Seventy percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way Congress is doing its job (September 10-14 CBS-New York Times poll). Only 30 percent give Congressional Democrats a positive performance rating. Republicans seem poised for big gains this November. Yet only 20 percent give Republicans a positive approval rating. Given a choice, voters seem inclined to "throw the bums out." The appeal of "untainted" Tea Party candidates signals this disgust with current officeholders.
While cathartic, it's less clear that replacing current members of Congress with new ones - even those with impeccable Tea Party credentials - would change the direction America is heading - a direction considered wrong by 60 percent of those polled. Getting rid of Congressional "bad apples" ignores the fact that Congress in many respects is a "bad barrel." Is it really likely that new members of Congress would be less partisan, less controlled by big money, less influenced by interest groups, and more ethical than the current crew? To get that, you have to change the system and its ground rules, not just the players.
The system certainly includes how candidates are selected, a process in which small groups of voters at the extremes of their parties have great influence. That system includes how Congressional districts are created and the persistent trend toward more ideologically extreme members who don't have much to fear (except perhaps greater extremism from their own party). The system includes the increasing dominance of money in endless campaigning and the use of that money to buy access with which to sway votes. And the system includes a Congressional organization and operation that leads to ideological posturing from members who know little about their opponents because they don't socialize with them or even maintain a residence in the nation's capitol.
That system also includes what individual Americans demand of Congress. Try this mental experiment. You have set up three tables at a large Tea Party gathering. At one table, people may turn in their Social Security cards. At the second, they may sign-up to have their aging relatives taken off Medicaid. At the third, they may turn in their Medicare cards. Out of a hundred people, how many do you think would help reduce the federal deficit by agreeing to take one or more of these actions? (These three programs account for 60 percent of federal outlays each year.)
Don't like the tables? See if you can recall what federal spending cuts Tea Party candidates (or Democrats or mainline Republicans) are proposing to support if elected. Could their silence be linked to their assumption that any specifically named cut might cost them votes?
Or, if you prefer to get historical, where was the public outrage from 1980-2009, when the federal debt grew from $909 billion to $12.3 trillion? Where was our willingness to increase our personal savings rate to fund investment to grow the economy? Where was our interest in forgoing tax cuts to help fund wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Where was our willingness to raise the Social Security retirement age or subject incomes higher than $106,800 to Social Security taxes? Where was our willingness to tell our member of Congress that we did not want that earmark for our district?
Imagine a Congress elected this fall that proposed to reduce the federal debt and deficit through legislation to raise marginal tax rates and cut spending for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid?. Would we welcome such leadership? Imagine a Congress that eliminated the mortgage deduction on second homes, increased the gasoline tax to fund investments in and make the price of wind, solar and other green sources of energy comparable to the price of energy from oil, natural gas and coal. Would we want to "throw those bums out" too? In short, we want a Congress who will fix the country as long as they don't ask us to fix ourselves.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with "throwing the bums out." Actually, we did that in 1994 when we turned Congress over to the Republicans after forty years of Democratic leadership. We tried it again in 2006 when we threw the Republicans out. Indeed, in the last 16 years we have had a Republican Congress with a Democratic President, followed in turn by a Republican Congress with a Republican President, a Democratic Congress with a Republican President, and a Democratic Congress with a Democratic President. If throwing the bums out did the trick, shouldn't one of these combinations have worked?
Throwing the bums out is our American right. But without concurrent changes in our governing structures and our own behavior, we'll only end up with the same "bums" in the next Congress.
John Adams captured this worry best when he wrote (with early nineteenth century grammar and spelling) to Thomas Jefferson in 1813, well after both men had done much to fashion opposing political parties and grown disillusioned with what they had produced:
"The real terrors of both Parties have always been and now are, The fear that they shall loose the Elections and consequently the Loaves and the Fishes; and that their Antagonists will obtain them. Both parties have excited artificial Terrors and if I were summoned as a Witness to say upon Oath, which Party had excited, Machiavillialy, the most terror, and which had really felt the most, I could not give a more sincere Answer, than in the vulgar Style "Put Them in a bagg and shake them, and then see which comes out first."
The Republican, Democratic, and Tea Parties are not the answer to what ails us. Fundamental structural reform of the election process and the operation of Congress and a willingness among all of us to accept personal sacrifice for our children and grandchildren's benefit offer a better hope that the next group of elected officials don't also turn out to be "bums."