Citizens of democracies have long railed against their elected representatives. Aristophanes once insulted someone as displaying "all the characteristics of a popular politician: a horrible voice, bad breeding, and a vulgar manner." Normally, this is not only good sport but also serves a constructive purpose: encouraging humility in high places. But you can have too much of a good thing. Today's mean-spirited trivialization of American politics holds dangers that seem not to be widely appreciated. I say so for two reasons.
The first is the "penny wise, pound foolish" phenomenon, best illustrated by the hysteria over the House banking "scandal." According to media reports, these shenanigans may cost dozens of incumbents their jobs. But what actually happened? Hundreds of members of the House of Representatives received interest-free loans from a shoddily run bank, which was able to give costless credit because hundreds of other House members foolishly left money on deposit at zero interest. Strange banking practices, to be sure, but where's the damage to the taxpayer?
While all this was going on, the daily actions and inactions of a blatantly nonfunctioning government were costing taxpayers billions. The inexcusable procrastination over the savings and loan cleanup is only the most spectacular example. Our divided government has also proved itself incapable of dealing with the budget deficit--a molehill that has been allowed to grow into a mountain. The system allows interest groups to thrust their hands into the taxpayers' pockets every day, thereby removing great gobs of money. Yet the electorate has been turned into what Justice Clarence Thomas might call an electronic lynch mob--not because of any of this, but because of a few (well, a few thousand) bad checks covered by fellow members of the House. It's as though we condemned a master criminal for jaywalking.
FEEL-GOODISM. Some observers detect a kind of rough justice in all this--like putting Al Capone away for tax evasion. But this attitude ignores a lesson children learn: Two wrongs do not make a right. If we exact a pound of flesh for petty misdeeds but leave highway robbery unpunished, we send precisely the wrong signals to our politicians. The message should be: Take a few crumbs, but leave the cake for us. Unfortunately, American voters are now saying the opposite.
The crumbs bring up my second reason for concern: the "you get what you pay for" phenomenon. According to popular myth, members of Congress are a pampered bunch of lazy, incompetent, aloof dukes and duchesses who are sadly out of touch with the common people. The truth is closer to the reverse.
Far from being out of touch, politicians have their antennae finely tuned to current realities. Our elected representatives understand that divided government turns American politics into an unattractive game of "pin the blame on the donkey" (or elephant). They know that a decade of feel-goodism has left the electorate unwilling to face hard truths. And they realize that government by television puts the payoffs in sound bites, not sound policies. Democracies get the government they deserve. If the system provides incentives for politicians to behave like knaves or fools, we should not be surprised when some do.
Nor is it obvious that being in the House of Representatives is a good job nowadays. The hours are long, and, unlike senators, House members are not movie stars. Despite last year's much-maligned pay hike, salaries remain well below what other top professionals earn. And Representatives get less respect than Rodney Dangerfield. I, for one, would not trade places with my congressman even if I were somehow spared the agony of an election campaign.
STRICT STANDARDS. This all matters because many men and women of Congress--certainly the best of them--have ample talent to pursue other rewarding careers. If we make life on the Hill sufficiently unattractive, many of them will. Under the American system of government, members of Congress are Very Important People who make very important decisions. Like other vips, they have a right to expect certain perks of office, which we citizens should not begrudge them. In return, we should expect--no, demand--a high standard of integrity and competence.
I propose a deal: Raise congressional pay and offer generous expense allowances for, say, necessary entertaining and trips home--strictly audited, of course. In return, ban all outside earnings, and demand adherence to the same tough conflict-of-interest rules applied to top appointed officials. Finally, finance all Presidential and congressional campaigns publicly. We've had enough of "the best Congress money can buy." Such a deal might cost taxpayers a few hundred million dollars a year. But these millions can buy us billions in better government.
Unfortunately, the American body politic and the media now seem hell-bent on making service in Congress about as appealing as a vacation in Libya. If this continues, we will be left not with the best and the brightest but with power-hungry dullards who can't hold any other job. It is not an appealing thought.