A conservatory of Ldotter blogs.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Seniority has its perks. . .

. . .when it comes to rising through the ranks of Washington politics. And, frankly, that's part of the problem. It seems that incumbency is to political parties as stupidity and gullibility is to Scientology -- the most highly prized attribute among members. Unfortunately, it's almost as easily attained and comes at a very small price. One of the hardest things to do, except in times when one of the parties has sent itself into a tailspin through its own incompetence, perfidy, and moral squalor, is to unseat a sitting member of the House or Senate. The likelihood against it in any given year is roughly 9-to-1.

And, it's that relative safety that allows longtime, and even relatively short-time, members of Congress to take their constituencies for granted. They convince themselves that, as long as they make like the good daddy and bring home the bacon and the occasional hundred-dollar pound of ham, their districts will see them as a valuable, near-indispensable power conduit in Washington. They completely forget that in the end, what people want their representatives to do while they're in D.C. is to represent their interests, and not just procure grants for parks named after some old lady who once saved a seal pup from a clubbing by throwing her body over it and absorbing the blows as they rained down from the hand of a bloodthirsty furrier.

Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to keep politicians from developing a rather brawny sense of self-importance. In fact, anyone who desires to venture into the world of public office-seeking is required to have an ego bigger than a medium soft drink at a fast food joint before they're allowed past the velvet rope of party politics. That's why people like me, with all my foibles and an intact sense of shame, prefer to remain on the outside pleading like Jonas Brothers fans to be listened to for one spare minute, or even less.

As a member of the rank-and-file, and a relatively young one at that, I've seen this happen a lot. That's not to say I keep a scorecard handy and note the behavior of every politician in relation to the expectations of his constituents. "There's Mitch McConnell. We expect him to represent the fiscal sanity and moral rectitude of Kentuckians. But, there he goes, driving his fancy Buick and stealing the identities of the elderly in order to bilk them out of their retirement savings." No, it's actually just an overall sense that you get when you watch from afar and note the complete lack of progress on any front which you consider of importance with regard to the business of government, and then see some dolt with an "R" by his name on one of the TV shoutfests telling you how bad the other guy is.

After a certain period, it finally dawns on you that this guy has spent the last ten years in Washington just so he might stand a chance of appearing on Hannity & Colmes, because he just knows he could send one of them into sputtering paroxysms of apoplexy.
COLMES: "Senator, isn't it true that you're known as the Prince of Pork?"

SEN. HOFFSPENDURGAN: "That's what she said."

After a while, the lighthearted jabs and almost-over-the-line retorts wear thin with the folks back home and they start to suspect that their hometown boy just might be a bit of a grandstander. The next thing you know, the other party sees an opportunity to engage in the most unfair practice imaginable in modern politics; they examine his legislative record and start telling people about it. This is the kind of dirty politics that politicians just won't stand for, and yet, voters don't seem to mind it all that much.

So, it strikes me that, as long as Republicans are for merit pay for teachers and civil servants, maybe we ought to apply the same to the high profile pedagogues and walking civic wonders we call congressmen and senators. Here's my proposal: Let's tie committee chairmanships and seats to not only the number of years a member serves in the House or Senate, but their tendency to vote in line with the Republican caucus. Granted, it might stack the deck against the moderate and liberal Republicans who get elected in hopelessly blue states. But, it seems to me that among all the statisticians and number-crunchers at the RNC, someone could devise a handicap system that would encourage more party-line voting through a punishment/reward system.

As I understand it, the system is currently run by way of the wheel-and-deal mode of reciprocal back-scratching, and that in some sense, that serves as a bit of a handicapping system. But, once a person has attained that sought-after chairmanship, uprooting him from it requires the use of TNT and front-end loader. As a consequence, there's very little incentive to show any party loyalty once you've landed the job.

After having spent several years as Senate majority whip, and now as Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell would do well to implement this sort of thing. He's amassed enough respect within the Republican caucus to implement a change of this sort, though I'm sure the resistance will be considerable. You start messing around with the ways of the Senate and you're liable to be accused of going against tradition (gasp!). I'm not sure there's anyone in the House Republican with enough clout or influence to shake things up in such a manner, but it would be greatly appreciated by the folks back home if someone made an honest gesture to do so.

But, clearly, something needs to be done. If the GOP doesn't make some drastic changes in the way it conducts its Washington business, the elephant will soon be as threatened as the polar bear. And it'll be the voters doing the threatening.

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