Why Voting Out Congress Partisans Won't Fix the Problem

ByChristine Jeffords

As the fiscal cliff loomed ever nearer, radio and print pundits had much to say about the necessity of "holding Congress accountable" and the advisability of "changing Congress." Certainly, they have a very real point. So why aren't we seeing a groundswell of opinion to support it? Why wasn't every running incumbent in both houses given his walking papers in the recent election, when talk of the "cliff" was already on everyone's lips? I feel that there are several important factors involved.

First, I think, most voters recognize that it isn't only Congressional partisanship that's to blame; it's the system itself that's broken. At the same time, they understand that changing that system would be akin to the old saying, "curtailing the powers of Parliament by an act of Parliament." In other words, no matter who's in office, unless restrained by strict term limits, they will hang onto power with teeth, fingernails, and every legal trick available to them. Moreover, as we have what is called a "standing" Congress — that is, only part of it is subject to re-election each cycle — it would take years to clear out the entire deadwood, and most of us simply don't have the patience for that.

Second, while it's often said that we already have term limits — the option of voting out unsatisfactory legislators — the fact is that we seldom do. This is partly inertia ("Better the devil I know than the devil I don't") and apathy ("it doesn't matter what I think; they'll still do exactly as they please"), partly recognition that it isn't just Congress that's to blame (Congressional decisions still have to be implemented, mostly by career bureaucrats who are part of the Civil Service and therefore unanswerable to the electorate), and partly the attitude that "my current congress people have been good for my area; they've brought in Federal money.” Additionally, incumbents have a natural home-court advantage. Their names are known; they have records to run on; they have franking privileges that allow them to flood their districts with propagandistic literature.  Even a successful and popular state governor, such as Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton, has a hard time breasting this flood: that's why these men, who both ran as "Washington outsiders," so surprised everyone when they won. Effectively, unless he commits murder or high treason, once a congressman is in, he's in for life — or until he decides he wants to retire or run for president.

Third, a single person in Congress doesn't make a lot of difference — or do a lot of damage. When he gets together with a lot of other like-minded people, he does. The Republicans particularly, over the last 20-odd years, have been hijacked by the ultraconservative right and become, as has been observed, "the party of no." There was a day, indeed, when the Republicans were thought radical, and the Democrats were the conservatives of Washington! The problem isn't so much with the party or the individuals in it; it's the one vocal and passionate minority.

The fatal flaw of our current system, however, is that lawyers dominate it. Over the years 1780-1930, some two-thirds of all senators and half of representatives were attorneys; today about 46% of all federal elective offices are held by them. The U.S. has more lawyers than any other first world country, as the following chart shows,

Country People per lawyer:

US: 265

Brazil: 326

New Zealand: 391

Spain: 395

UK: 401

Italy: 488

Germany: 593

France: 1403

Japan: 4119

And lawyers, it has been said, are the only occupational field that divides humanity into two categories: lawyers (themselves) and everyone else. An attitude such as this is bound to breed not only arrogance but also a sense of privileged detachment from the hoi polloi. Lawyers, moreover, are trained in an adversarial system. To a lawyer, it’s either winning or lose; there's no middle ground. Therefore, his natural inclination is to win, no matter what he has to do to guarantee it. Unlike businessmen, for example, lawyers have little incentive to negotiate and compromise (unless ordered to do so by a judge, who is, or was, himself a lawyer, and therefore a part of their special class). And, as we've seen with regard to the "cliff," negotiation and compromise are the essence of accomplishing anything in a country as diverse as our own.

Thus, then, it isn't just the "bums" we need to throw out; it's the lawyers. If we could get more non-lawyers to run for office, we might be able to get a government that would run by reason, compromise, and common sense.