Fixing Congress #2

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment