Friday, October 13, 2006

On Campaigning and Voting for Members of Congress

A few posts below, GipperClone and I have been arguing, no, discussing (we may disagree about some details, but we’re hardly “arguing,” at least not the way we have on other issues) about the merits of a “line-item veto,” something to which readers of this space know that I am adamantly opposed to (see here). One of the debated points has been about what types of people should be elected to federal office, specifically Congress. GC, believes, (as always, he is free to correct anything I’ve attributed to him) and it is a legitimate belief, that Congress will never possess the “political will” to cut spending the way he, and many others, think should be done. To solve this problem, however, he proposes electing Presidents that, using a "line-item veto," will achieve his expressed goal of significantly reducing federal spending. I, on the other hand, as a liberal, don’t really have as big a problem with the spending. But, even assuming that I did, my solution is not for Congress to abdicate power to the President via a “line-item veto,” but rather to either institute real institutional changes in Congress, or elect better Congresspersons.

Of course, as readers of this space have noticed, and some have appropriately labeled me, I’m a big nerd/geek/wonkish type who pays far too much attention to minute details and finds things interesting that few if anyone else does. I could try to blame much of this on my profession, which requires, inter alia, an arcane knowledge of law, history, politics, and congressional procedure, but there are too many of you who know me personally for that to get me very far. All of this is by way of pointing out a flaw in my own position. Namely, that the average voter doesn’t care about procedures, they are only concerned with results. This rather obvious observation, I think, explains in large part why a “line-item veto” is so popular with the voting populace, even though I so firmly believe it to be a procedural disaster and an accident of destructive proportions just waiting to happen. In other words, support for the “line-item veto” has nothing to do with intelligence or even knowledge it has to do with getting a palpable change in the federal budget, primarly one that makes it smaller. GC is a very smart, intelligent person who has my utmost respect, and he supports the idea, though for very sophisticated reasons not often articulated by others. Support comes from the fact that the “line-item veto” will produce results, where as opposition appears to be a vote for the status quo (a bloated federal budget with too many special interest earmarks), which many people object to.

Yes, I’m oversimplifying to a huge degree. Nevertheless, I’ve been forced to ask the question, is it possible to elect better Congresspersons or I’m I merely deluding myself? I fear the latter may be true, especially when I get home and see TV ads for local candidates talking about how they “love puppies” (Michael Steele) or how they will “change the culture of Washington” (Ben Cardin). I mean come on, are these the criteria that we are supposed to use when electing Members of Congress? With crap like this from both parties, I can see why our very own Paul Zummo has taken a hiatus from politics blogging. Most campaigns are supposedly about “issues,” but too often the candidates don’t have a clue what the hell they are talking about. I’m not limiting this to the substance of these so-called "issues," but if I hear one more candidate say that if you send them to Washington they will “fix health care,” “reform social programs,” or “end the war in Iraq,” I’m going to punch someone. Members of Congress, especially freshman Members can’t do any of these things. They can’t investigate government waste, fraud, and abuse or other excesses by government actors; let’s be honest here, freshman Members can’t even walk and chew gum at the same time. They simply don't know enough. Congress is a complicated place; it is unlike any other office or group body in the country, even state legislatures or city councils can't measure up to its complexity. It litteraly takes years to master the rules and procedures. Thus, much of a Member's first couple of terms are spent just figuring out what the heck is happening around them on a daily basis (these observations, by the way, are some of the many practical reasons to oppose term limits, legal objections aside).

Is it too much to ask that our candidates actually know a thing or two about how Congress works? Instead of the questions normally put to candidates wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear someone ask about how a “motion to recommit” works, or how about ensuring that there are more “open rules” and, therefore, more actual substantive debate on the House floor? Why don’t we judge prospective members on the things they actually control, like whether to expand the jurisdiction of the ethics committees, or reduce the power of committee chairmen by requiring the express consent of the ranking member before proceeding to new business, taking votes, or passing bills? What about establishment of jurisdiction over committees, to ensure that the right people actually get to review substantive legislation before it goes to the floor, or inserting a 72-hour reading rule that isn’t able to be waived by a mere majority vote so that Members and staff can actually read the laws they pass?

I know, I know, we’d all rather read and talk about “maccaa” or what Jim Webb said about Naval Academy women 25 years ago, because that’s what really matters when you send people to Congress. Face facts folks, the procedures matter, the rules matter, the arcane history matters, it matters more than almost anything else up here. I don’t expect people to care deeply about these things, but I do expect that they at least expect their elected officials to care. Keep sending the pretty smiling faces, and the rich connected real estate moguls to Washington and you’ll continue to get more of the status quo, not because they like it, but because they don’t know or care enough about how to change it.


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