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Friday, December 10, 2010

America’s Political Class

“One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” — Plato

Back in the day when I was doing international business development for the engineering firm I was associated with I worked with the United States Trade and Development Agency in Washington, D.C.

USTDA is an independent U.S. Government foreign assistance agency that is funded by the U.S. Congress. Its mission is to promote economic growth in developing and middle income countries, while simultaneously helping American businesses to export their products and services, thereby creating U.S. jobs. In addition, USTDA supports U.S. policy objectives related to development and capacity building activities. Its budget for 2011 is $56 million dollars.

USTDA provides grant funding to overseas project sponsors for the planning of projects that support the development of modern infrastructure and an open trading system. The hallmark of USTDA development assistance has always involved building partnerships between U.S. companies and overseas project sponsors to bring proven private sector solutions to developmental challenges.

In other words a private U.S. firm will identify an opportunity to export its goods or services to a foreign country. USTDA will conduct a study to verify that considerable exports will accrue from a grant to the foreign nation (usually 30:1) Once the grant is approved and funded the project sponsor (foreign country) will select a U.S. firm to provide the feasibility study or implementation of a pilot project in accordance with the terms of the grant. In essence the project sponsor selects the U.S. firm and the USTDA pays the bills.

During my association with TDA I worked with mid civil service career bureaucrats (G14-G16) who were the regional and country managers. There were also contract civil servants working as aids and interns. These aids and interns were there on one or two year contracts while they tried to maneuver themselves into permanent positions in other government agencies or return to their home states to enter politics.

One such person I met was a university graduate from Wisconsin who had political aspirations. He was working at TDA while making contacts on Capitol Hill who he would be able to draw support from. A few months after I met him he was gone, back to Wisconsin to enter politics and pursue his life-long career.

I tell this story as a preamble to the subject of this blog. This young university graduate, who had never worked in the private sector beyond a job while in college, was now going to become one of the new political class. He had made his contacts and was ready to return to his home where he would work with the party of his choice in hopes of eventually returning someday as a member of Congress.

While in itself this may be a noble pursuit, but it demonstrates where most of our politicians have come from and what their goals are — a career in politics, something our founding fathers did not envision. They wanted citizen politicians who would serve their time in congress and then return to their farms or businesses.

Many citizens living outside the Beltway correctly think Washington is a swamp.  Our capital city pulls people in and grips them.  It doesn't matter how smart, altruistic, or committed newcomers are — the longer they stay, the more they lose touch with reality. It happens to the unelected, too. Media, consultants, lobbyists, staff members, bureaucrats — nearly everyone in public Washington is susceptible. Washington is like a drug habit and many there fall victim. Sadly, the swamp-dwellers won't drain the swamp.  Too many become powerful, comfortable, and prosperous there.

You eat in the best restaurants, go to the cocktail parties and happy hours to rub elbows with your peers and you develop a sense of superiority over the rest of the country. You believe you have the real inside scoop and know better than the farmer in Kansas or the small business owner in Kentucky what is good for him or her. You work hard to develop your contacts and form your message to keep the support of your base. All that matters is the continuation of your career in Washington. You never stop looking for campaign contributions and the lobbyists never stop looking for people to give their money to. It’s a very incestuous loop. This also applies to state capitols.

With good reason, people see America's political class as in business for themselves.  Once elected, too many officials need their jobs. Many in Congress, for example, hold the best job they've ever had — and for most, the best job they will ever have.  In time, members wake up each morning thinking about what they can do that day to preserve their precious job.

Consequently, legislators' thoughts seem to involve too seldom their sworn duty to provide good governance, and too often how they will finance another successful reelection campaign.

To be fair, it doesn't start that way for most politicians, though for some it surely does.  For most of them time is the enemy. Time turns legislators against constituents by encouraging them to focus on themselves, and time allows initial public service aspirations to give way to self-service.

I visited scores of congressional and senatorial offices and met with members and their staffers. Once you walk in you can feel the arrogance and privilege in the air. There are two kinds of people working in these offices — the career aides who bounce from member to member to perform menial tasks and the sycophants. I sympathized with the career aides — they are just doing a job. It’s the sycophants that get under your skin. Many of them will fall on a sword to protect their member’s position.

There have been many examples of this arrogance and self-serving attitudes. We have had sex scandals with congressional aides and pages. There have been charges and convictions for bribery and illegal campaign donations — all in the furtherance of their campaigns. We have had congressmen with stashes of cash in their freezers and numerous examples of immorality and ethics violations among House members. Many have gone unpunished due to the “good old boy” system that exists in Washington.

Rep. Charles Rangel, a forty-year veteran of the House, first ran for Congress as a reformer to replace Adam Clayton Powell, an ethics violator.  Recently, Rangel himself was censured by the House for ethics violations.

The evidence was known to House members for at least two years, but until it was broadly disseminated by the media, Rangel was spared in three attempts to remove him as chairman of the Ways and Means, the committee charged with writing many of the laws Rangel violated.  In October 2009, Democrats organized a procedural maneuver to table and killed the third attempt to remove him.

Rangel's slap on the wrist restored "equilibrium" to the House and returned the body to normal business.

If you or I had been the perpetrator, the actions for which Rangel was merely censured would have been called by their correct name — felonies — and prosecuted when the violations first became known. Yet Rangel continues, unconfined, in a job paying $174,000 per year with a pension and full health care.

Other former veteran members of Congress and lobbyists with whom they colluded have done or are doing jail time for violations of their oaths and the law.  These members and lobbyists brokered congressional earmarks and other favors involving our tax money for campaign donations and other benefits.

Rangel and others demonstrate that as time and position beget temptations, some surrender.

Most Americans are or have been represented by House members serving more than five terms in Washington or senators serving more than two. Legislative careers can last decades. Many legislators have slopped at the public trough their entire adult lives in one political role or another.  Though personnel continuity in the military and agencies may be necessary, America's founders didn't envision a permanent political class. Seniority in Congress and too much time in office distract officeholders from legitimate voter interests and lead to the conceit that preservation of members' incumbencies is critical to their constituents.

In addition to time, the education and training of our political class often limit their competence and sabotage the public's interests.

Find the biographies of your legislators, learn their educational and work backgrounds, and discover what practical, real-world experience they have accumulated that would qualify them to create policy on anything as complex as the American economy. Have they ever signed a paycheck drawn on their own bank account?

With no disrespect to degree-holders, let's be honest. Political science is to science as tree surgery is to medicine. A degree in public administration means exactly...what?  Sociology is about as much a science as astrology is. Simply because they make laws, are legislators qualified by law degrees to set policy regulating small businesses — or health care and education?

America's political landscape is littered with marginally relevant degrees held by credentialed but inexperienced, often undereducated, and ill-prepared people who either write our laws or give advice to those who do. America is governed by many people who have never designed, invented, or manufactured a useful product; performed a commercial service; harvested crops; treated a patient; met a payroll; or even punched a time clock as most Americans have done and do — or would do if enough jobs were available.  Of what value is the knowledge of how to move legislation without knowing what, if any, legislation is needed or will work? There are a few exceptions and you should identify them as those you would support, but not for their lifetime.

We have a political class and political advisory network populated by those whose livelihoods, prosperity, and futures depend on maintenance of a system they have made incoherent and unsustainable.  Their version of practical reality differs fundamentally from the reality understood by most Americans. Self-interested political "reality" contradicts the variously attributed saying of "that Government is best which governs least."

Electing officeholders with practical experience outside politics would strengthen our government and make it more competent and responsive to the nation's challenges. Doing so would have the additional advantage of sending to Washington officeholders capable of supporting themselves when their political careers end and who are far less likely to game the system to favor themselves and special interests.

In the Tom Clancy novel, Executive Orders, after a suicide pilot had crashed 747 into the capitol building during a joint session of Congress killing all of the senators, congressmen, supreme court justices and the president the only survivor was the newly appointed vice president Jack Ryan. One of the first orders of business for Ryan was to replace all of the legislators and justices. To this end Ryan went around the states urging voters to select businessmen, engineers, doctors, farmers and ordinary housewives to fill the ranks of congress. While this is Clancy’s fantasy it would sure bring us back to the original vision of the founding fathers.

America would benefit from electing people who don't have to calculate what their every move, every floor vote, and every decision mean for preserving their incumbency — and accordingly, their livelihoods.

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