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Want a better Congress? Develop measures of competence

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As entertaining a diversion from the demise of the American dream the presidential contest between Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain has become, what with thousands of mass media hairpieces focused intently on their every vague utterance, let’s keep in sight this equally entertaining sideshow: A third of the seats in the U.S. Senate and all of the seats in the House of Representatives are available for the public’s inspection, validation or rejection in November.

The percentage of respondents in national polls who believe Congress is doing a good job is buried in the teens, even lower than approval ratings for President Bush, now trending in the mid- to high-20s. The re-election rate for House members in 2006 was 94 percent (down from 98 percent in ’04); the rate for senators was 79 percent in 2006 (down from 96 percent in ’04), according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Incumbency rules. Many voters might argue that collectively, members of Congress are greedheads mired in the trappings of power wrapped tightly around them by corporate lobbyists paid millions of dollars to either extract largesse from the Hill or prevent lawmaking or regulatory rule-writing that would be bad for business. But

After meeting their House representative or senator face to face, those same voters might say: “Gee. What a wonderful person. He really cares about us folks back here in the district.” Ah, the flitting pleasure of being glad-handed, looked in the eye and backslapped by a professional politicians whose favorite line is: “I’ll have my staff look into it. Thanks for calling this to my attention. Hey, how’s [insert name of appropriate spouse, child or relative, usually whispered by an aide at the pol’s elbow]?”

So what standards of performance should voters apply when considering whether to re-elect an incumbent? Such staggeringly high re-election rates suggest voters keep mindlessly sending miscreants back to the Hill to continue digging the deepest, blackest of holes in which to bury taxpayers and any notions of sound public policy.

What does the incumbent do for constituents?

My congressman, like all members of Congress, will help you obtain presidential greetings, obtain a flag flown over the Capitol, apply to a service academy, intervene with a federal agency (until it gets too messy, of course), prod along a passport request, get a White House tour, and generally navigate the federal government.

All politics is local, said Tip O’Neill, the former speaker of the House. Members of Congress know this. Successfully helping a constituent with a problem virtually guarantees a vote. Having a long history of constituent service is a significant advantage of incumbency.

But should constituent service now be viewed from the perspective of “all of us” instead of just “me“? Voters need a collective view of an incumbent’s performance instead of “what’s in it for me.”

Does the incumbent demonstrate appropriate flexibility in his or her long-term congressional mission as current events unfold over time?

This is a delicate point. Wisdom in Congress is in short supply because polling results have replaced incumbents’ brains. Incumbents who alter a position over time are often accused of becoming informal footwear — flip-floppers. Voters must discern whether an incumbent’s change of mind reflects a sincere desire to find the wisest position instead of the politically adroit one. Voters need to question closely their incumbents’ alterations of position to determine the validity of their motivations.

Does the incumbent demonstrate sufficient knowledge and competency in applying policy to national problems?

More than 80 percent of respondents to national polls do not approve of the collective performance of members of Congress. That’s a charge of mass incompetence. Individually, members of Congress may be competent in applying policy to problems but unable or unwilling to do so because of perceived political restrictions. It’s not always easy for a voter with her hand on the lever to determine her member’s competency.

She could consult her member’s voting records, legislation actually filed, and follow her member’s work on the committees the member has been assigned to.

But it’s not difficult to determine if a member of Congress is unwilling to act independently based on that member’s knowledge and competency. A voter may critically read the press releases on her member’s congressional Web site and compare that wording with talking points from the White House (if the member’s party holds the presidency) or with the Web site rhetoric of the national party organizations in either the House or the Senate.

Small pockets of individual competency may actually reside in Congress, but they remain aisle-locked by a lack of independence and political courage.

Is the incumbent immune to the blandishments of lobbyists?

There is no vaccination that can prevent the nose of a member of Congress from catching the tiniest whiff of a subtle quid pro quo. Should incumbents listen to lobbyists? Yes, they should listen. But not trade favor for favor — or dollars.

Voters know that incumbents (and challengers are not immune) in their mediated campaign posturings will, with a throaty harrumph, harrumph, rail against the evil special interests and promise to stand up against them when returned to the hall of Congress.

But what is the relationship between the incumbent and lobbyists? Check the incumbent’s campaign fundraising over time. What percentage of his or her funds come from political action committees (and what were they)? Did any PACs represent interests before committees on which the incumbent serves? Did representatives of lobbyists contribute to wording of legislation associated with the incumbent? Do the lobbyists represent corporations in the incumbent’s district that depend on federal government spending?

Does the incumbent believe that being a member of Congress has higher responsibilities than maximizing the pork delivered to his or her district?

Incumbents are irrevocably wedded to the belief that voters are sufficiently impressed by the size of the taxpayer-funded government largesse delivered to the district to assure their votes. In fact, incumbents will go to almost unbelievable lengths to associate themselves with every damn federal dollar they can. Read the press releases on their congressional Web sites. Each time you see the phrases “secured,” “helped secure,” “voted for,” and “announced grant,” add up the dollars. That’s what I did when my congressman claimed he’d brought a quarter of a billion dollars into the district in his first term on the Hill.

Overemphasizing an incumbent’s influence in securing the district’s rasher of bacon is dishonest. Assigning as the principal responsibility for a member of Congress carving out the most pork for the district is selfish … and it actually offends other members of Congress (who think it minimizes their pork).

Read the incumbent’s press releases for whiffs of pork. Ferret out the incumbent’s earmarks. Determine the incumbent’s priorities. Who does the incumbent really serve?

Does the incumbent provide ready, easy access to pertinent information on his or her congressional Web site?

Usually, voters must spend oodles of time and energy finding information that appropriately measures an incumbent’s performance. For example, does the incumbent have links that clearly show his or her voting record, requested earmarks, fundraising efforts, and daily calendars and phone logs showing whom he or she speaks with?

If voters desire a Congress whose approval rating may rapidly ascend from the bickering swill of a cellar in which it now resides, they must ignore the carefully chosen clothes, the ivory-white smiles, the franked, flashy, colorful mailings labeled “Legislative Reports,” the 30-second spots that briefly flash the incumbents’ cheerful families into consciousness, the local TV news showing the incumbent backed by flags and impressive-looking bookcases touting his or her latest legislative success … and all that other pretentious crap.

Determining the competency of an incumbent is hard work. They don’t make it easy. If voters want a Congress they can be proud of, they’ve got to do the work necessary to roust the current, incompetent incumbents.

(Thx to my colleague and longtime Gannett national correspondent John Hanchette for his insight.)

xpost: Scholars & Rogues

Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

August 25, 2008 at 1:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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