Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Five Things To Stop Getting Outraged Over Concerning Our Elected Officials

Far be it for me--me!--to defend the lowly politician. Since the beginning of the republic, politicians have been relegated to the level of the used-car-salesman or street criminal they often were. (Well, used horse trader, back in the day, I guess.) People bitched back then about anything and everything, and in fact the original Bill of Rights has a delayed compensation amendment that ultimately didn't make the cut. (It ended up passing a couple of centuries later.) This is the burden of someone placed in the charge of the nation's purse.

And yet...there are a few old horses that get drug out and beat to death every few years. It makes voters feel elated, contrarians happy, and good-government types require a change in pants, but ultimately have absolutely no bearing on how effective (or ineffective, as it were) they are at the actual task of governing or legislating. I'm a nasty old economically-minded crank, so I'm of the opinion that the energy devoted to complaining about the list below should be focused on something more useful. Like, anything else.

1. Congressional Pay
There's nothing more sacred for Americans than complaining about how much our politicians get paid. They're just out to make themselves rich! They're spending taxpayer money on themselves! And yet the compensation that they are paid is actually pretty low given the profession.

The fact is that congressmen and women aren't really paid all that much for what a professional should be paid, and while they do get a lot of perks and travel allowances, they still have to eat, consume, and maintain residences in two places, one of which (Virginia/DC) is extraordinarily high-priced with an astronomical cost of living. (Think about what it costs to live in your house, and effectively double it, and still raise a family that you will rarely get to see.) While some people grin with glee over the picture in their minds of politicians being forced to live four in a room in a modest apartment arguing over who last used the hotplate and why didn't they clean it, this is hardly an optimal situation for those that are supposed to be running the country. If we truly want a full-time legislature--which we clearly do, based on the results of the votes we cast--then they should be paid as full-time legislators. *

Bottom line: congressional salary is a negligible part of our budget. You could triple salaries and your taxes wouldn't even change a tenth of a cent.

2. Low Rate of Turnover
Every election cycle, pundits complain that the level of incumbency is outrageous. The same politicians get re-elected year after year with no consequence. Voters in a district are never given a real choice. Gerrymandering is rampant and both parties are in bed with one another to protect their own. Invoke term limits! Clean the House and send them home!

But is this really what we want?

Think of it this way: many districts are drawn in a way to guarantee a victory for one party or the other. If many districts are packed like this, where, say, 90% of the voters are Democrats, then 90% of the voters in that district are happy. If we somehow forced all districts to create a 50/50 split, all we would end up with is half of the population angry half the time, with a revolving door of mediocre politicians trying their best to scrape by another election. Obviously it's not this simple: even safe districts have a board range of interests, and there's always going to be some competitive seats no manner how the lines are drawn. But congressional districts are "safe" because people want them safe, and that's not always a bad thing. And if you're still concerned about politicians never being held accountable in locked-up, safe districts--well, that's what primaries are for.

3. Travel
Every so often there is some outrageous scandal about a politician's travel expenses. He took a plane somewhere! He spend two months total on the road last year! He went to France!

I never understood this. America is a big country. Our legislature works on deals and vote-trading. If some guy in New York wants to know what things are like in Nebraska, or vice versa, I think it's great. Once elected, a politician is still voting on bills that affect everyone, not just their own district. Traveling to and from his district, and to junkets and conventions and meetings--you know, the exact sort of information-gathering that politicians are supposed to be doing in the first place--is part of the job description. I'd prefer that more politicians would fly overseas to see conditions before they commit troops to battle or sign an era-changing trade deal. And, again, given the negligible cost of travel in the first place in the overall scheme of things, this seems a ridiculous thing to get outraged about. If everyone sat home and just took a Greyhound from their home district to DC twice a year, your tax bill would not budge one penny.

Speaking of...

4. Not Spending Enough Time In District And/Or DC
"Congressman Davis spent 200 days in D.C. last year. He doesn't care about his own disctrict!"
"Congressman Davis missed 200 days in D.C. last year. He doesn't care about doing his job!"
It doesn't matter. Whichever works best as a negative ad will get aired. No way to win this one.

5. Gaffes
OK, this one is slightly legitimate, because leave it to politicians to come up with the absurd and the offensive. I'm not talking about scandals here; no affairs with interns or Twitpics of your crotch. Those are legit scandals. I'm talking about the true-blue gaffe--the misstatement, the mangled phrase, the embarrassing oversight.

There is part of me that hates to see a politician who has spent decades being a good legislator only to be brought down by one sentence. This is particularly appalling if the offending phrase is ambiguous, out of context, or maliciously twisted, which is often the case. I would rather a politician feel free to speak their mind and spark debate even if this means they say something regrettable once in a while. Again, don't get me wrong--there are sentiments and incidents that do justify swift public adjudication, which may include resignation. But to immediately discard a history of good for a few words of bad judgement, to me, is foolish. We should hold our politicians to a higher standard than ourselves, but set that standard too high, and all you'll get are incompetent milquetoasts and straight-up liars, all of whom are scared to talk about anything.

To be fair, there are some who would prefer this scenario. And that's just a sad version of democracy.

The Pledge: I don't want to allow our politicians to run the country without being held accountable for their actions, so don't take any of my criticisms as absolute. At some point salary or travel or intemperate remarks will be a massive harm to the democratic process. But we are nowhere near that level now, and people should be outraged about entitlement reform and tax policy, not that Congressman Davis flew first class to Riyadh.

*I'll leave it to another argument for another day exactly what kind of politicians we want. If we want only rich people who can't be bribed, then salary doesn't matter one way or the other. If we want thinkers, professors, economists, scientists, or public policy advocates, we have to have a decent salary for them to be able to live on. If we want lawyers and professionals, we have to offer enough so that the lure of the private sector doesn't take away the best and brightest. Of course, we probably want a mixture of all of these types (I wouldn't want an all-lawyer congress any more than I would want, say, an all-farmer or all-teacher congress), so the best solution would be to offer a high enough salary to make private practice less attractive, enough so that members aren't tempted by corruption, and allow the rich to donate their salaries (if they so wish). The fiction that a low salary will only attract those who truly love the nation and are willing to sacrifice is unrealistic and, most likely, disastrous.

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