December 10, 2010
America's Political Class: In Business for ThemselvesBy Jerry Shenk
Many citizens living outside the Beltway correctly think Washington is a swamp. Our capital city pulls people in and grips them. It doesn't matter how smart, altruistic, or committed newcomers are -- the longer they stay, the more they lose touch with reality. It happens to the unelected, too. Media, consultants, lobbyists, staff members, bureaucrats -- nearly everyone in public Washington is susceptible.
Sadly, the swamp-dwellers won't drain the swamp. Too many become powerful, comfortable, and prosperous there.
With good reason, people see America's political class as in business for themselves. Once elected, too many officials need their jobs. Many in Congress, for example, hold the best job they've ever had -- and for most, the best job they will ever have. In time, members wake up each morning thinking about what they can do that day to preserve their precious job.
Consequently, legislators' thoughts seem to involve too seldom their sworn duty to provide good governance, and too often how they will finance another successful reelection campaign.
To be fair, it doesn't start that way for most politicians, though for some it surely does. For most of them, time is their -- and our -- enemy. Time turns legislators against constituents by encouraging them to focus on themselves, and time allows initial public service aspirations to give way to self-service.
The news provides many examples.
Rep. Charles Rangel, a forty-year veteran of the House, first ran for Congress as a reformer to replace Adam Clayton Powell, an ethics violator. Recently, Rangel himself was censured by the House for ethics violations.
The evidence was known to House members for at least two years, but until it was broadly disseminated by the media, Rangel was spared in three attempts to remove him as chairman of the Ways and Means, the committee charged with writing many of the laws Rangel violated. In October 2009, Democrats organized a procedural maneuver to table and killed the third attempt to remove him.
Rangel's slap on the wrist restored "equilibrium" to the House and returned the body to normal business.
If you or I had been the perpetrator, the actions for which Rangel was merely censured would have been called by their correct name -- felonies -- and prosecuted when the violations first became known. Yet Rangel continues, unconfined, in a job paying $174,000 per year.
Other former veteran members of Congress and lobbyists with whom they colluded have done or are doing jail time for violations of their oaths and the law. These members and lobbyists brokered congressional earmarks and other favors involving our tax money for campaign donations and other benefits.
Rangel and others demonstrate that as time and position beget temptations, some surrender.
Most Americans are or have been represented by House members serving more than five terms in Washington or senators serving more than two. Legislative careers can last decades. Many legislators have slopped at the public trough their entire adult lives in one political role or another. Though personnel continuity in the military and agencies may be necessary, America's founders didn't envision a permanent political class. Seniority in Congress and too much time in office distract officeholders from legitimate voter interests and lead to the conceit that preservation of members' incumbencies is critical to their constituents.
In addition to time, the education and training of our political class often limit their competence and sabotage the public's interests.
Find the biographies of your legislators, learn their educational and work backgrounds, and discover what practical, real-world experience they have accumulated that would qualify them to create policy on anything as complex as the American economy.
With no disrespect to degree-holders, let's be honest. Political science is to science as tree surgery is to medicine. A degree in public administration means exactly...what? Sociology is about as much a science as astrology is. Simply because they make laws, are legislators qualified by law degrees to set policy regulating small businesses -- or health care and education?
America's political landscape is littered with marginally relevant degrees held by credentialed but inexperienced, often undereducated, and ill-prepared people who either write our laws or give advice to those who do. America is governed by people who have never designed, invented, or manufactured a useful product; performed a commercial service; harvested crops; treated a patient; met a payroll; or even punched a time clock as most Americans have done and do -- or would do if enough jobs were available. Of what value is the knowledge of how to move legislation without knowing what, if any, legislation is needed or will work?
We have a political class and political advisory network populated by those whose livelihoods, prosperity, and futures depend on maintenance of a system they have made incoherent and unsustainable. Their version of practical reality differs fundamentally from the reality understood by most Americans. Self-interested political "reality" contradicts the variously attributed saying of "that Government is best which governs least."
Electing officeholders with practical experience outside politics would strengthen our government and make it more competent and responsive to the nation's challenges. Doing so would have the additional advantage of sending to Washington officeholders capable of supporting themselves when their political careers end and who are far less likely to game the system to favor themselves and special interests.
America would benefit from electing people who don't have to calculate what their every move, every floor vote, and every decision mean for preserving their incumbency -- and accordingly, their livelihoods.