02/09/2011 05:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Accountability For Members of Congress

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota), who gave the Tea Party response to President Barack Obama's recent State of the Union address, seems to have difficulty with American history. She must have taken history in school somewhere in her scholarly travels, but clearly if she did, she didn't take the course very seriously, had a very poor teacher, or little aptitude for the subject. In an Iowa speech not long before her national address, she said that the founding fathers "worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States." Apparently, she had not known that slavery continued in the United States and only ended with the Civil War. In fact, it was written into our Constitution by our founding fathers. For purposes of apportioning representatives to the House, each slave was explicitly counted as three-fifths of a person.1 And those early founders owned slaves: George Washington owned 316 when he died; Thomas Jefferson owned as many as 187 slaves, and James Madison owned 106. Many observers of Rep. Bachmann's performance in Iowa have pointed out her ignorance of this history, but her lack of knowledge raises some serious questions about what we ought to require of our congressional representatives.

Calls for accountability for individuals in all walks of life as well as for institutions are heard incessantly in the halls of Congress and in congressional hearing these days. What is the state of accountability in the professions compared with members of Congress? We might be concerned about this because according to a 2010 Gallop Poll the confidence that the public has in the Congress is at an all-time low. Only 11 percent had confidence in Congress compared with 76 percent in the military, which stood at the top of the array of institutions for which opinions were gathered. I'd suggest that members of Congress are, in fact, less accountable for demonstrating competence than members of almost any other institution. Of course, they are in principle accountable to their constituents - and they go before the electorate every two or six years. But I'm talking about something more than electability when considering the people who are making inquiries and composing the laws of the land. How much do these people know about the history of our country and its Constitution, as well as the other material that will be necessary for them to be effective legislators in a complex society? Can't we expect some basic competence demonstrated by our legislative representatives after their election?

Other professions do, in fact, require far greater accountability of competence. Licensing of medical doctors requires them to pass major examinations and, for many who specialize, to be Board certified. Lawyers have to pass the state bar examinations and are required to take a certain number of courses periodically to bring their knowledge up to speed. Academics must pass multiple exams before earning a Ph.D., must write a dissertation that is scrutinized and assessed by others, and must have their papers and grant proposals refereed by a set of qualified peers. In contrast, nothing beyond an electoral victory allows you to take your seat in Congress. Perhaps it's time to change the rules of this game. We need to make members of Congress more accountable for their competency. Here is a simple way of doing it. Of course, if you win an election you hold that seat in Congress, but I propose that members of Congress should have to pass qualifying examinations before they can actually be seated and take part in the proceedings of Congress.

The examination should not be onerous but it should demonstrate that Congressional members know something about our history, perhaps something about science, about specific pieces of landmark legislation, about the separation of powers, as well knowledge about major decisions rendered by the Supreme Court that are extremely relevant for their effective service on Capital Hill. We might even offer them a Princeton Review or Kaplan course (at a reduced price) to allow them to bone up on some of those old facts and skills that may now be lost to them.

Let me suggest a few sample questions that might be part of such an examination. Here is a prototype of a ten-question exam -- including a few short essay questions and some multiple-choice items. Let's call it the CAT -- or Congressional Achievement Test. We would start the examination of the elected members of Congress with some relatively easy questions in order to get their confidence up and then move them to slightly more advanced questions, as might be true on the SAT exams. Here, by way of illustration, are 10 questions that might appear on such an examination:

1) In a brief paragraph, please describe the major results of the Supreme Court's decision in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford.

2) In what way did the Court in Roe v. Wade attempt to balance the needs of individuals and State interests?

3) In a short paragraph, describe why discrimination against women and African Americans are not treated the same under the Constitution.

4) Describe the Court's major finding in New York Times, Co. v. Sullivan. Do you think the Court made the correct decision? If not, why?

5) Privacy rights are not explicitly described in the Constitution. How were issues of privacy involved in Griswald v. State of Connecticut?

Now please answer a few multiple-choice questions about American history and about science and technology by circling the correct answer in each question.

6. Nanotechnology is the development and use of devises

a. that are on the same size scale as atoms and molecules.
b. that are deployed in Outer Space.
c. that operate at extremely cold temperatures.
d. in the computerized world of virtual reality.

7. Science and Technology

a. The words "science" and "technology" are interchangeable.
b. Technology encompasses all machines and devices created by humans; science is the study of technology.
c. Science is the study of nature; technology is the application of science.
d. Science is a logical methodology by which to study a subject; technology is the study of nature.

8. Human races

a. The genetic differences between human races is significantly greater than genetic difference between individuals of the same race.
b. The genetic difference between human races is about the same as the differences between individuals of the same race.
c. The genetic difference between human races is significantly less than genetic difference between individuals of the same race.
d. There are no genetic differences at all between different human 6.

9. What was the primary goal of President Abraham Lincoln's post-Civil War policy?

a. establishing military districts in the South
b. extending land ownership to African American men
c. restoring Southern representation in Congress
d. arresting military leaders

10. All of the following concerns were addressed during the "Hundred Days" of the New Deal EXCEPT

a. banking regulation
b. unemployment relief
c. agricultural adjustment
d. homeowner mortgage support
e. court restructuring

These are intentionally not especially difficult questions. In fact, they can be found in the 10th grade New York State American History Regents Examination, in the high school U. S. History Advanced Placement examination, and a few, admittedly, in my mind. But if members of Congress are going to hold inquiries into the accountability of everything from universities to the banking business, don't you think it is time that we citizens begin to build some level of confidence that those who are holding the Congressional hearings and making the laws that affect us are actually minimally competent at something other than getting elected?

1U.S Constitution, Article. I, Section. 2.: "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons."

* Jonathan R. Cole's latest book is: The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected (Public Affairs, 2010). He is the John Mitchell Mason Professor at Columbia University and was its provost and dean of faculties from 1989-2003.