It occurred to me again today, as it often does, that Congress has to be the only public entity whose members decide their own pay, decide their own pensions, decide their own healthcare, and give themselves a nice healthy budget to hire staff to isolate themselves from the people they pledged to represent. Harrumph. Nothing new, there.
One bright light gleamed from today's paper: Senator Chuck Grassley is again off holding town hall meetings in his home state of Iowa. He pledged to meet with citizens in each of the state's 99 counties each year - a promise he has kept since 1980. No staff interposes. He stands up and answers questions thrown to him from constituents. If they throw guff, he catches that. That willingness to meet and answer to the people ought to be a common characteristic in Congresspeople. Unfortunately, the experience is more likely to involve filling out an online form with a limited message section, applying one of the labels helpfully supplied to indicate the type of issue (although if your communication doesn't pigeon-hole into a preset category, you're a square peg in the round hole), and waiting for a form letter response from an anonymous staff person. Whoopee.
In light of the first paragraph and the complaint in the last part of the second paragraph, above, you will pardon your Congresspeople for believing themselves "elites."
How can we counter that mindset? How can we emphasize that these people serve at our pleasure, to do our work, and are supposedly accountable to us?
Since a lot of the stupidity on the Hill relates to pecking orders, dominance games, and over-weening self-importance, it occurs to me that making provisos that tend to break down dignity might serve also to break the log jams. My first fantasy along this line was, "What if each candidate for Congress, House or Senate, had to submit to having a set of mug shots made while standing in the nude? Pot bellies, droopy boobs, sagging buttocks, and all? What if the mug shots were posted in all U.S. Post Offices for a month prior to the election? Maybe with a sign, like WANTED - FOR CONGRESS? " You would really have to want to be elected to go through that indignity. We might actually get people who wish to serve and not BE served.
Ah, dream on, Mark. The problem with that scheme is that Congress would have to vote it in.
OK, so, second try - How about requiring each candidate for Congressional office to supply a signed affidavit from a town or county officer (NOT state and NOT city officer) that the candidate completed 80 hours of community service in the previous 6 months? Such service would have to be hands-on, low-level work: child care worker, cleaning graffiti, cutting grass, and the like. The usual person who does that work would shadow, supervising to be sure it was done right, and would continue to be paid normally while the candidate served for free.
Now, here we have a possibility. Community service is aligned with the public office the candidate aspires to, and so shouldn't generate objections. It forces the candidate to get dirty, take advice, and actually rub shoulders with real people who do real jobs. The candidate can picture glorious photo ops ("Senator Bunko ladles it out at the local soup kitchen") while the public gets to see his/her character when required to spend 2 weeks at such a job, not the paltry hour politicians play-act in them now. Does he still smile when the Dugges baby needs changing again?
And what's more, doing this every election means that incumbents are never totally divorced from their constituents. With office budgets of $1.3 - 1.9 million (Representatives) or $3 - 4.7 million (Senators)*, they can hide behind their staff most of the time. I think anything that forces them to reconnect with "non-elites" back home will help their general mindset and keep them aware of their constituents as people, not merely voters.
* Source: Congressional Management Foundation
It occurred to me, upon further reflection, that there are other ways of forcing Congress to approach its job differently. Term limits, alas, are just not going to gain sufficient traction, because the power of seniority is enjoyed by the states which have career politicians ensconced in Washington. (My own state, South Carolina, enjoyed the duo of Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms in the Senate for decades. Their longevity in office gave our poor little state an influence it could not wield otherwise by its population or contribution to the national economy. This is not healthy.)
So, okay, how about this: Set a mandatory retirement age.
As I write this, President Obama's 2nd Inaugural address is still fresh and being discussed. The pundits are writing about the narrow window Obama has for getting the things done that he hopes will be his legacy - about two years before he begins to be treated as a lame duck.
I recall my own Congressman, Bob Inglis, was treated as a lame duck from the moment he arrived in Washington, because he announced he was voluntarily term-limiting himself.
The difference between a lame duck and someone with a viable capacity to make deals is the indefiniteness of the latter person's future tenure. The power system in Congress first reflects whether you are of the majority or minority party, and secondly your seniority. The implicit assumption about every member (unless they personally say otherwise) is that they want to be re-elected, indefinitely. Unless they are so wobbly in their district that re-election is questionable, they can continue to be power brokers that "improve" with age. (Harry Reid nearly lost last Fall, but was lucky to have the Republicans oppose him with a weak candidate with a mouth that needed some self-censoring. Still, the Senate Majority Leader retains his post and acts as the gatekeeper for anything the Senate does - or doesn't - do.)
The effect of not having term limits or fixed retirement age is that power builds with seniority, and these people acquire the sense of truly being elites, instead of the representatives hired by the people of their states to conduct business in their name. There is an awful lot of posturing aimed more at satisfying egos than getting useful things done. With a Congress full of careerists who have no intention of returning to the civilian economy, we get "kicking the can down the road." No one ever wants to treat major problems like the Federal entitlements realistically. They will anger constituents who are adversely affected by the necessary changes and thereby endanger their re-election prospects. It's no surprise that this happens. It's a predictable outcome of a system that rewards Congressional membership with high salaries and unreasonably generous benefits. No one is ready to kill his own golden goose.
In the general corporate world, you have ages at which you are permitted to retire with benefits, and you often have mandatory ages for retirement. Companies recognize that an infusion of new blood is needed from time to time, and that if opportunity to advance is restricted because key office-holders don't wish to bow out, the best and brightest up-and-comers will go elsewhere. In other words, well-run companies have formal processes aimed at succession planning. Every key role needs a person fully trained and experienced enough to step in if the holder dies, retires, or moves on to greener fields elsewhere.
These succession plans are largely absent from the body politic. Getting elected is a scramble to get your name known by people who are mostly uninterested in the nitty-gritty of politics. This is usually translated to needing money from the minority of the populace that does notice and care. Nothing qualifies someone for running for Congress like the ability to reach into other people's pocketbooks. And nothing solidifies that ability like the accretion of more power with seniority.
So I propose to disrupt this unhealthy reality with a mandatory retirement for Congressmen. As some people who work for a living might be tempted to "public service" after retiring from "work", this age might be reasonably advanced. To pick a number, suppose we said "no one shall be accepted as a candidate for Congressional office, Senate or House, who shall have attained his or her age of 70 upon the day of election." Poof. No House members older than 72; no Senators older than 76. (Exception: this wording does not restrict appointments to seats vacated partway though a term, but does mean such a place-holder will bow out at the next election.) And now, we have a new class of lame ducks - people who cannot win another election due to age. I believe lame-ducking the senior-most members of Congress will permit upstarts with less invested to have more say. Perhaps the seniority system will be partially overturned if younger members realize they can break ranks with their party's leaders, because those leaders will not be able to work against them forever. I believe any change that tends to de-penalize working with the opposing party to reach compromise is a good change.
I don't believe the People's business is handled well by career politicians. I consequently believe term limits is the best solution. But failing that, I propose we oust office-holders when they have reached an age that the corporate economy would generally agree is fair and reasonable. We then will have more of a conversation about ideas, instead of the ingrown powers conferred by senior committee chairs. We will refresh our body politic with fresh viewpoints more frequently.
I've long been a fan of term limits. When people aspiring to office know, going in, that they're coming out and going back to "real life" after a maximum period, there is less incentive to spend all their time working to be re-elected, and there is less influence that outsiders can wield with contributions. This doesn't force officials to do the public's business, but it does raise it in the chain of priorities.
Of course, term limits for Congress are a hopeless battle. Even though certain states have managed to institute limits, there is no way that states with long-serving, powerful Congressional members are going to willingly give up the influence that accrues to members with seniority.
I saw this first-hand with local Congressman Bob Inglis. I met Bob twice while he was as yet a relatively unknown person challenging a well-known incumbent. I liked his policy philosophy very well, and his unilateral promise to limit himself to a discrete number of terms made him appear very honorable and earnest. Bob won his seat. His problems began immediately. With the knowledge that he wasn't going to scrabble and scratch backs for favors to help with his re-elections, he was immediately marginalized in committee assignments. Knowing he would not accumulate significant seniority, the power brokers refused to let him play with the big dogs.
It occurred to me today that there may be another, less onerous way of overcoming the bitter partisanship that plagues Congress than by sweeping them all out the door every few years.
You see, each time one of the parties gets big majorities in one or both Houses, it tries to institute rules that will favor it and disadvantage the other party. To my mind, this inevitably leads to such egregious behavior that eventually the electorate decides it's had enough. The pendulum swings the other way, and the majorities tip to the opposing party, which seems virtuous next to the crooks & thieves that have finally raised the public's ire.
After about eight years with the new masters of Congress, it's time to swing the pendulum again.
So, my idea is this: Remove the parliamentary rules and processes that freeze out the minority party.
It's amazing to me that a) the two Houses work under different rules, and b) both have a host of methods for managing legislation designed to bottle up the minority party. The committee chairmen, who usually are the most senior members from the majority party, can refuse to take a bill to the floor. The Senate Majority Leader and the House Speaker can both set the business in their chambers so that bills they don't support are never brought for debate or vote. In fact, they can refuse to accept offered amendments from the minority party. Even if, for appearances sake, they allow the other guys some voice, they can make sure that their ideas go nowhere by enforcing "party discipline" against them. Since most Congresspeople want to spend nice long careers at their jobs, they are loath to cross the leaders. And there are other leaders charged with making them see the light, if they show signs of straying; why do you think the "Whip" got named that? The Senate even has procedures that let single members put anonymous holds on legislation for reasons they are not compelled to state. So when the electorate wants to know why the Senate is doing nothing on an issue, they can't even find out who is blocking it!
It's only major legislation that is closely watched by the electorate that has a chance of a revolt by the back-benchers. Being accountable to your constituents is not that easy when they're actually paying attention to how you're voting.
Result: Issue after issue voted along party lines on bills that are crafted with the ideas and input of only the party in power.
It's (I think) true that over the long-term, America is about 45% Republican and 45% Democrat and 10% truly independent and persuadable. To pass bills that ignore the input and ideas of one party is disenfranchising a huge minority of the country's citizens.
Right now, Obamacare is an article of faith among Republicans that it is a socialist vision with a huge price tag we can't afford. It's equally an article of faith for Democrats that Obamacare must be in place to provide health care to the "needy" (however that is defined).
If you get Congresspeople alone and off the record, you will find that both sides think there are parts of this 2700-page bill that we really need, and some that we'd be better off voiding and starting over. Few exhibit unalloyed happiness about it. The reason we have this is the determination Congress felt, when Democrats controlled both Houses, that we needed to move this bill written by anonymous staffers, and do it without fighting skirmishes over pieces of it with the Republicans. So it was rammed through with no Republican input... or votes.
Can anything be so vexing to a Congressperson as to be unheard because of party affiliation? But, absent some quantifiable leverage such as the House's control of the debt ceiling, there is no input sought or accepted from Congressional Republicans right now, on anything.
And I have perfect confidence that when the pendulum swings back, and Republicans are the majority party again, they will do their damndest to ignore Democrats while pushing their agenda.
The solution is to remove the devices, dodges, processes, practices, and maneuvers that are codified in the chambers' rules that prevent the minority party from being heard - that make compromise so tough. When (or if) we go back to civilly listening to the other side and candidly admitting that they might have some useful ideas too, we might stand a chance of getting the peoples' business done. And when BOTH parties stand behind painful compromises that address our pending fiscal crises, Congresspeople might be able to resist the inborn feeling they need to run for cover.
Come on, Congress. Clean up your act. Compromise. Get the deals done. Stop acting like children. Maybe then you could have a reason to feel as you do - that you're better than the rest of us.