Friday, June 18, 2010
I have often joked that a person would have to be crazy to want to be President of the United States and therefore anyone who wants the job should not be allowed to have it. I am currently taking a graduate school course entitled Legislatures and Legislative Behavior. From what I am learning in that course added to what I already knew, I think my observation about the job of President applies also, though maybe not as much, to the job of member of Congress. Who can observe the work product of the politicians in the federal government and conclude that those people are sane? The work product includes laws whose pages measure in the thousands and are too complex for anyone but an attorney to understand and even they have to go to court to argue among themselves what it all means. If we expect people to obey the law, is it too much to ask that the laws be understandable and not unreasonably complex?
In the first place, think about what it takes just to be considered for the job. You have to beg people to give you money to finance your campaign. During the most recent election cycle, the average winning Senate race cost $5.6 million and the average winning House race cost $1.1 million. Then, you have to travel all over your state or your district and convince people that you are a really nice guy who has their best interests at heart. You tailor you message to your audience and say things that contradict each other, hoping that no one will notice. You have to have your competition for the job and the people who support them saying things about you that are nasty and often not true. You have to spend time away from your family and give up leisure time. If you get elected to the Senate, you get a little break, but if you get elected to the House of Representatives you have to begin running for reelection almost as soon as the election is over. In effect, you have to reapply for the job every two or six years and prove yourself all over again. Once you get elected, what is the job like? The salary is not bad, about three times that of the typical American family, but well below that of top corporate executives, whose jobs involve no more responsibility or hard work. Considering that most people who run for Congress come from a background with high status and earnings potential, few politicians (at least the honest ones) are in it for the money; they could usually find ways to make more money. Each member of Congress serves on several committees and subcommittees, with meetings whose schedules often conflict. Committees are where the real work gets done, but what kind of job is it that involves attending committee meetings all the time? They have to understand and know how to take advantage of arcane procedural rules. Members of Congress typically put in long days and travel frequently between the Capitol and their states or districts. They attend events of constituents and interest groups. They have to answer questions that they would rather not answer and deal with hostile people.
Who would want such a job? Unfortunately, the answer is that the person who usually wants such a job is a person who wants to pass laws to change things, whether they need changing or not. It is a person who thinks that working ridiculous hours and trying to please everybody is a rational thing to do. It was a mistake to call these people legislators or lawmakers. We should have called them something like code maintainers. What we do not need is more laws; we have plenty. All we really need is a code of laws that needs to be maintained, so that laws that have become obsolete or never worked to begin with are repealed or amended. Introducing laws that are entirely new should be a rare event, and less common than laws that amend or repeal a law that is on the books. Some states, Texas for example, have part-time legislators that meet for a few months every two years. If it is not necessary for the job of a state legislator to be full-time, it is not necessary for the job of a member of Congress to be full-time. In fact, it would be good for members of Congress to spend much more time outside the Beltway, living a life that resembles more the life that a normal person would live and understanding the problems that normal people have. I have learned that the approximate time that being a member of Congress became a full-time job was when air conditioning was installed in the Capitol building. Letting them install that air conditioning probably ranks among the the biggest mistakes that the United States has made.