Voters want a responsive national legislature - but is replacing an incumbent with a newcomer the best way to do that?
Angry and frustrated that severe economic problems persist in spite of massive government intervention, furious at Federal lawmakers who seem more intent on squabbling among themselves instead of making effective efforts to turn back a persistent crisis, and historically suspicious of all public officeholders as parasties or, even worse, corrupted to the point of disdain for the public's woes, a growing tide of American voters want to dismiss all incumbents from office: "Throw the bums out!"
What do various parts of the electorate want instead of the officeholders they now have, or the system of elected government presently running things in Washington? Some have a romantic image of elected officials in the mold of the ancient Roman general and dictator, Cincinnatus - who when called to serve, left his plow in the field, but when the victory had been gained, left the capitol city to return and finish plowing. Many believe that "professional" politicians are inherently corrupt and self-serving - that setting term limits will automatically refresh the blood of civic virtue and devotion to service in the halls of Congress, making public office more accessible to "average" citizens rather than a monied and despised elite. Many feel that additional deep reforms in the very operation and access to power of the Congress is necessary.
Nearly all voters blame monied interests on anything they find wrong with legislation, elections or the daily activities of the White House. Many believe that the business of governing should be placed in the hands of dedicated amateurs, rather than full time "professional politicians. And many are entirely disenchanted with all political parties.
A longing for the romantic past of pure-hearted elected officials in the early Republic is, like the popular tales of Paul Rever's ride of George Washington and the cherry tree, embrace of mythology. It was never thus. In Michael Schudson, The Good Citizen: A History of American civic life, Free Press (city unknown), 1998, ISBN 0684827298, the evolution of american politics and elections is traced from very late Colonia practices to the present day. Anyone who wants "reform" of representative government, or who is struggling with the issues of party as a means of managing political action, should have this book.
Many upset with party politics should also consider getting a copy of Walter Karp, Indispensible Enemies: The politics of misrule in America, The Franklin press (city unknown), 1993, ISBN 1879957132.
Schudson explains how in the very late Colonial period, and following the same customs up until nearly 1800, America followed a very hierarchical approach to representative government. The Continental Congress grew out of the various local legislative bodies that operated under Colonial rule (and, of course, were also established during the Revolution). The custom had been that the local leading figure, either a petty nobleman under British rule, and the same or another person of wealth and prominence to replace departed Loyalists, provided a central gathering location for elections.
While the franchise was extended to all free men (regardless of color or social standing) under the Constitution, the practice was much the same as pre-Revolutionary times. Either the leading local person, or someone of his sponsorship (and yes, it was an all-male function then, women exercised back-door influence), was proposed as the candidate for the House of Representatives, and in those times, comparable candidates were also chosen for the various state legislatures.
State legislative office was very important, for at that time those bodies elected U.S. Senators - who in turn elected Presidents. Because voters had to travel some distance to cast their ballots, these days of voting sometimes lasted a week, there were many social events and the leading figure of the involved district often provided meals, perhaps lodging for some that needed it. And the voters for the most part were men of at least modest means or more, for going away to cast a vote imposed several hardships.
Opposition candidates were not infrequent, but before the evolution of a party structure, which occurred slowly in the years before 1800, it was usually the local leader's choice who took office. Only rarely was that choice a rough farmer, blacksmith, or store clerk. So those who early in the Republic voted, and those who took office, were by definition of conditions generally from the more literate, educated, solid middle or upper classes.
Neither the voters, nor the officeholders, matched the image of Rome's Cincinnatus. One of the few men of American history who really did such a thing was George Washington, along with a few prominent officers of both sides in the Civil War. It is a romantic concept, but not much of a realistic concept when considering the infant decades of the Republic.
However, it is true that for some time, the American legislature was a part-time enterprise. Yet those who held office could indeed have been called "professional" legislators despite periods of adjournment. The reason of course is the character of the physical layout of the country, the need for the Representatives and Senators to attend to their private lives and businesses, and at the time the relatively light legislative workload imposed by their offices. Folik indeed traveled long distances to report for sessions of Congress, in the era of horses, carraiges (or public coaches), and sailing ships.
To give an idea of what that entailed, consider a slight anachronism: In 1820, with the aid of primitive short-haul steamships, a traveler from New York would embark, steam to a port such as Baltimore, travel by coach for more than a week overland, embark again on a short-haul steam route, transfer again to coach for between 7 and 10 days overland, and finally catch either a sailing vessel or a new steamship to eventually arrive at New Orleans. The total journey, as described by one diarist of the time, took a month or more, was always uncomfortable, and utterly exhausting. It was also dangerous and often deadly thanks to disease. For those Members of the Congress who came from the farther reaches of Maine, or overland from the 14th state, Kentucky, or out of the western woods of Georgia, there were no steamships, no steam trains, and no easy routes to achieve their seats first in Philadelphia and later the Capitol District, Washington.
Thus ,time at the capitol city conducting the business of the nation was necessarily divided with time in the Representative's home area. Matters of state were often weighty, as well, and the extended periods at home were not devoid of duty to a government office. Representatives influenced government appointments, conferred with those interested in pending or existing legislation, developed knowledge of state concerns (and those of local special interests) that would be included in Fedeal legislative action to come, and indeed took frequent calls from constituents seeking service of one type or another. War veterans or their widows sought pensions or special support, farmers wanted attention to export tariffs, merchants a way to lessen or dodge import taxes, state and local officials had schemes to build a federally-supported canal or highway, and much more.
By the time of the Jacksonian era, election of the President had been taken from the Senate and delivered to the general franchise (still all male, of course), as had the election of Senators. Advances in transportation - and the safety of passing through most of the United States as the steady displacement of Native Americans cleared many regions of the danger of attacks - had already altered the character and periods of service in the capitol city. Daniel Boone was already a famous and controversial member of Congress (and not a poor man, either, as legend has it). The model fo the early Republic's more genteel members of Congress (both houses) had passed into history along with the myths about their character.
Today the U.S. Congress has a vast schedule of business that frankly overwhelms each diligent officeholder. To some extent, "professional" elected officials are necessary - it takes time to understand and participate merely in the formalized structure of the legislative bodies. While "freshman" lawmakers usually devote their first two years to becoming capable of carrying out their duties and pursuing their ideas, their greater value is generally in bringing fresh perspectives and energy to those bodies.
Displacing an incumbent officeholder purely because he or she is now in office is understandable in times when trouble stalks the land and it appears the government system is unable to right all ills - but that is also a short-sighted point of view that uses a meat ax instead of a scalpel to conduct surgery. Each incumbent deserves to be evaluated on his or her particular service and merits (and in thoughtful contrast with the qualities the opposing candidate offers, or does not). If the voters now want their representatives to "listen to the people," then the voters might discover their incumbents are more willing to do so, and will then be more effective in carrying out the results, than inexperienced and sometimes ideologically-hardened newcomers.
I certainly observed this as a public affairs counselor and campaign consultant for more than 30 years - and I came to both respect the hard work and dedication of most office holders and their staffs even as I also came to dislike heartily those of all political persuasions who used their offices for posturing, selfish self-advancement (yep, knew quite a few crooks at all levels of government), and general ego massaging. Genuinely humble and open politicans are rare, the very personal characteristics that lead most to seek office define them as egotistical and difficult people.
As for the worry about corruption as an inevitable consequence of winning and holding on to public office, that is as much a function of campaign methods and financing as it is of the inevitable lure of political opportunity to enrich the office holder at the expense of the polity. And the idea of corruption as automatic among "professional" officeholders is both an overstatement and too narrow - many state legislatures, such as Florida's, are part-time bodies that are riddled with the corrupting influence of monied interests, influence-peddlers, and outright thieves open to all bribery or opportunity to turn public resources to their own private benefit.
Relatively few lawmakers succumb to the hummingbird lure of illegal sweet syrup, but each one who does smears the integrity of all officeholders. Some of those episodes are indeed warnings that the tempter ever lurks in the shadows - the Jack Abramoff scandals should have resulted in far more reforms of dealings with lobbyists, while the obscene peculations of Bell, California's officials demand stricter supervision of local authorities by superior layers of government such as county or state auditors.
There will always be some who seek to turn public office to personal benefit, such as former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. The most important means of limiting such misbehavior lies in reducing as far as possible the power of money in obtaining, sustaining and returning to, public office. Campaign financing is not only the Achilles heel of honest public service, it is the dark and greedy god of monied interests looking for a path to power. (Now, that's a gorgeous model of mixed metaphors! I didn't think I had it in me ....)
Many disaffected with politicans in general will howl at this, but decent salaries and benefits (not the bloated entitlements and perquisites of many corporate executives, however) are essential to sustaining honesty in any public job, elected or otherwise. Yet the problem of running for office is that of the ever-costlier campign budget - when billionaires this year can spend hundreds of millions to self-finance their campaigns, how can the opposing candidates afford to compete without accepting funds from monied interests that at some stage will expect at least some quality face time if their candidates succeed?
Regardless of which party takes dominion of Congress in 2010, one of the very first priorities on all sides of the aisle (Democratic, Republican, Independent and maybe even a scattered Green Party or two aisles) should be public financing of campaigns accompanied by absolute elimination of any third-party campaign spending or contributions except through state and national party organizations (and that limited in fully-disclosed amounts), strict limits on spending, mandatory and scheduled access to publicly-regulated airwaves (radio and televison).
Limits on the period of campaigning is another essential element of the reforms. This will make a significant contribution to sanity in elections and campaign finance. Today the Presidential campaign cycle is two years or more. In the past, potential candidates worked behind the scenes to build relationships and enhance thier public reputations with their deeds in office. That's generally good public relations for an officeholder and is not visibly an element of campaigning for higher position. Actual campaigning should be restricted to a nine-month span, including primary elections, caucuses or state conventions. Combined with public financing and related reforms, the compressed process will make candidates more responsive to the general public interest and force their focus more specifically to issues (negative campaigning will always be with us, however).
Overall electoral reform, although a separate topic, is another important public concern. It's a different schedule of actions than campaign finance reform, and a subject that deserves a non-partisan evaluation by Constitutional law experts, campaign management professionals (these guys do know their business), political science scholars, political historians, and a leavining of long-time political analysts and reporters plus even a sociologist or two.
Americans cannot return to the romantic image of above-it-all politicians cast into the mold of Cincinnatus. First, they never existed. Second, the character and needs of public life now do not match such a bucolic image. This has long been a topic of yearning in the American psyche - a superb treatment of the idea, as well as a most entertaining read, is in William Dean Howell's small book, A Traveler from Alturia. But today both a knowledge of the history of service in the Congress and an understanding of how major changes will include some unintended consequences should be brought to serious work on campaigning and financing as well as the span and character of holding elected office.
"Throw the bums out!" is a slogan from disappointment and disaffection, but unless each particular officeholder has been proven a bum, it is ultimately cutting off one's nose to spite the face. Pending reforms, the best American voters today can do is make such a close inspection, and in most cases, talk quite seriously to the incumbents and wring from them agreement on key issues and future efforts at solutions. Use the power vested in experienced lawmakers to get action on the public's will.