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Opinion

Opinion

Serving in Congress should be part-time job

December 1, 2010

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“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. tmseditors@tribune.com

Comments

Tom Shewmon 4 years ago

Good idea. "Cheapen" the meaning of the job and get average Joe's to serve----not egomaniacal money grubbers. Make it a non-glorious, dirt and grit job. Make the legislature stay in the Holiday Inn Express extended stay, and eat their free breakfast for awhile.

bruno2 4 years ago

Sure, give me Joe the Plumber to write my laws. That would be just swell. We can have sit on the White House porch and drink beer and have farting contests at state dinners! What amazes me about the far right is this senseless pride of ignorance.

scott3460 4 years ago

It is the need to raise obscene amounts of cash to feed the mega-corporate media advertising beasts that is at the root of this problem.

cato_the_elder 4 years ago

Nowhere is the malaise of which Thomas complains more evident than in the Kansas legislature. It's a vicious cycle that's been allowed to grow unchecked over the past four decades: Pass more laws, hold more hearings, attend more taxpayer-funded junkets, require more and more time of legislators so that the only people who can serve are people who have nothing else to do - who are the same people who caused this to begin in the first place, precisely because they have had nothing else to do except serve in the legislature. Gradually, those who have held legitimate jobs, especially in the private sector, have been weeded out in favor of those who have had nothing else to do. This is true all over the state, but is most patently evident in many of those who have represented Lawrence during this time.

Godot 4 years ago

I say give them three months to pass the budget, and send them home.

rbwaa 4 years ago

i couldn't agree more - the problem is how can we get the very people who are entrenched to change the system? also, campaign costs should be limited to public funds..

jayhawklawrence 4 years ago

I wish we had a WikiLeak showing all the BS that is really going on in our Congress.

Maybe then we would be mad enough to get rid of these guys.

I would like to get rid of a few Supreme Court judges as well.

tomatogrower 4 years ago

I always thought anyone can find common ground, but I was starting to despair that I could find it with Cal, but I finally have. I have to agree with this column. And I'm impressed he threw DeLay in there with Rangel. Sometimes he just points out the Democrats failings.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 4 years ago

Unfortunately, the conviction of DeLay, among the most corrupt legislators of the last thirty years, (his corruption was wholesale, while Rangel's was retail and amateurish by comparison) may be tossed because of the Supreme Court ruling in Citizen's United that essentially turned the electoral process 100% over to corporate interests.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 4 years ago

It's not a part-time job, and never will be.

While term limits have a certain appeal to them, one of the unintended consequences of having them could be to increase the power and influence of unelected staffers, because they know how to work the system, while the elected legislators do not.

The key to ending corruption in the legislature is to get the money out of it-- money required to run $multi-million campaigns and money from lobbyists. Everyone should retain the right to access to legislators, but allowing highly financed lobbyists to dominate that access, effectively shutting out everyone else, does nothing but get us legislation like the so-called healthcare reform now referred to as Obamacare-- a bill that likely wouldn't have looked all that different even if it had passed under a Republican congress (except that it would have been even friendlier to Big Health)

Betty Bartholomew 4 years ago

"While term limits have a certain appeal to them, one of the unintended consequences of having them could be to increase the power and influence of unelected staffers, because they know how to work the system, while the elected legislators do not."

Then staffers would have to become part-time, too - new staffers when new legislators come in. Though it could mean the whole kit-and-caboodle is being run by people who've got no idea what they're doing, I'm not sure that would be an entirely bad thing at this point in time.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 4 years ago

Without getting most of the corrupting influence of money out of politics, all that term limits would do is to speed up the rate at which the revolving door rotates.

cato_the_elder 4 years ago

Bozo, in terms of wholesale damage to our country nothing done by DeLay can hold a candle to the gross fraud and corruption practiced by Dodd and Frank in their dealings with, and coverups for, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and the resultant financial meltdown caused and exacerbated thereby. They both should be in jail, and perhaps some day in the not too distant future they will be.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 4 years ago

I understand that your extreme partisanship requires your finding extra special evil among Democrats, but the fact is that while Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae certainly took part in the feeding frenzy by buying up $billion in these bad loans after they had already been made, neither Freddie Mac nor Fannie Mae were the primary drivers of the sub-prime debacle. Its origins lie almost exclusively in the private sector, and both Republicans and Democrats were complicit in enabling them.

cato_the_elder 4 years ago

No Freddie and Fannie abuse, no meltdown. Period.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 4 years ago

Fannhy and Freddie originated very, very few of the loans that created the meltdown. They bought them after the fact. Should they have? Likely not. But trying to make them the whipping boy of the meltdown just because they have a tenuous connection to the government is an indication of your ignorance of the real problem, caused primarily by extreme partisanship.

cato_the_elder 4 years ago

Bozo, your comment demonstrates how pitifully uninformed you are on this. "A tenuous connection to the government?" I'm going to have to figure out how to accomplish anything today, because I can't stop laughing.

jafs 4 years ago

No ridiculous sub-prime loans, no meltdown. No bundling and securitizing of loans, no meltdown. No fraudulent ratings, no meltdown. No greed and stupidity, no meltdown.

cato_the_elder 4 years ago

Jafs, we've been through this before. Without no. 1, the latter three don't happen.

madameX 4 years ago

And who originated the most of the bad loans? Private lenders. And we're back at the beginning.

cato_the_elder 4 years ago

MadameX, your response is completely uninformed. Government, both inside and outside of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, not only made it possible for lenders to make these loans, but through threatened bogus complaints of "redlining" twisted lenders' arms and blatantly intimidated them into making loans to borrowers who couldn't possibly afford them. Government-created, failed social engineering schemes caused the meltdown, not "greed" - unless, perhaps, you're talking about the greed of politicians like Dodd and Frank, who received plenty of money from Fannie and Freddie, for more votes.

oldbaldguy 4 years ago

I see in the not too distant future the rise of a third political party that none of us will lay claim to. This will happen because of the failure of the two parties we have now to get us out of the mess we are in. "It can't happen here," will if the right demagoge steps up to the plate. Look at Huey Long in the 30's, the Know Nothings of the 1840s and the strenth of the Klan before WWII.

The folk we elect to go up there turn in to "them" term limits is the answer. It cannot get much worse, but it can.

oldbaldguy 4 years ago

I see in the not too distant future the rise of a third political party that none of us will lay claim to. This will happen because of the failure of the two parties we have now to get us out of the mess we are in. "It can't happen here," will if the right demagoge steps up to the plate. Look at Huey Long in the 30's, the Know Nothings of the 1840s and the strenth of the Klan before WWII.

The folk we elect to go up there turn in to "them" term limits is the answer. It cannot get much worse, but it can.

bruno2 4 years ago

A fun little exercise; take a pair of scissors and cut out Cal Thomas', Charles Krauthammer's, and George Will's pictures from the paper. Have a friend shuffle them and paste them into place on each other's columns. Then try to figure out who really wrote which one. Even more fun; try to figure out why all three look like they are sitting on a corn cob and just sucked a lemon.

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