A persistent meme, from both sides of the aisle, is the damaging effects of having the country run by “career politicians.”
Let’s think about what that means
A career politician can be defined as someone whose life’s work requires the holding of elective public office. This might be someone dedicated to public service, or someone who just doesn’t want to get a real job. Or, can’t get a real job.
At the time the country was founded, the newly-minted Americans had a serious fear of “aristocrats,” and anything or anyone that smacked of old world, monarchical rule. This could strike one as odd. Although the fight for independence was fought by the yeomen, it was precipitated, organized, and consummated, by “aristocrats” — the wealthy and the well-to-do, who at that time ran the country.
An artefact of this fear and loathing is the belief that persists to this day among Americans, that “anyone can run the country.” America has a long history of electing people to public office on that basis. You do not, in fact, have to demonstrate success at any level of life, to get elected to the United States Congress. (In the early years, at least one candidate elected to Congress was illiterate.) The only requirements for getting elected are, the ability to: be personable with your electorate; raise money to pay for your campaign; keep your political activities in front of your electorate (so that it looks like you’re earning your money).
The “Congressional scorecard” that rates the effectiveness, attentiveness, and leadership abilities, of members of Congress, is — the election. This is exactly how the writers of the Constitution envisioned elections. They were to be the “check” on corrupt behavior in the national government. 1
The most significant element of the design of the Constitution was intended to be its transfer of elective power from politicians to citizens. Recall that under the Articles of Confederation, the national government was composed of politicians elected by the state legislatures, not by individual voters. It was a confederation of states. As a result, the members of the national government were beholden to the legislatures, not the individual citizens of their respective states. The legislatures could, and did, dictate to their Congressional members how to vote on particular issues. And, the Congress members wanting first and foremost to keep their jobs, did as they were ordered. 2
So, what happened?
In modern times, almost all discussions of the national legislature come around to “term limits,” like most discussions of social or political issues come around to “Hitler.”
Elections are “term limits” — that is exactly how the writers of the Constitution saw them. It is the reason they wanted national elections for the Presidency. It’s the reason they wanted the national legislature out of the hands of the state legislatures. The creators of the Constitution wanted to form a government, the powers of which could be checked without resorting to violence, and at the same time, not subject to the venality of the state legislatures. National popular elections were the answer. 3
Elections have not become ineffective at their intended purpose — they simply are not being used that way. Since American voters, by and large, require no demonstration of competency for elected officials, it cannot be considered surprising that so many elected individuals are incompetent.
The now infamous TEA Party “insurgency” in the 2010 elections is the textbook example of the casual election of incompetent legislators. Consider Joe Walsh, a serial bankrupt and deadbeat dad, who used his child support money to take his girlfriend on vacation in Mexico, and then swore in court that he could not pay the $100,000 he owed, because he had no money. He is emblematic of the venal characters that can talk their ways into public office.
Representative Paul Ryan, now Speaker of the House, the apostle of “personal responsibility,” “hard work,” and “private enterprise,” has never worked a job in the private sector in his entire adult life. He went from university to work in a Congressman’s office, to jockeying a desk at a “think tank,” to his own Congressional office. And yet, his followers uncritically accept his asseveration that he is the world SME 4 on the benefits of working in the private sector. Benefits of which he himself has no direct experience, and, apparently, no desire to experience.
These are two of many examples of individuals elected to public office without any examination of their CVs.
Joe Walsh’s basically non-existent political skills gave him an early exit from public office. Ryan’s highly honed skills have advanced him to the Speakership. In both cases, the essential fact is that skill as a legislator never entered into the decision to give them the job — or, take it away.
What Can Be Done?
If someone suggested that the CEO of a company should be fired after 5 years, without regard of his effectiveness as leader of the company, most people would think the idea absurd. You fire someone for incompetence, or failure — not because his “term” is up. The essential element is that the CEO is judged on effectiveness in office.
Elections work. The incompetent Walsh was turfed out. Even if it was for the wrong reasons, he still was “term limited” out of office.
What can be done is to judge legislators on their effectiveness in their roles. The topic that is not considered is, “What defines an effective legislator?” That question needs to be addressed.
But, as long as people remain fixated on firing legislators without regard to their effectiveness, and hiring people to the position without regard to their competence, nothing can be done — nothing at all.
By the Numbers: Longest-serving members of Congress
Congressional Careers: Service Tenure and Patterns of Member Service, 1789-2015 (PDF)
Morgan, Edmund S. Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 1989.
Jensen, Merrill. The Articles of Confederaton: An Interpretation of the Social-Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1774-1781. np:University of Wisconsin Press. 1940.
- James Madison had been elected to state government, and hated it. He thought the state legislatures were venal, bureaucratic, and corrupt. In his time, of course, electoral laws sharply limited the membership of the electorate. ↩
- A read of the Articles of Confederation can be rewarding. The Articles in many ways embody the type of government now praised by libertarians and right-wing Republicans. Merrill Jensen has written an excellent short book arguing the case for the superiority of the Articles over the eventual Constitution. ↩
- Morgan, Edmund S. Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 1989. p. 273. ↩
- Subject Matter Expert ↩