“I wanted the music to play on forever.
Have I stayed too long at the fair?” — Barbra Streisand lyric
The finding by the bipartisan House Ethics Committee that Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., is guilty of financial misconduct and the conviction of former Texas Republican Rep. Tom DeLay by a jury in Austin, Texas, on charges of political money laundering brings a question: Are we getting the Congress we’re paying for?
I’m with Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, who told Human Events (www.humanevents.com) last week, “Make them part time; give them term limits. Don’t let them become lobbyists. When they have to live under the same rules and laws they pass for the rest of us, maybe you’d see some more common sense coming out of Washington.” Jindal, a former congressman, said once elected, too many lawmakers become entrenched in Washington and are transformed into the very people they campaigned against.
I’ve seen no polling on this question, but I would bet most Americans are not clamoring for Congress to pass more laws. Several states have part-time legislatures that meet every two years to consider a budget and other truly important matters. At other times, the part-time legislature is on-call should anything momentous occur. Should Congress follow suit? Maybe if it did we would be better off. A part-time Congress might reduce the temptations exemplified by Rangel and DeLay.
Serving in Congress should be seen as just that: service, which is distinct from self-service. It ought to be considered a privilege, not a profession.
The Founders were keenly aware of the danger of a Congress divorced from the realities of the rest of the country. During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Roger Sherman of Connecticut wrote, “Representatives ought to return home and mix with the people. By remaining at the seat of government, they would acquire the habits of the place, which might differ from those of their constituents.”
Returning home shouldn’t mean flying home for long weekends and then coming back to Washington. It should mean returning to a real job where the member can’t raise his own pay, receive top medical care at reduced or no cost, print and spend other people’s money, or count on others to pay into his retirement fund. If he owned a business, he would have to meet a payroll and balance the budget. The member would also have to rely on Social Security, like other Americans.
Some states are getting as bad as Congress in their cost and ineffectiveness. The Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives writes of Pennsylvania’s legislature: “With a price tag that’s grown to $300 million, Pennsylvania’s 253-member General Assembly is the most expensive (and second largest) state legislature in the country. It’s also among the four ‘most professionalized’ in the nation with staff totaling nearly 3,000. For perspective, the legislatures of Illinois and Ohio — the states closest in population to Pennsylvania — have 1,023 and 465 staff, respectively.”
Only 16 percent of Pennsylvania voters think the state legislature is doing a “good” job. Congressional job approval is also pathetically low.
Would congressional term limits work? They seem to in states that have tried them, opening opportunities to people, including women, who might not otherwise have been able to challenge entrenched and well-funded incumbents. Opinion is clearly on the side of abbreviated terms. In September, a Fox News poll found that 78 percent of voters favored term limits for Congress.
Former Missouri Republican Sen. John Danforth has said, “I have never seen more senators express discontent with their jobs. I think the major cause is that, deep down in our hearts, we have been accomplices to doing something terrible and unforgivable to this wonderful country ... we know that we have bankrupted America and that we have given our children a legacy of bankruptcy. ... We have defrauded our country to get ourselves elected.” (Read more at http://actnowus.org/citizen%20legislature.html.)
That’s because too many have stayed too long at the fair. Limiting their terms would be good for them, good for the rest of us, and the best thing to do for America.
— Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services. firstname.lastname@example.org