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