Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The Age-Old Question

Does Congress act the way it does because its members are stupid, venal, or selfish?

As I see it, the problem is more institutional than individual. First, the manner in which we select and elect politicians in this country scares off many people (arguably most to nearly all) that we would most benefit from having as representatives. People who are drawn to political campaigning on a national scale - people who like the constant media attention and celebrity treatment, the parties and glad-handing, the power - are much more likely to be self-important, even narcissistic. Matt Bai writes,
Unlike our parents, who may have worked at the same firm or factory for 30 years, most of us these days fully expect to cycle through a succession of jobs during our professional lives. But a lot of lawmakers still cling to their seats at any cost to conscience or to constituency, as if it were the only job they could ever see themselves holding — even though, once they leave Congress, they can expect to field more offers and make more money than the average voter will see in a lifetime. It’s this outmoded sense of entitlement that lobbyists skillfully exploit.
I don't believe it's that most Members of Congress can't see themselves in other jobs. If they want another job they'll resign. I believe it's that they can't bear the thought of the rejection?

Consider the behavior of Joe Lieberman - who kept his job - or more topically, Eric Massa. Lashing out and snarling at the world over their psychic injuries, eager to inflict harm on anybody they perceive as having caused harm to them. Blind to the fact that responsibility for the harm they suffered lies with themselves, their own choices and their own actions.

Lobbyists not only offer resources that can help with reelection. They help politicians feel important - "Look at all these special interests who want to talk to me, who want my vote" - and as Nancy Scola observed, as part of their relationship, lobbyists can help a politician appear considerably smarter than he actually is. That doesn't mean that most politicians are stupid; in Congress, most have above average intelligence and some are way above average. But institutionally, being smarter than the next guy isn't much of a benefit. Trying to change the institution from inside? As the holder one vote? That's a recipe for frustration - and to ultimately being labeled as "ineffective". If you can rationalize accepting the status quo, perhaps even convincing yourself that it's for "the greater good", you'll likely be a lot happier and "more successful" as a member of either the House or Senate.


  1. "Does Congress act the way it does because its members are stupid, venal, or selfish?"

    Cynical much?


  2. You have to follow the links - to an article, and two "alternate theories" riffing on the article. My thoughts, yes, are cynical - and make up the balance of the post.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.