CONGRESS, WITH AN APPROVAL RATING AT AN ALL-TIME LOW (9%), is a perennial source of dissatisfaction for Americans of all parties. Though the explanation is usually given as "gridlock," the real complaint is not that the parties are partisan. They are, after all, expressing opposite views that would require capitulation by one side for the other to prevail. Thus, partisanship is as much a part of a representative democracy as is tri-colored bunting at rallies.
The problem is not partisanship; it's ineffectiveness, and the electorate obviously believes the people in Washington are not about the country's business. Not that they aren't doing business back there; it's just not the country's business--it's each individual state's business: they are bringing back the pork (now called 'earmarks,' as if that makes it less offensive) to their constituents, and that makes those who elected them happy. But the other 99% of us are not, unless our own representative slakes our thirst with his dippings from the communal trough. So we complain about the Bridge to Nowhere, but what we're really unhappy about is that it isn't being built in our district, where it would provide (as it did in Alaska) jobs and income for thousands of people.
The popular solution to this conundrum is term limits, as if the answer was in preventing anyone in Washington from being there long enough to unravel the Byzantine rules of power and procedure. But the problem is not how much time a representative spends in Congress; it is what he or she does there.
And what they do is this: they outlast other representatives and in so doing, they get the plum assignments and the committee chairmanships, which are given out according to seniority. That is why Teddy Kennedy continues be elected by the otherwise intelligent voters of Massachusetts. Why serially elect a man guilty at least of negligent homicide and perhaps even murder? Because Kennedy is the senior Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. He also serves on the Judiciary Committee, where he is the senior Democrat on the Immigration Subcommittee, and on the Armed Services Committee, where he is the senior Democrat on the Seapower Subcommittee. That's why.
And he got all those jobs because he's been in the Senate since 1962--forty six years! Indeed, the voters of Massachusetts are not stupid; they are smart. So long as Kennedy is in a position to use his power for their benefit, replacing him with a neophyte would be stupid.
And to be fair, it's also why Utahns re-elect Orrin Hatch every six years. Even by Utah's low requirements, Hatch is a poor public servant, but since he's the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, he is a very important man when it comes to Supreme Court nominations. Thus, he is also returned time and time again to the Senate. He's been in office 32 years, and yet he is only the fourth most senior Republican! But has he served anyone, really? And, more importantly, is he the best person to chair the Judiciary Committee when the Republicans are in power? Who can know? So long as Senate seniority rules prevail, he will remain in office, for Utah voters are no less intelligent than their Massachusetts counterparts: without their seniority-rewarded representatives, who can doubt that neither Kennedy nor Hatch would be elected year after year?
So the answer is not term-limits, which punish representatives who have an important expertise they garnered prior to going to Washington and are willing to put in the time to learn how to navigate the halls of power. Seniority rules in both houses should be repealed, and committee members and chairs should be elected by the other members of their respective deliberative bodies. If you are a newly-elected senator who practiced medicine for twenty years, you might be a better choice to serve on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee than Teddy Kennedy. Imagine . . . if your pre-Washington credentials were impressive enough, you might even be elected across party lines. Under such a regime, senators and congressmen would serve where their talents would be best utilized, not suffer as underlings for decades to various fossilized Foghorn Leghorns until their own time for leadership comes, and when they, too, have become a laughable parody of a public servant.
The Law of Unintended Consequences applies. In 1978 California voters passed Prop. 13, which effectively froze property taxes, reducing the money available to a spendthrift legislature. But it didn't stop the spending. The legislature first stopped funding "ancillary" items like city parks, street cleanup, and high school marching bands, then started deficit spending. Which is why today, instead of throwing the bums out thirty years ago, California is begging the federal government for a bailout. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if there were people in the state legislature today who were there in 1978, and are still unchanged by the experience. Freezing property values in 1978 California was not the answer, nor are term limits today. Term limits would simply chase everyone out, no matter their capability or integrity, and no one in congress would know what they were doing. It's hard to imagine the whole shebang working worse than it does now, but just wait until term limits are the rule, not the exception.
No, change must come from within. The alcoholic must want to stop drinking, and the legislature must want to stop spending. So the answer is not term limits, but changes within the legislature to the rules by which committee assignments are given out. The process will begin only when we elect representatives who will pledge to eradicate these archaic seniority rules. Only then will our representatives truly represent us.
NEXT TIME: Solid logic behind the opposition to homosexual marriage.