer after the holder of that position abruptly resigned.

Should all this be enough to prompt Wu to make his exit? The editorial board of Oregon's Register-Guard newspaper thinks it's about time. Wrote the board:

[T]he congressman's silence, and that of his staff members, led voters to make their decision without knowing important facts about the leading candidate. Wu should have been forthcoming about his medical treatment when it began. Candor might have been costly, but there might also have been rewards -- including understanding and sympathy. ... Whatever the price of candor, the price of its absence is higher. Wu can recover his health, but public trust is lost forever. He should step down.

It's an interesting standard, and brings to mind last fall's Republican candidate for governor in New York, Carl Paladino. Paladino's stability was also questioned publicly, and he came under fire after reports surfaced that he forwarded e-mails to friends with racist, sexist and pornographic content. That was before the election. Wu's reputation -- and his tiger outfit -- unraveled post-election day. Presumably, New York voters had the ability to evaluate Paladino's mental competence and vote accordingly. The Register-Guard's problem with Wu, then, is that the congressman -- unlike Paladino -- managed to make it past the finish line before the lid came off.

There's a certain logical coherence to this reasoning, but it avoids much of the reality of the role elected Representatives play in their districts. As Sullivan reported for TIME, Wu has been known since his initial 1999 election to the House as one of the more "volatile and verbally abusive members of Congress." The oxycodone incident -- though just reported this year -- occurred in 2008, and voters had another opportunity after that to evaluate his job performance.

The biggest issue with demanding Wu's resignation is that it unduly disadvantages the resident of Oregon's 1st Congressional district. A local Congressman is one of the prime conduits between citizens and other governmental agencies and services. By federal law and House rules, the employees of a vacated House office continue to staff the offices of the congressional district under the supervision of the Clerk of the House of Representatives. Although previously-commenced constituent service in these offices remain ongoing, the scope of such operations is limited. It goes without saying that all legislative activity ceases. Though congressmen are frequently chided for "pork-barrel" politics, securing federal funds to satisfy the urgent needs of one's constituents is a vital responsibility, and one that Wu fulfilled adequately.

Remember Chris Lee? Rep. Chris Lee's rapid absconding from his New York congressional district was far more harmful to his constituents than his Craigslist shenanigans. Though the in-progress casework of Lee's office will remain ongoing, Lee's website urges constituents who require assistance in matters relating to federal government agencies to apply to the representative of the nearest neighboring district for help.

Dealing with government offices is already difficult enough, and this burgeoning trend of vanity resignations primarily works to throw more wrenches into the process. It may not play well in Clatsop County, but the fact of the matter is the nation would be far better served if everyone could agree that mediocre representation is preferable to no representation at all. Even if it means letting your Congressman play dress-up every once in a while.