Friday, September 03, 2010

Reforming Congress, Part 2

Yesterday's post, in which I took off on a chain e-mail I'd received that offered eight suggestions for reforming Congress, got quite a few comments, most of them agreeing with almost all points. Heck, I even got something close to agreement from the Eminence Grise, which is almost enough to make me want to shut down this blog and quit while I'm ahead.

The most interesting comment came from - of all people - Mike, who took a break from his busy post-retirement work of putting up funny pictures on his blog and made this observation:

"We have term limits in Missouri. What we are starting to see is nobody filing for offices from some parties. I.E. there will be one candidate from one party running for an office. You would be surprised how many people DON'T want to be in politics."

Actually, I probably wouldn't be surprised.

Based on anecdotal evidence only, I think that there are a lot of people who would like to serve in some public office, but don't want to put up with the personal and political agony that goes with it. There are a few aspects to this.

First, running for office at anything above the level of school block parent has become prohibitively expensive. The cost of television ads, printed material, millions of annoying roadside signs, robo-calling equipment, gas (for driving around to shake hands), airfare (to crisscross the country), and a campaign staff to spin the news and manage the volunteer foot soldiers, is huge. Real People who might want to run for office literally can't afford it unless they sell themselves to the machinery of a major political party...and once they've done that, they've tied themselves to all the philosophical and political baggage that comes with allegiance to a specific party. Someone like ... well ... me, who sees some aspects of both "liberal/Democratic" and "conservative/Republican" that are praiseworthy, but is disgusted by the demagogues of the far left and right who have hijacked the major parties, can't take advantage of their political machinery and funding to make a serious run for office possible. And while we're talking about money, let's not forget that the Supreme Court (in it's astounding Citizens United v Federal Election Commission decision) has allowed corporations and organizations to spend unlimited amounts of money - anonymously - to buy elections. If they don't like you, they can outspend you with impunity.

Second, as soon as you decide to run for office, your life is no longer your own. Every aspect of your life, your family's lives, your friends' lives, your pets' lives, and everything else about you becomes fair game for every muckraking newspaper reporter looking to make a name and every blogger with an axe to grind. You will be publicly insulted and mocked, every word you've ever said or written will be used (invariably, out of context) to paint you in the worst possible light, and your every motivation will be ruthlessly questioned. You will get to see unflattering photos and video of yourself in vicious campaign attack ads. You will be unable to defend yourself against any of this because you aren't supposed to show anger...and because in many cases you aren't able to know who is funding those ads, because the identity of those who pay for them is protected by their First Amendment rights to free speech and privacy. In addition, the anonymity of the Internet allows anyone to say anything about you, regardless of truth, without fear of being forced to prove their allegations.

And once you've been elected, it isn't over. You will be expected immediately to make good on every campaign promise (no matter how ill-considered) and be villified if you don't. You will receive no credit for your accomplishments, and blame will be heaped on you for everything bad that happens on your watch. You will be hounded by all the people who contributed money to your campaign and are now looking for a return on their investment ... and when you do the things that satisfy those people, others will pounce on you for selling out to the special interests. And we won't even discuss the crazy people who will hate you because they don't believe the validity of your birth certificate, because you don't worship at the right church/temple/mosque, or because they're sure you are under the control of aliens from Alpha Centauri.

Oh, and as soon as you're elected, you have to start worrying about raising money to get re-elected at the end of your term.

Modern politics has become such an oozing swamp of money, political shenanigans, personal attacks, and twisted rhetoric, that I'm always amazed there are people willing to run for office. We have conspired to make public service something to be avoided rather than the honorable performance of one's civic duty. We've lost the Founders' original concept of citizen legislators serving short terms, then returning to their homes to let others do their duty. As Eminence Grise noted in his comment to yesterday's post,

"... Serving in Congress was originally considered a burden a patiot bore on behalf of his (no women then) constituents. Even the President didn't used to receive a pension--US Grant wrote his masterpiece history of the Civil War to pay his bills--and he knew he was dying at the time. Abe Lincoln served only one term as a congressman, because it basically sucked to be a Congressman in those days (living in a boarding house in a fever swamp)."

A "fever swamp." As good a depiction of modern politics as you're likely to find anywhere.

Have a good day. Do your civic duty, but be prepared to be personally and professionally attacked for doing it. But cheer up - Cartoon Saturday is coming to help get you past the anguish!



Amanda said...

I know I wouldn't want to be a politician!

Nothing to do with the American politics in your post but Richard has a cousin who is an MP in Malaysia and I'm constantly in awe of her because of how tirelessly she works. She truly believes in what she does even if most people think its a waste of time. At least she's trying to make a difference...

Anonymous said...

First, Bilbo, I consider it a high honor to be not only mentioned in your blog, but also to be extensively quoted! That being said, however, I must deign to point out a technical error. Campaign laws require the organization or individual sponsoring each ad to identify itself. Individuals (say a left-winger like George Soros, or right wingers like the Coors family) hide their sponsorship by creating a Political Action Committee or other legal body to obscure the actual source of the cash. You are right, the actual perpetrator is highly difficult to determine, but the ad must be identified as sponsored by a natural or legal person, and the cannot be a tax exempt organization.
Having worked in political campaigns (and nobody has to guess for which party) your description of the agony any potential candidate will suffer is dead on. And we wonder why we get so many flakes running for office? Who else would but a masochist or an egomaniac (or a masochistic egomaniac)?
Have a great weekend!
Eminence Grise

Raquel's World said...

I would make a great PTA president,(small scale I know, but you gotta start somewhere) however it is dealing with those "psycho super(medicated) moms" That keep me from running. Can you imagine if one of them ran across my blog? Its a shame because I am good at confrontation and getting things done and can be very passionate about issues, however it is the judgement that keeps me an onlooker.

Bandit said...

We have a nasty senate race here in Missouri for the seat of Kit Bond who is retiring. The race is between 2 career politicians. Both sides are obviously well bankrolled.

Mike said...

It's a lot of work for to little pay.