The exact time of death is uncertain, but sometime between Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in 1863 and today, "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" drew a final breath and perished. In place of the cause for which the fallen "gave the last full measure of devotion," it's now government of the few, by the few, and for the few, and according to a new Pew Research Center poll, four-fifths of "the people" don't trust "the few" to do the right thing.
All men and women are not created equal. The new members of Congress in January 2009 reported an average net worth of $1.8 million, or about twenty times the wealth of ordinary Americans. Almost half of the 535 members of Congress are millionaires. The ratio is about 1 in 100 among Americans who aren't members of Congress. More than 50 candidates in 2008 races spent over a half-million dollars on their campaigns ... out of their own pockets. When elected representatives have more in common with Wall Street than with Main Street it is no surprise who gets bailed out after swamping the yacht and who gets handed the bucket to do the bailing and the bill to pay for the boat.
In politics, money is speech ... says five members of the Supreme Court. The rich can roar while, at best, ordinary people squeak. Money is the grease that lubricates hinges on Capitol Hill, and the more grease the easier the doors open. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, members elected to the House in 2008 spent an average of $1.4 million to win a two-year term to a position that pays less than $175,000 a year. Members elected to the Senate spent an average of almost $5 million (the 2000 Clinton-Lazio race in NY was a $90 million contest). The business of getting elected to public office is big business.
Some elected officials are genuinely devoted to public service and some donors really want to see the best person win without any expectation of a return on the monetary investment, but the perception is those ideals are the exception, not the rule. Regardless of motives, money is at the heart of elected office: Money to get elected, more money to get re-elected, money funneled back home to show the voters how blessed they are to have the incumbent fighting for them, and money - or favors that generate money - to satiate the special interests and prime the pump to refill the coffers for the next cycle.
Elected office has evolved into a potential lifelong career. For the first century or more, members of Congress often didn't completing a full term. Congress would adjourn for months and members would go home to practice law, or medicine, or farm, just like the people they represented, and sometimes they didn't come back. It wasn't until 1887 that the average tenure in the Senate reached six years - one full term - and it wasn't until 1901 that the average tenure in the House reached four years - two full terms. In the 102nd Congress in 1991-1993, average tenures in the House and the Senate passed the decade mark for the first time in the 200-plus year history of the institution. Representing has become a profession.
Some argue, as former Representative Henry Hyde (R-IL) did in 1997, that the modern legislative agenda is so complicated that Congress is "no place for amateurs," and that years in office promote effective leadership, stability and institutional memory. History, however, does not support the claim. As the length of time in office increased to record highs, approval ratings dropped to all-time lows, reaching a point where fewer than one in five of the represented approve of the job their representatives are doing. Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN), in announcing that he was joining a growing list of Members who are not running for re-election, said Congress is "dysfunctional" and "in need of some real reform," sentiments that have been expressed for decades from both sides of the aisle (remember the Contract for America?).
If money plays an unsavory role in politics - a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed eight in ten Americans oppose the Supreme Court's decision allowing unlimited political spending by corporations and unions - and gives a select few greater access and influence than the vast majority, and if there is a correlation among the ineffectiveness of Congress, their dismal approval ratings, and the increasing length of time members stay in office, what's the solution? Here's a suggestion: a single term.
Members of the House serve a two-year term. By the time they take office in January of odd-numbered years, all 435 members face Election Day again in 21 months, and on average they need to raise about $3,000 every day in office for the next campaign. With the exception of the few that don't run for re-election, fundraising is a key job. It's a little better in the Senate with six-year terms, which allows time between elections to focus on the duties members were sent to Capitol Hill to perform, although campaigning never stops entirely.
Limiting members to a term does two things. First, it reduces the influence of money. Sure, it takes money to get elected, but once in office there are no more fundraisers and no more campaign contributions because there is no campaign and no re-election. It would also reduce the incentive to funnel pork back home to impress the voters. Second, it enables members to focus on the best interests of the country rather than the best interests of their re-election bids. Members could work on pressing issues rather than working the room and pressing the flesh at $1,000 a head fundraisers most ordinary people can't afford to attend. Doing the right thing is easier when you don't need to check the political windsock to keep the campaign tacking towards re-election.
If limited to a term, the current two-year term for members of the House should be increased. Two years isn't long enough, in most cases, for members to learn the ropes and do anything meaningful. Maybe a four of five year term is more reasonable. Also, members should be allowed to run for federal office again, but only after sitting out at least two years. The represented have a right to trust that their representatives, while in office, are full engaged in representing and not using their current positions to angle for bigger prizes.
The proposal isn't perfect. Money will still play a significant role in politics, the affluent will still have a disproportionate voice, and they will likely fill more seats than ordinary Americans. But if we reduce corrupting influences, end the practice of letting a few hold a lifetime claim to a seat in Congress, and enable more people to have a chance to serve - even amateurs - we come closer to the people-centered government Lincoln envisioned.
The McDonald's ad implores the poor guy holding the filet-o-fish sandwich to give it back. To him, I say keep your sandwich, but to "the few" who are holding government of the people, by the people, and for the people hostage, give us back our government.