Let’s Fix Congress by Kicking Out the Millionaires

Four first steps for re-democratizing our democracy.

On Face the Nation on Sunday, host Bob Schieffer let loose on our “do-nothing” Congress, lamenting how much things have changed since he first came to Washington four decades ago:

“There are some exceptions, but many House Members, especially, have come to live in a world unknown and disconnected to the rest of us,” he said. “They work three days a week, they take long and frequent vacations, and busy themselves with things that have no connection to the rest of us — fundraising to ensure re-election, traveling, issuing press releases, and more fundraising. It’s obvious they want to be something — a member of Congress. But when I came to Washington, most members wanted to do something. When did that go out of style?”

In his rebuke of the modern congressman, Schieffer was speaking for the majority of Americans who have become jaded by the lack of principled representation in a Washington where legislators are more concerned with pandering to an increasingly narrow base than with being stewards of a great and diverse nation. Where Tocqueville once wrote admiringly of the absence of “public careers” in America, the U.S. Congress — which was once composed of practical men of modest means — has become the bastion of professional politicians drawn from an elite segment of U.S. society.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, nearly half of U.S. lawmakers have an estimated net worth of more than $1 million, while the median estimated net worth of the incoming freshmen last year was almost exactly $1 million more than that of the typical American household. In 2011, as Occupy Wall Street was taking shape, 57 members of Congress counted themselves as members of the 1% the protesters were railing against.

In short, James Madison’s vision of the legislature as “the most exact transcript of the whole society” has become an illusion. Congress is more out of touch with the wants and needs of the average American than at any other time, mostly because the legislature is no longer made up of average Americans. According to political historian Rebekah L. Herrick, as recently as the 1950s — when the average legislator served just three terms — not a single member of Congress listed politics as their primary profession; by the time George W. Bush took office, a quarter of U.S. representatives identified themselves as career public servants.

Among other things, this has led to a renewed calls for limits on how many terms a member of Congress can serve. While polls show overwhelming public support for Congressional term limits, the topic remains one of the most contentious reform issues facing the legislature (not in small part because voting for it means you will eventually lose your job). On Capitol Hill, the debate is largely divided along partisan lines, with Democrats typically opposed and Republicans in favor. Conservatives tend to see term limits as a way of wresting control back from Big Government Bureaucrats and placing it back into the hands of the people. Progressives argue that governing is a much more complex endeavor than it was when Congress was made up of farmers and merchants, and that term limits will lead to a dumbing down of the legislature and “governance by slogan.” They have a reason to be concerned (consider the Tea Party sweep of 2010 that gave marginal power to dozens of ill-informed radicals).

Yet, there is no denying that the “long-cherished principles of rotation in office” that once led to self-imposed term limits are a relic of the past. Whether or not mandatory term limits are part of the solution (there are compelling arguments both for and against), this much is clear: While most professionals get better at their jobs the longer they do them, when it comes to congressional politics, practice apparently does not make perfect.

As proof, last August Gallup found that Americans’ approval rating of Congress dropped to 10 percent — the lowest level of confidence for any institution on record. It’s hovered around that level ever since. These are the people we’ve chosen to represent us on some of the most important issues we will ever face, and yet we are more confident in the abilities of banks, unions and public schools — many of which can hardly keep their doors open.

While procedural reforms of the filibuster and budgeting process are vital to fixing our broken Congress, if we want to change how our elected officials behave in Washington, first we need to change how they get there. At the root of our current legislative crisis are career politicians who worry more about getting reelected than governing and a primary system that encourages that behavior.

Given the cost of membership — the average senator spent $10.2 million in 2012 for his or her seat — it’s little wonder that U.S. legislators place such a high premium on winning re-election. So, for starters, we need to wrest control of the process away from millionaires by lowering the price of entry. I recommend a ban on all televised political advertising and the establishment of citizen-run online forums where candidates can make their pitches for free directly to voters and/or host their campaign videos. The Internet has been democratizing everything else — why couldn’t it re-democratize democracy too?

Next we need to overhaul our primary system to make it less vulnerable to partisan influence. The group FairVote has developed a model for doing this by replacing single-member districts that are highly susceptible to gerrymandering with “super-districts” — drawn by nonpartisan commissions — that elect between three and five representatives using a candidate-based form of proportional voting. Under the FairVote plan, Pennsylvania’s notoriously hackneyed district map would go from 18 districts to just four, virtually eliminating the partisan grip on participation. I recommend you familiarize yourself with FairVote’s proposals and decide for yourself if they make sense. Either way, I think we can all agree it’s high time we had the discussion.