Sat Aug 14th, 2010 at 05:27:45 AM EST
This week furnished the latest examples of Republican antipathy to government. Because their view has been in favor for many years, changing expectations of Congress requires changing the terms of the debate.
For more on pruning back executive power see Pruning Shears.
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Congressional sessions have been in the news twice this week, and in both cases Republicans were opposed. Tuesday's special session and the prospective lame duck session were both the object of bitter complaints. Neither was surprising: conservatives have a long running hostility towards the very idea of governing - along with a romanticized, sepia-toned vision of a golden era of citizen legislators. There is a corresponding impatience now, an irritation with the stubborn refusal of the country to run on auto pilot.
Lamar Alexander gave the most punchy expression of this idea in a 1994 speech titled "Cut Their Pay and Send Them Home" (the Heritage site notes with sublime understatement: "Archived document, may contain errors"). As he envisions it:
Congress could: Convene on January 3rd, just as it now doe s, pass the authorization bills to help the government run, and go home early in the baseball season. V Come back Labor Day, pass the appropriations bins and any other urgent legislation, and be home by Thanksgiving. Cut the pay of Members in half and mWa l the rules that keep them from holding real jobs and leading normal lives in their home towns.
He further notes, in words that I believe all schoolchildren should be forced to memorize, "Tim notion is that a part time Congress of community leaders makes a be= government than a ftdl-bm Congress of cum politicians." More seriously, he quotes Kay Bailey Hutchison's endorsement: "It's a great idea. We should cut our pay and send ourselves home. It is the kind of Congress the framers imagined."
The idea that being a legislator is not a real job, and that those engaged in lawmaking do not lead normal lives, is a powerful bit of right wing iconography. They prefer to think of lawmaking as something a level headed, common sense ordinary working American could do in his spare time. Anything that adds complexity or draws the process out is the product of greedy, underhanded special interests. There is a deep reluctance to acknowledge, for instance, that rival power centers that may require a more active government than the one envisioned in the founders' agrarian world.
Characterizing it that way also constructs a tightly circular logic that justifies their failed laissez-faire approach: Private industry can regulate itself, so no intervention is required. Because government is kept away, it does not have the knowledge to effectively address any problems that arise. When the financial system melted down we were told that the fools and thieves who wrecked the economy in the first place had to be in charge of fixing it because it was incomprehensible to everyone else. When BP unleashed a volcanic eruption of oil in the Gulf we were told only they had the technology to address it.
Perhaps if Congress would not voluntarily hobble itself that argument would be a little harder to make. If representatives had to be in the capitol from Monday through Friday fifty weeks a year (oh heck, let's be generous employers and make it forty eight) maybe they would put the extra time to good use. Sure, they might just spend more time on frivolous or counterproductive measures. There is, though, a possibility that they would spend some time becoming knowledgeable on important issues before they develop into crises.
Three day work weeks only provide more time to raise money from lobbyists. Recesses are increasingly used for virtual town halls or highly scripted encounters in which impromptu interaction is almost entirely ruled out. The former could just as easily be done from the capitol, the latter by a capitol office coordinating with a well trained local staff. Maybe if enough staff were forced on them - and in some cases "forced" is probably the right word - they would become more engaged in wide ranging issues of governance.
In addition to beefing up staffs and extending their hours, we could emphasize a renewed commitment to professional legislators by substantially bumping House and Senate salaries. Reducing the gap between legislators and lobbyists would also make the revolving door a little less lucrative. Yes, it would be wonderful for the pure spirit of public service to motivate them, but their pay should be commensurate with the importance of their work.
It also would announce a new anticipation of seriousness. If they are in session much more often, and paid very well for it, then it will be harder to justify having lobbyists write legislation or declare an issue too complex. For over a generation the mantra has been to expect less; it's time to change that, and to tangibly signal it. Pay them better, and make it clear that representing their constituents is their real job.