Out of charity, one assumes that a person seeking national office wants to fix problems that beset our nation. An office seeker generally has succeeded at some type of career, giving them credibility as to basic intelligence and ability—Christine O’Donnell’s run for a Senate seat aside. It is understandable how an outsider could see the dysfunction in Congress and assume that he or she could make a difference. And that is a laudable motivation.
But from my viewpoint, soon after making it to the House or the Senate, something goes dreadfully wrong. Instead of working to address the needs of their constituents, most officeholders soon become part of the problem. They become part of the reason why “In the latest rankings from Gallup, about 79 percent of Americans disapprove of Congress.”
Before you assume that Americans are just reflexively ungrateful, let’s consider how we reward our congressmen and women.
To begin with, most of the people we send to Congress are better off financially than the average citizen. “About one percent of all Americans are millionaires, but roughly 46 percent of those serving in Congress have a net worth of $1 million or more, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. There’s nothing wrong with being rich. But there is a problem when the people creating tax and economic policy for the whole nation are unfamiliar with the kind of financial stress faced by a typical family with a median income of less than $50,000 per year.”
Regardless of what wealth our senators and representatives bring with them, rank and file members receive salaries of $174,000 per year. But that ain’t all. There is also a choice of retirement plans, gold-plated health care, and a long list of conveniences and other perks. “A recent study by Our Generation and the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, two nonprofit research groups, found that fringe benefits for members of Congress are worth about $82,000 per year—which raises total compensation to well over $250,000. There may be a retirement crisis in many parts of America—but not on Capitol Hill.” Is it any wonder that these people are seemingly incapable of empathizing with ordinary Americans who have lost jobs, homes, and an average of 40% of their wealth during the Great Recession?
One of the facts of life in the Washington culture is the prevalence of lobbyists—22 for every member of Congress. And if they seem to know their way around, it is because many of them are former members. “This ‘shadow Congress,’ funded by corporations and various interest groups, is nearly as powerful as the real one. Whatever the case, lobbyists certainly have more sway over Congress than voters writing plaintive letters or placing earnest calls to their elected officials.” Money is the lingua franca of the culture. And if you can’t offer more than the other side is offering, your voice goes unheard.
Some of Congress’ problems are structural. In business, competition and innovation drive progress. “Congress, by contrast, still operates by ancient procedures and dallies indefinitely on business that seems urgent to most people, like addressing the weak economy or the mushrooming national debt. There’s no measure of effectiveness for Congress as a whole, and some members even insist that gridlock—a euphemism for accomplishing nothing—is in the nation’s interest. Try that one on your boss some day, and see how long you last.”
Additionally, there seems to be no penalty for ignorance. “Members of Congress sometimes reveal a dangerous degree of ignorance on vitally important issues they have considerable power to regulate. Earlier this year, the science journal Nature argued that the House Energy and Commerce Committee had ‘entered the intellectual wilderness’ by expressing ‘willful ignorance’ on climate science. Over the summer, The Economist called Republican debt-ceiling negotiators ‘economically illiterate,’ as Michele Bachmann and others dismissed the idea that a default on the nation’s debt would be economically damaging.”
Not every member of Congress is oblivious to its shortcomings. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) is throwing in the towel after serving since 1995. He likens Congress to a drunk “who needs to hit bottom in order to straighten out.” Explaining why he is not coming back, he cites the partisan atmosphere that makes it impossible to conduct the nation’s business. LaTourette expresses his greatest scorn for uberlobbyist Grover Norquist who wields his no-tax pledge as a means to control the vote on any tax-related legislation.
Rick Newman, chief business correspondent for U. S. News summarizes the problem—and the solution. “Sorry, people, but regular citizens bear some of the blame for the sorry state of affairs in Washington. Politicians manipulate voters every day with half-truths—or outright lies—about taxes, spending, retirement, healthcare, immigration, and many other issues that directly affect the nation’s prosperity. Too many voters embrace feel-good propaganda that they want to hear instead of learning the basic facts about issues they care about. They should do a better job of calling out dishonest politicians—and shunning media outlets that stoke political food fights. If voters want something better, they need to start by knowing what it might look like.”
So there’s enough blame to go around. As I wrote in “More Bang for Our Buck,” if good government is important to us, we’re going to have to take a hand in it.
Congress obviously can’t help itself.
What can you do—you are only one person? True, but you are only “six degrees of separation,” on average, from any other person on Earth. You become powerful when you share information with your friends and ask them to share it with their friends—it becomes a global revolution. As Stephen King suggests in The Long Walk, when these “society-supported sociopaths” come, step aside, and find the strength to run…