Monday, March 12, 2012

Taking the 'con' out of Congress

Q: What's the opposite of "pro?"  
A: Con
Q: Then what's the opposite of "progress?"  
A: Congress

Bashing the national legislature has been an American pastime throughout our history.  Mark Twain, for example, regularly took aim at the institution.   Nevertheless, there is something deeply disturbing about the record low regard in which the representative body is now held.  On the face of it, this assessment is easy to understand: it's been years since an annual budget was in place before the Oct. 1st deadline.  The national debt has about doubled in just the past five years.  And Congress did little but meekly protest behind the scenes when the president launched military operations in Libya without so much as a fig leaf resolution 'authorizing military action' from Congress.  (Tell me again where that option's found in the Constitution, anyway.)

Most importantly, though, is this: the average American feels little to no connection to their 'representative.' 
A seat in the House of Representatives has gone from representing 33,000 people to more than 700,000 today. ...  With each member of Congress representing a very large number of people, representatives receive tremendous attention from special interests. It is relatively easy for these groups to buy the support of the 218 members it takes to pass a bill, and congressional seats have increased in value as the economy and government have grown. It's not surprising that running for Congress has become a multimillion-dollar fundraising challenge in many districts around the country.
The author of the above quote goes on to note that if Congress had the original ratio of representatives to constituents it had in the 1790s, it would today have 6,000 members.  When I first read that, I recoiled in horror at the thought:  THOUSANDS of Congresscritters?   Then I calmed down, read the rest of the article, and got to thinking (always the better mode of analysis, incidentally).  The dramatic increase in numbers becomes much more palatable as the author notes how this would dilute the power of monied interests to easily buy a majority on various legislation.  Good point.

But it gets better.  He concurrently advocates making the legislature part-time, with only occasional assembly in D.C. I'm all for keeping our reps closer to home, where it's easier to keep an eye on 'em, and they're less susceptible to Beltway groupthink.

The aforementioned Twain is said to have pointed out that "No Man's life liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session."  Thus, a much larger part-time Congress of citizens who fill most of their time with their "day jobs" is vastly preferable to the full-time out-of-touch control freaks we now have.

I join the columnist in saying, "let the reforms begin!"


Dan McIntosh said...

Unfortunately, Congress would have to support the idea. That's not going to happen.

Besides, a House that large, to get anything done (like a budget) would need to have a much stronger committee system and (probably) greater party unity. There will still be key people to bribe and corrupt, and a corporate/lobbying class with the money and access to do it.

Now, if were connected to real campaign finance reform (another non-starter for the Congress), the larger, more representative House might work.

Then we can go to work on the Senate...

Jemison Thorsby said...

You raise some good points, although I see the unwieldiness as a feature, not a bug. Better the body spend more time on a few essential items than the current put-your-nose-into-everything mode. If ALL they got done in a legislative session was the budget--on time, no less--that wouldn't necessarily be so bad. Not like we're lacking laws on the books or anything.

If a larger body meant diluting the power of political parties, I see that as a feature as well. Those unelected, unaccountable organizations have accrued far too much power via extra-legal means.

Point taken about key people... and yes, campaign finance reform needs to be an integral part of an overhaul.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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