Saturday, February 26, 2011

Should a Congressman step down because he is ill?

The story of David Wu, a Democratic member of Congress from Oregon, has gotten a lot of play in Washington, DC and in his home state, but not too much nationally.

According to those closest to Rep. Wu on his staff, he is mentally ill. Based on the stories, it is unclear to me what specific condition he has. The stories simply cite his "erratic behavior" and various "strange episodes," such as emailing pictures of himself dressed up as a cat.

The National Journal today sums up editorial opinions from Oregon, calling for him to resign:

Even as several of his Oregon papers have called for Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) to resign, the seven-term congressman is showing no signs of stepping aside, and even filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission on Wednesday to begin organizing a reelection campaign for 2012.

The newspapers requesting he quit Congress are small and large:

On Thursday, the Beaverton Valley Times wrote that "Wu's troubles should force him to seek an immediate leave of absence from Congress or resign from office altogether" but that they did express hope he "receives professional help and recovers." The Times also wrote that Wu's latest actions weren't "all that surprising" though, as the Portland congressman has been rumored to have eccentric tendencies for years, but nothing as extreme as what happened last fall.

I don't know enough about Wu to say that resignation is the right course. However, it appears that the newspapers calling for him to step down don't believe treatment from a psychiatrist will lead to a satsifactory outcome, where he can perform his job. (My guess is that the newspapers are as ignorant as I am when it comes to his diagnosis and prospect for improvement.)

The Eugene Register-Guard wrote Wednesday that it was the fact that Wu was less-than-forthcoming about his problems that should cause him to step down. Wu "says he has sought professional care, and supporters claim that seeking treatment should not disqualify a person for public office. They're right, but that's not the issue. The real problem is a lack of candor, and for that he should resign."

Beside the stigma and embarrassment of mental illness, it is also true that many patients lack insight into their own disease. If you have skin cancer, you can see that your skin is not right. But when you have a brain disorder, there is nothing tangible and you might not realize that you are sick, even when others tell you that you are. As such, it seems a bit strange to suggest that "the real problem is a lack of candor." The real problem is likely that he is mentally ill and has not yet figured that out. If he gets good psychiatric treatment, perhaps he will recover and then his candor or lack thereof matters not at all.

The Daily Astorian was more sympathetic, writing that "Wu's situation appears to involve symptoms of mental illness, and that is sad to observe." But the paper ultimately comes to the conclusion that it "would be the better part of smartness for Wu to resign, but political decisions are more often emotional than rational."

I find it interesting that these newspapers want Wu to step down because he is sick and as such cannot serve his constituents. I don't think they are wrong to think that way. But compare Wu to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot through the head and is, likewise, unable to serve her constituents. Would all of these papers call for Ms. Giffords to resign her seat?

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