Saturday, June 28, 2014

If Our Political System Is Broken, Then Fix It. But How?

I don’t know what was more upsetting – the statement or the reaction.   I was watching Morning Joe the other day, and I heard Texas Congressman, Joaquin Castro, make a rather incredible statement.  He said that in the next five months, Congress will be in session for precisely 26 days.  And the reaction from Scarborough and Company was tepid.  These days, it’s news when Congress does anything, and if a Congressman is going to go on TV and acknowledge, in essence, that he gets paid to not even show up, nobody is the least bit surprised.  

I went back to check the Congressional calendar, and I couldn’t confirm the 26 day figure.  The true figure, from what I can tell, is 35 days in the next five months.   But the upshot is still the same. That’s seven days a month if you’re scoring at home.   Seven days when Congresspeople will be asked to do the nation’s business.  What’s more, we all can assume that those days will NOT be spent working on climate change legislation, immigration reform, or deciding whether to declare war in Iraq.

Congress’ willingness to make difficult decisions with respect to Iraq was another subject that Scarborough and Company were talking about that morning.   The viewers were told that our representatives on Capitol Hill would gladly cede to the President unilateral decision-making authority when it comes to that country.  Senator Keane of Virginia is an exception – not only does he believe that Congress has the right to decide whether to wage war against ISIS, but he wants to be involved in that decision.  In that respect, Keane practically stands alone.  For the most part, I’m gathering, our representatives in Washington would prefer to be back home in their districts attending fundraisers and other social functions, where they can listen to toadies honor them with praise, say a few loving words to constituents, and make a number of new fans (and “friends”).  In other words, rather than pissing people off by making a potentially unpopular war vote, they’d rather take steps to ensure their own re-election for as long as they want the job.

The system is broken, folks.  Like a stalemate in chess, it seems structurally impossible for anyone to win.   I wonder if even the Congresspeople are happy.  My bet is that most of them originally came to Washington to make meaningful legislative changes, but they soon realized that the gridlock on the Beltway is nothing compared to the gridlock on the Hill.   What’s more, at the same time they realized how difficult it is to enact legislative reforms, they realized how simple it is to help their own chances at re-election.   Go home and press the flesh, they tell themselves.   Meet the people.   Kiss their babies.   Feel their pain.  Have a laugh with them.   And make sure that all this happens AFTER you get introduced as “the Honorable (such and so)” who is “always fighting” for them and for America.  Honestly, as difficult it is to be productive when the Congress is in session, that’s how easy it is to be productive back home.   So why not forget about legislating and concentrate instead on campaigning?  

Congressman Eric Cantor never got the memo.  He was too ambitious.  It wasn’t enough for him to represent his district in Congress.  He wanted to become a national figure, and for a while, you could see his career fly like an eagle.  He made it to the Virginia House of Delegates at 28 and to the U.S. House of Representatives at 37.  Then, two years later, he was the Chief House Deputy Whip.   How is that rapid a rise even possible?  At 45, he became the Minority Whip and at 47, the House Majority Leader.  That made Eric Cantor the highest ranking Jew in the history of the United States Congress.   Canter also sits as the only non-Christian Republican in Congress.
Surely, a star like that can’t possibly fail to gain re-election, right?   But of course, that’s precisely what happened.   And I’m not terribly puzzled about why.  Cantor was spending a lot of time in Washington working on legislative matters.  And much of his time spent out of D.C. involved fundraising for OTHER Republicans so as to build the national brand.  Cantor forgot that, in today’s America, the job of a sitting Congressman is to go back home and campaign for himself, and everything else is secondary.  
It made total sense that Cantor was the one prominent incumbent to “shockingly” lose in this primary season.  The only real surprise is that there’s actually a politician in Washington who’d rather spend time on the Hill talking to colleagues, than going home and shaking hands with adoring strangers.
Now please don’t misunderstand me.   I recognize the virtue of listening to your constituents.  But that’s not necessarily what happens when members of Congress head back to their districts.  If it were, we couldn’t buy a gun in this country without one heck of a background check.  No, let’s not be naïve.  The primary purpose of these jaunts home isn’t to glean the will of the people but rather to obtain the votes of the people.    And that’s accomplished above all else by being seen, being friendly, and exuding an aura of gravitas.  Follow that formula, and you’ll get as much job stability as a federal judge or a tenured teacher.

I don’t know Eric Cantor.  So anything I say about his reactions to losing in the 2014 Virginia Republican primary is pure speculation.  But allow me to speculate just the same.  When I saw his face after the defeat, I didn’t see the face of a crushed man.  In fact, he didn’t look the least bit depressed.  Clearly, his national political ambitions have been shattered, but his emotions don’t appear to be.  Why is that?  Perhaps it’s because he realizes what’s in store for himself – instead of earning tons of money that can be spent doing campaign ads, he’ll be earning tons of money that can be spent traveling all over the world and buying beautiful houses.  That sure sounds like a sensible trade to me.  Perhaps there was once a time when folks came to D.C. because they valued power more than money, but I suspect that our legislators increasingly have to ask themselves the same question:  where is the power?   What exactly can be accomplished when the next “Mr. Smith” comes to Washington?   He’ll come to a chamber that is rarely in session and that devotes most of its legislative activities to merely symbolic actions (like voting to repeal Obamacare for the 4,000th time).  So why bother?    

The real winner in this year’s primary election may, indeed, be the future multi-zillionaire, Eric Cantor.  As for the rest of us, we will continue to be the losers, as we live in a country where the folks we have entrusted to make laws have decided instead to make a beeline out of the city and on to the next campaign.  

This is what a broken system looks like, my friends.  Any suggestions?

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