House Intelligence committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a respected figure at the Capitol for a decade, last week became the institution’s latest early retiree. The decision of Rogers, a Michigan Republican, is not part of a normal generational turnover, but rather a new trend in my experience — members leaving service in the House and Senate to land better jobs.
In Rogers’ case, he is going into radio. Former Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and senior Missouri Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson trumped Rogers by boldly abandoning their posts in midterm last year in favor of more interesting jobs and big pay increases.
In generations past, election to the U.S. Congress was among the highest achievements a citizen could attain. There was no better job. Yet, over the last three decades, much has happened to devalue the offices and diminish the potential of public servants to accomplish their goals in the American legislative process.
Ironically, as the power of Congress has evaporated, the price of getting there doubles and redoubles as the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts takes every opportunity to wipe out campaign giving limits as it did again this week. That is part of the problem.
Money does not corrupt the system so much as constipate it. Billionaires like the Koch brothers or George Soros can elect friends and effectively occupy areas of legislative and regulatory real estate that impact their interests. They can stop action.
When Congress is unable to act, its unexercised power does not disappear. Rather, it is soon forwarded like an unread email to the executive branch, which is only too happy to accept the assignment.
The damage that money inflicts on legislative governance is exacerbated by gerrymandering. Both parties use available power in the states each decennial to draw congressional districts that protect incumbents and ward off serious challenges by the other party. This process has been unfolding for decades and has matured to a point where there are now fewer than 100 competitive seats out of 435.
Races are settled in party primaries with the most extreme candidates frequently winning. Big-money interests understand and support sure winners. At some point, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers will see the big picture. The devaluation of the legislative process, and their own influence as members, is directly attributable to the financial largess they are accepting.
The rise of radical elements that gerrymandering has imposed on their caucuses has undercut the credibility of both parties and left the public approval rating of Congress in single digits. In Arizona, independent is now the favored designation of voters.
Can Congress get its groove back? Yes, but it requires fundamental reforms.
In the wake of America’s successful conclusion of World War II, President Harry Truman asked former President Herbert Hoover to preside over a commission of distinguished Americans, evenly divided between the parties, to study the executive branch and suggest reforms that would improve American governance for the postwar era.
The commission did its job well, and its recommendations formed the basis of the modern federal government. Seventy years later, the need for major readjustments is again upon us.
President Obama should follow Truman’s example and appoint a similar group to study America’s aging democratic institutions, led by the Congress, and recommend ways out of the current political wilderness.
The membership should again be filled with people of special stature who have leadership experience in governance and business — Chief Justice Roberts, Bill Gates, Bill Bradley, John McCain — iconic American figures whose job it is to restore the effectiveness of political institutions that were once the envy of the world.