What’s the problem with Congress
Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part My Turn on our modern Congress.
The good news is that the job approval rating of Congress has improved. Americans gave Congress a 14 percent job approval rating at the outset of 2013, an increase over the end of 2012.
The bad news is that 14 percent is the lowest since September of last year and down from 18 percent in November and December. These results are based on a Jan. 7-10 Gallup poll, conducted about a week after Congress and the president avoided the end-of-year “fiscal cliff.”
The lowest individual congressional job approval rating in the history of the Gallup poll is 10 percent, measured last August. The highest was 84 percent, measured in October 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
How did our national legislature sink to the point where only 14 percent of Americans approve of its actions?
The answer, according to Bryan Flynn in a CNN Op Ed piece, is that “Congress no longer represents the will of the people, and it hasn’t for a very long time. The House of Representatives has become another U.S. Senate where a rarefied few supposedly represent the needs of the many. And that, he says, “is the main reason that hyper-partisanship and special interests seem to control the legislative agenda. We have all been disenfranchised.”
If you read your American history book back in elementary school, you would have learned that the House of Representatives was established as the “lower house,” intended to be “of the people” according to James Madison. It was to ensure that individual citizens had a voice in federal legislation while the Senate, the “upper house,” was intended to be more deliberative and represent the interest of the states, not special interests.
But population growth has strained the quality of representation between Congress and those they represent to a breaking point. A seat in the House of Representatives has gone from representing 33,000 people to more than 700,000 today.
Each state is represented in the House in proportion to its population but is entitled to at least one representative. The total number of voting representatives is fixed by law at 435.
Massachusetts, with an estimated 6,593,587 residents and nine congressional representatives, means that each politician represents 732, 620 citizens.
There is no way the commonwealth’s congressional delegation can cover the concerns, legitimate needs and multiple interests of just under three quarters of a million people. Nor could the architects of our governmental structure ever have envisioned that it would be possible to do so.
This disparity helps us to understand the politics of redistricting. It also explains why those in Congress receive intense interest from special interests. And why we should be alert to the fact that the Supreme Court has just agreed to hear a challenge to federal campaign contribution limits, setting the stage for what may turn out to be the most important federal campaign finance case since the court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United which struck down limits on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions. This latest case, reported the New York Times on Feb. 20, “is an attack on the other main pillar of federal campaign finance regulation: limits on contributions made directly to political candidates and some political committees.”
The Democratic leadership made a PowerPoint presentation to newly elected representatives that projects a nine or 10-hour work day while in Washington. The Huffington Post reported that the presentation suggested that “three to four hours are designated for the actual work of being a member of Congress — hearings, votes, and meetings with constituents” with the remaining six or seven hours a day devoted to fundraising.
Is it any wonder why it is so easy for special interest groups to buy the support of the 218 members it takes to pass a bill? Congressional seats have increased in value as the economy and government have grown. It’s not surprising that running for Congress has become a multimillion-dollar fundraising challenge in many districts around the country. And, it is also not surprising that many members become millionaires once they leave Congress — if they weren’t rich to begin with.
The result is that members and candidates reflect the more partisan positions of the party, regardless of the will of the people. Although roughly 40 percent of Americans describe themselves as independent, Washington continues to be driven by the right- and left-wing believers who form the base of each of the parties, resulting in acrimony and stalemate.
Wednesday: A possible solution.
John Bos is a Shelburne resident. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.