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Some Work Needed Around the House?

September 29, 2011

by J. Andrew Zalucky

Among the many reasons cited for the current state of political gridlock on capitol hill, one that often comes up is the pressure on members of congress to get re-elected. Thus the argument goes that the need to constantly satisfy constituents and special interests leads those in congress, especially in the house, to just do whatever it takes to stay in power.

This problem is by no means a new one for the democratic process. One should bear in mind that as a politician you are virtually powerless if you’re not…well…in power! So, next time you hear yourself saying: “All of these politicians are jerks! They only care about getting re-elected! They don’t really want to do anything for the country!” Just remember that in order for said political to do something for the country, it helps to be in elected office.

But even with that said, I am genuinely repelled by any shade of populism and I agree that something needs to happen for our legislature to work in a more cooperative, principled way. One idea that gets floated around is that we should impose term limits of congressional members and change the amount of time House members serve, perhaps by changing it to 4 years instead of 2.

These ideas have their merits.

At the risk of swimming against the “anti-Washington sentiment” out there, I do feel bad for members of the House. Just think: you break your chops for months to get elected, and then you basically get ONE YEAR to try and push and agenda through before having to start the big electoral suck-up all over again. Senators don’t have to worry nearly as much. If you’re in the third year of Senate term and you say something dumb on CNN, you have 3 years long years to make people forget about it. But if you’re a House member, the campaign ads might as well come out the day after you open your mouth. So should reps for 4 years instead? Maybe that could give them more time to actually be legislators rather than just politicians.

The term-limit idea is a little different, as it seeks to keep career politicians from taking the seats and holding them for life. It would be nice to have a cycle of fresh voices flowing through Congress, rather than an immutable block of dinosaurs preventing those voices from being heard. However, I might split the difference a little bit. Maybe we should impose limits on consecutive terms one can have in office. This gives constituents a chance to try out new people without permanently shutting their former representative out for all time if they feel they want that person back in office.

But in a way, don’t these suggestions miss the point? While these changes might temporarily alleviate some of the problems on the hill, their effects would only be a trimming of the branches rather than a real chop at the roots. As an elected official, you have a duty to serve the public, but this does not entail that you subject yourself to every whim or passing political demand your constituents throw at you. You should be able to craft and deliberate policy in a civil and effective way regardless of how long you serve. And if you truly believed in the agenda you supported, you should be intellectually capable of defending it against the scrutiny of those who put you in office.

In 1774, Edmund Burke gave a speech in Bristol where he said the following:

Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

By saying “nor from the law and the constitution” Burke only meant to say that judgements and opinions are not derived from laws, but that legislators should exercise their judgement within the realm of those laws. I think our own legislators would do well to keep this advice in mind. While giving a touch of nuance by describing the importance of the general will, Burke knowingly points out that no person could act in good conscience and totally surrender his or her judgement to that will.

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