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Bringing Mr. Smith to Washington

Saturday, September 24, 2011

As a nation we insist on maintaining a fiction that any citizen is qualified to legislate.

Imagine that you are responsible for selecting a jury to hear a criminal trial, one in which the defendant will be at jeopardy of his life. Ingenuous soul that you are, you advertise for candidates. Soon a line of eager would-be jurors has formed outside your office. Each one, upon admission to an interview, swears that he will listen to the evidence, weigh it carefully, and apply the law fairly. But each one has that look in his eye that tells even you that he is too eager, zealous even, to get on the jury. Clearly, he has a mission, whatever it may be.

That is why we don’t pick juries this way. We know that normal people will seek to avoid jury duty by almost any means. We know, too, without having to test the proposition, that anyone who seems avid to serve has some motive other than justice. He is, in a word, nuts. Instead, we draft potential jurors from a large pool of eligible individuals—most commonly, registered voters—by some sort of lottery, and we then subject each one to examination to eliminate those who are clearly unsuitable.

Similarly, our local governments do not staff their police forces by issuing calls for men and women who love to carry guns and big sticks and to order people around. They don’t do this because we all know who would be first in line for such a job, and it wouldn’t be Joe Friday, or even Buford Pusser. Instead, applicants are required to exhibit certain prerequisite qualities and to have a certain amount of training in various aspects of law enforcement. With varying degrees of success, the responsible authorities try to screen out sadists, criminals, and other misfits before handing out the badges.

Whether motivated by greed, a lust for power, fame, or ideological mania, all too many candidates simply have no business governing the rest of us.

Hardly less important to our civic well-being, and hardly less dependent on the competence and integrity of those who serve, is the legislative branch of government. Jurors are charged with judging facts in a given case against the law as written; the police strive to apply that law in the midst of the chaotic flow of fact-in-the-making. Legislators actually write those laws, and the skill and foresight with which they do so—or opt not to do so—determines to a great extent how successfully the police and jurors will be able to fulfill their roles.

And yet, how do we choose those legislators? Apart from age and residence, we have set almost no qualifying standards. The result is all too predictable: Those who push themselves forward most forcefully for selection are those most moved by private over public concerns. Whether motivated by greed, a lust for power, fame, or ideological mania, all too many candidates for city council, state legislature, or Congress simply have no business governing the rest of us.

It will be objected that this paints our politics with too broad a brush. To which must be posed the question: What degrees of cupidity or ignorance are tolerable within the bodies that make the laws that constrain us all? None at all is admittedly not a practical goal, but surely we can do better than we now do.

In recent years I have lived in Illinois, Arizona, and California—three states that are about as badly governed as any satirist could wish. As for Congress, I hardly need comment. As David Brooks wrote recently:

For many legislators, the purpose of being in Congress is not to pass laws. It’s to create clear contrasts you can take into the next election campaign. It’s not to take responsibility for the state of the country and make it better. It’s to pass responsibility onto the other party and force them to take as many difficult votes as possible.

We train policemen, doctors, barbers, army recruits, plumbers, manicurists, real estate agents—if there is a public or guild interest to be protected, we’ve got a program and a fee and a license for it. But we insist on maintaining the fiction that any citizen is qualified to legislate; he need only get the votes. We insist on this even though we’ve all seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. After all, Jimmy Stewart triumphs in the end, doesn’t he? Well, yes, but it’s the movies. No one has made a movie about Duke Cunningham yet, and no one will.

What degrees of cupidity or ignorance are tolerable within the bodies that make the laws that constrain us all?

This fiction is about as deeply embedded in our civic consciousness as the one about George Washington and the cherry tree, and is equally well founded in history and human psychology. But as long as we cling to it we ought to act as though we actually believe it, rather than crossing our fingers and hoping for the... well, not the worst. How? Choose legislators, or at least some of them, the same way we get juries and used to get armies—draft them. Every registered voter ought to be obliged, if called, to serve a term in Congress. And every Congress ought to consist of some substantial number of such draftees.

Wait, wait. Representing the ordinary people of this republic we would have... ordinary people? Makes you think fondly back to Roman Hruska, doesn’t it?

In each biennial election, a carefully randomized system of selection would identify a congressman-designate for each of some set of districts around the country. The districts to be represented by draftees might be drawn from a fixed rotation of all the districts in the country, or they might also be picked randomly each time. How many districts? Enough so that congressional Democrats and Republicans—the regular party people—are permanently uneasy about achieving a majority for any given proposal.

Of course, our rookie legislators will need a little training; freshmen get some even under the present system. But it would be purely practical and nonpartisan: How to vote, how to present an idea or a bill, how to behave in the committee room, how the professionals are likely to try to gull you.

But, you ask, wouldn’t this weaken the party system, dilute discipline, and make it harder to enforce platform promises? Yes, indeed, and there are other benefits, too. Our draftees would not spend their time raising money for the next election. Lobbyists would have little use for them, and vice versa. The perks offered by the seniority system would be meaningless to them.

Similarly, our local governments do not staff their police forces by issuing calls for men and women who love to carry guns and big sticks and to order people around.

Each draftee would know that he or she will serve one and only one term. For two years he will listen to arguments over a variety of issues and somehow decide to vote this way or that on each of them. (With allowance for illness and family emergencies, just as with their usual jobs, they should be required to attend and vote whenever the House is in session.) This being real life, a few will screw up. Nothing new there. Most will do their best. From some, their best will be not so good; but really, how bad could it be, especially as compared with a similar proportion of our career incumbents? From others it will be very good. From most it will be average. No miracles are promised here, just a leavening of an increasingly self-interested and badly motivated body of persons with power—and, perhaps more usefully, a leavening of the body politic with direct experience of governance.

We will still have the professionals, to be sure. We need them. It may be that the task of managing a corps of restive rookies instead of the usual complaisant back benchers will actually throw up superior legislative leaders. Well, we can hope, can’t we?

So let’s get John and Jane Quincy Citizen in there. They’re not going to like it, but those squawks of protest you’re going to hear from JQC and their brethren—well, that’s the sound of freedom, too.

Robert McHenry has been an editor and writer of reference books for over 30 years.

FURTHER READING: McHenry also writes “Et in Arcade Ego” and “Culture and Its Discontents.” He blogs at Editor's Crotchet. Norman J. Ornstein authors “Contentious Style Will Continue in Congress,” “Worst. Congress. Ever.” and “The Rumored Perks of Congressional Service.”

Image by Rob Green | Bergman Group

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