Congressmen Don’t Retire. They Abdicate. Here’s What To Do About It.

“Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a Congressman. But then, I repeat myself.” — Mark Twain

“In my many years I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm, and three or more is a Congress.” — John Adams 

When the Constitution of the United States was coming into being in the late Eighteenth Century, an historian named Mercy Otis Warren worried that unlike the Articles of Confederation, the new Constitution contained “no provision for a rotation, nor anything to prevent the perpetuity of office in the same hands for life; which by a little well-timed bribery, will probably be done.”

The best historians are also prophets.

Democrat Congressman Rush Holt’s announcement this week that he will not seek a ninth term brings the total number of congressmen and senators not seeking re-election this year to 34.  That may seem like a lot, but consider that there are 535 congressmen and senators combined.  On average, the 25 retiring congressmen served 18 years, while the 9 retiring senators served over 26.[1]  To put that in perspective, the average marriage in the United States only lasts eight years.

If you haven’t heard of Rush Holt, you have plenty of company.  As it is, only 35% of Americans can name their own congressman, much less someone else’s, and Holt did not do much during his career to distinguish himself.  During his 16 years in Congress, Holt sponsored only three bills that ever became law: one to re-name a post office, one to adjust the immigration status of five people, and one to designate as preserved wilderness certain lands in West Virginia, which is roughly 450 miles away from his home district in New Jersey.

His obscure career was otherwise noteworthy only in that he was one of the few congressmen to oppose the Children’s Safety Act, which sought to establish a national database for sex offenders.  But that’s not all that surprising since a tiny minority on the extreme Left like Holt tend to oppose such measures on the basis that they violate the privacy rights of sex offenders… which, of course, is the point.

I happen to live in Holt’s district for the duration of his term, but like most Americans I never met my congressman.  I never even saw him.  On one occasion, I came home from a community fair and saw my Facebook feed filled with statuses claiming that Holt had been spotted at the event I had just left, almost all of which were written with such an alacrity and sense of surprise that one would think Bigfoot had been seen.  Heck, even that would have been less improbable.  Anyway, that was the closest I ever came to meeting my proxy to the federal government, though now that I think of it, the only hard evidence of Holt’s presence at the fair was a blurry and heavily pixelated camera phone photo, which should probably be studied by anthropologists for verification, as sightings of this nature tend to be a hoax.

Yet, despite his lack of any meaningful congressional achievements and general invisibility within the community he was supposed to represent, this lawmaker (if he can even be called that) managed to win eight consecutive elections, almost none of which were all that close.  And across the country, in just about every congressional district, a similar story can be told.

If there is one thing conservatives and liberals alike should be able to acknowledge, it is that election to the United States Congress has ceased to be a democratic process.  Our public servants have become our public masters, they having entrenched themselves each in their own little fiefdoms, all but immune to popular will and control.  Even though only 12% of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, and fully 75% of Americans support term limits for congressmen, it is estimated that only 27 of the 435 House seats up for election will even be competitive this year.  That’s a measly 6%.  Only 16 states will have one or more competitive district.  Typically between 85-90% of incumbent Congressmen win their re-election efforts in any given year.

In other words, unless a Congressmen relinquishes his throne, there’s no getting rid of him.[2]

It would be one thing if our public masters won re-election every term while competing on a level playing field.  But the problem is that once in power they use their offices to game the system to keep themselves in power.  First, they shamelessly sell their influence to the highest bidder.  In fact, roughly 75% of all congressional donations come from outside of the recipient congressman’s district, and roughly half come from out of state.

Then they pass campaign finance laws that allow themselves to roll money over from one campaign to another, so they start every election season with seven figure war chests, while enacting contribution limits that make it next to impossible for challengers to raise money.  Consider that for the five congressional elections spanning 2004 through 2012, Rush Holt raised $8.5 million, but often times ran against opponents who had only a tiny fraction of that.  In 2012 he spent $2 million to his opponent’s $130,000; in 2008 he spent $1.1 million to his opponent’s $36,000; and in 2006 he spent $1.5 million to his opponent’s $2070!

And as though that advantage isn’t great enough, the ruling class gerrymanders the districts, which, in addition to having the obvious benefit of having more votes to count on than the opponent, also dissuades donors from giving to the opponent since he is certain to lose.  In a democracy, the people are supposed to choose their representatives.  But through gerrymandering, our representatives choose us!

The result of all this rigging is that not only do we establish a remote professional ruling class whose members almost never lose an election, they win with vote tallies that look like something coming out of a Middle Eastern Thugocracy.

This is not democracy.  Democracy is about competing politicians with competing ideas competing for votes.  It’s competition that keeps our representatives honest.  It’s competition that keeps them close and accountable to their communities.  It’s competition that ensures they spend our money responsibly and frugally.  It’s competition that guarantees that the rules they create to govern us are the rules that we consent to be governed by, and that they will be governed by as well.

But competition is precisely what our public masters have eliminated, and along with it, control has shifted.  Democracy is when the people control the government.  This government controls us.

It’s time we begin to discuss ways to restore our government to the control of the people.  I would suggest that discussion begin with the following ideas:

First, we need term limits.  Three out of four Americans want them.  By changing our representatives frequently, we minimize both the impact of special interests and the corrupting effect of unchecked power, while at the same time consistently infusing Washington with representatives in touch with the lives of the average person.  In a democracy, we should not have to wait a generation for our representatives to abdicate before replacing them with people like us.

Secondly, we need elections where the challengers can achieve something resembling financial parity.  A public finance system could be initiated without cost to the taxpayer, financed instead by levying a 25% duty on the money that the incumbent wants to roll over into his next campaign.  That would give the challenger enough seed money to begin a serious fundraising effort of his own and actually mount a serious challenge.

Third, we need to eliminate gerrymandering.  There are a few ways to do this.  First, it has been suggested that congressional districts could be eliminated entirely, making each congressional race statewide, with the overall party vote determining the share of seats going to each party.  But eliminating districts makes each congressman even more remote from the people he represents.

Instead — and this brings us to the fourth suggestion — we should dramatically increase the number of districts and congressmen.  The more local the district, the less it can be subject to gerrymandering, especially if the districts are drawn along township lines.  The added benefit is that these districts would actually represent intact communities, not random groups with little in common which are thrown together for no purpose other than to gain electoral advantage.

And more to the point, the fewer people a congressman represents, the more accessible and accountable he is.  When the Constitution was written, each congressmen represented on average approximately 33,000 people.  Each district had a population roughly the size of a medium-sized town.  Today, with the population having grown exponentially, but the number of congressmen having been frozen for nearly a century, the average congressman represents approximately 721,000 people, a population roughly the size of Alaska and North Dakota, and bigger than Vermont and Wyoming.[3]

The point is that congressmen shouldn’t be national figures, they should be local figures.  Just as when the Constitution was written, they should be no more remote than the mayor of your town.  So let’s increase the number of representatives.  In fact, let’s multiply them by ten.  Even that would not bring us to the representative proportions achieved when the Constitution was written.  But it would make each congressman ten times more accessible, and ten times less powerful.  Those are both good things.

The obvious counter-argument is that this will increase the size of government.  Not really.  The federal government already employs close to 3 million people (not including military), so it would only increase the number of people in the government by a statistically insignificant sum.  As far as cost, we spend only about $6 billion per year to operate Congress, which is not even one half of one percent of the $3.8 trillion federal budget.  Even if we were to multiply that expenditure by ten, it would still only account for about 1.5% of federal spending.

And most importantly, it would not grow the reach of the government.  If anything, it would allow us to reach them.  And so empowered, we could begin to heal the great Congressional divide that threatens our democracy at its very foundation.  By this, of course, I speak not of the largely illusory divide between Republicans and Democrats.  Rather, the very real divide between our public masters and us.

[1] This includes their combined time in the House and Senate.

[2] Note that of the three congressmen this cycle who are abdicating or have already abdicated after only two or fewer terms, one, Trey Randel, was forced to resign part way into his first term for being convicted of cocaine possession, and another, Bill Owens, left less than convincingly saying that he was not presently aware of his own involvement in any scandal, and if he was involved he doesn’t know anything about it.  Note also that this group does not count Jesse Jackson Jr., who resigned 16 days after winning his tenth consecutive congressional election in the face of an ongoing bribery investigation, but was never sworn into this present term.  Despite being under criminal investigation and having been mysteriously absent from Congress for nearly six months (and having a recent history of saying weird and contradictory things like “iPads kill jobs”, and we should “give an iPad to every child”), he still managed to beat his opponent by 40 points.  But that’s nothing.  He usually won by around 70%, and once with 95% of the vote.


[3] By way of comparison, the state legislature of New Hampshire has one lawmaker for every 3,300 residents (and each are paid an annual salary of $200.00).

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