01 December 2010

Is political 'professionalism' the problem?

Since Cal Thomas correctly cites cases of misconduct by Democrats (Charles Rangel) and Republicans (Tom DeLay) alike, his current column criticizing political professionalism should receive respectful if critical attention. It should be noted, of course, that Thomas isn't saying anything new here; he only hopes that readers will prove more responsive to his renewed advocacy of term limits as the antidote to a professionalization that has supposedly alienated politicians from their constituents and placed their professional interests at odds with the public good. Conservatives have long pondered a chicken-vs-egg question regarding the expansion of government, bureaucracy and budgets. While blame is placed typically on some statist ideology (liberalism, socialism, etc.) that drives politicians to control the rest of us, cases like DeLay's compel conservatives to ask whether corruption is inevitable for any "career politician," whatever his professed ideology. Does statist ideology encourage ambitious persons to become career politicians, or does careerism incline politicians toward self-aggrandizing statist policies? The disgrace of a presumed conservative like DeLay forces writers like Thomas to place more blame on careerism and depend more on term limits as the remedy.

Thomas approvingly cites Gov. Jindal of Louisiana, who advocates not just term limits but rules forbidding legislators from becoming lobbyists. Jindal also supports making congressmen "part time." As Thomas understands that, it means that Congress should meet less frequently, while remaining on-call "should anything momentous occur." He elaborates:

Returning home shouldn't mean flying home for long weekends and then coming back to Washington. It should mean returning to a real job where the member can't raise his own pay, receive top medical care at reduced or no cost, print and spend other people's money or count on others to pay into his retirement fund.If he owned a business, he would have to meet a payroll and balance the budget. The member would also have to rely on Social Security like other Americans.

Under such constraints, Thomas hopes, the legislator will retain his original sympathies with his constituents. It may make a difference whether the legislator is an employer or an employee, but that's a question for another time. Whether such reforms would make a difference in any larger sense depends on whether critics like Thomas have correctly identified "career politicians" as the heart of the country's problems.

Asking himself, "would congressional term limits work?" Thomas cites increased opportunities for political outsiders in term-limit states. Limits, he assumes, would level the playing field at each election, by eliminating "entrenched and well-funded incumbents." But while term limits might be defensible on moral grounds -- Thomas says they'd be "good for them, good for the rest of us, and the best thing to do for America," -- and would obviously ensure greater rotation in offices, it's unclear whether either limits or the reduction of legislatures to part-time schedules would alter the institutional dynamics of Washington or any state capital. A rapid turnover of personnel could well concentrate power further in the hands of those organizations that would represent continuity in power: political parties and lobbies. Term-limits advocates should ask themselves whether new faces every two or four years will make a great difference so long as each new face remains Republican or Democratic and remains dependent on either party's fundraising apparatus. They should ask whether the current advantages of incumbency won't simply devolve upon the party in power, with "red" states remaining red, or "blue" states blue, regardless of who represents the party. Similarly, while it's a good idea to bar former legislators from becoming lobbyists, those lobbyists who were never elected could well have greater influence over each new wave of novice legislators thanks to their constant expertise on issues of interest to them. Term limits for politicians are unlikely to suffice on their own as long as other entrenched institutions remain untouched by reform. Limits only determine who can run for office, not how election campaigns are waged and paid for. Cal Thomas may hope that the legislator bound to serve for a single term may show better character in office than the ten-term career politician, but a dependence on individual character alone in an environment of institutional entrenchment or, worse, institutional corruption may prove tragically naive.

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