Bilateral Commentary

Of the People

Author:  Dr. Anthony Bryson


One of my personal pet peeves is when people complain about the government and the terrible job they are doing for us.  I usually roll my eyes and ask them what they think about their Senator or Representative, waiting for the usual, “Well he’s a swell guy (or gal), it’s all them other turds that are the problem.”  It makes me wonder if these people ever think that question through before answering.


I find that the old adage, “people get the government they deserve” is more often than not extremely accurate.  The electorate really is not well informed and relies on accepting whatever information comes down their accepted Party line.  Most voters are extremely intellectually lazy when it comes to politics and are disengaged, to put it politely.  The majority of Americans just don’t care about politics most of the time, and only tune in when the Presidential elections are going on.  They blame the problems of the system on Washington and leave it at that.  The distrust of Washington is a big part of the problem, and for many good reasons.


To be quite honest, the problem is not Washington.  The problem is the people we send to Washington to represent us.  This is not to say that these Representatives are not good people, with good intentions.  The problem is they just don’t understand the people who elected them and who they are supposed to represent.  There are many good reasons for this.


First, money is a big issue.  Most of the people in Washington have it, and have it in spades.  Many come from families that have it.  More than half of the 538 men and women who represent our interests in Washington are millionaires.  In 2014, 268 members of Congress had a net worth north of a million bucks.  That was topped by California Representative, Darrell Issa, with a net worth of $464 million.  That kind of skews statistics a bit, but the median net worth for all House members was $896,000, with the median in the Senate checking in at $2.3 million.  So least to say, these people don’t face the same challenges you and I do.  When they are pulling down more in a month than the average household makes in 18 months it is safe to say we don’t have the same problems.


Next, these folks come from privilege.  Not many come from challenging backgrounds.  Not many are going to be someone who grew up on the streets, or came from a broken family, or was educated in one of our lesser public schools.  Most of these people came from what the majority of the population would consider advantaged upbringings.  They likely didn’t have to worry about trying to survive on Little Caesar’s $5 pizzas, and making those stretch into two or three days’ worth of meals.  They have no idea what it is like to make a choice between buying groceries for the week or putting gas in your car to get to work.  These are problems they don’t understand.  This is where the greatest detachment from the majority exists.


Another big separator between congress and those they represent is education.  In 2009 only 27 House members, and only one Senator, did not graduate from college.  Only 94.8% of Congress have earned at least a bachelor’s degree.  Conversely, only 33% of the US population hold a four year degree or better.  44% of Congress not only have a four year degree, but also hold law degrees.  Many of these Representatives have also gone through college and organizations which have granted them access to social networks and power structures that the average person in school, or from other walks of life, would likely have access to.  With education and access to power comes opportunity, and our Representatives in Congress have certainly used their opportunity to great advantage.


These are problems which exist because these people are from a different social class than most, but these are not the only problems which affect the performance of our government.  A major problem with our government, and who we elect to send to Washington to represent us, is a result of just plain bad judgment on electorate’s part.  Very seldom do people ask questions about the qualifications of individuals running for office.  Instead of conducting an honest job interview the electorate instead allows their emotions to be manipulated and the end up voting on their gut instincts, or make decisions based on their shared values.  I firmly believe that values are what can be used to bring disparate populations of people together and find commonalities, but when it comes to selecting a Representative I have always tried to shy away from this strategy.


Our Representatives in Washington have a very complex job to do.  They need to have certain competencies and understanding of the greater world around them.  They need to understand not only where our country came from, and where it currently stands today, but also have an understanding of our country in the greater context of the global market.  This also means understanding the various changes in culture and technology coming down the tube.  This is why I always try and approach selection of a Representative as more of a job interview than a decision as who I would like to have a beer with.


I firmly believe that if we want to have better representation in Washington we need better people.  We can’t allow our emotions to select unqualified people who act only as disruptors.  If you are running your own business do you hire someone who is going to be disruptive, or do you hire someone with the appropriate skills that can recognize problems and make change through improving your processes?  You are not going to risk your business, so why risk your government?  We can look at the Tea Party as an example of disruptors and the effect they have had on the process.  Have they improved Washington?  Not a chance.  There is gridlock within the Republican Party as a result of their extreme positions and willingness to dig their heels in and not play with the other children.  Governance is all about compromise and finding the common middle ground on issues.  Introducing people that are there to hold their breath until they get their way is no way to govern a complex country facing even more complex problems.


If we really want to change the system to be more effective we must get back to basics.  We need to make the government “Of the People, by the People, for the People.”  We need to find salt of the earth people with the skills to do the job, and an interest to work for all people and not just the corporations that sponsor them.  So how do we achieve this state?  I think we can do it by instituting some simple changes.


First we should institute mandatory skills testing for anyone wanting to run for Congress.  I’m not talking about walking and chewing gum at the same time, even thought that would eliminate the majority of the Freedom Caucus, I’m talking about proving they understand the system they going to be working in.  It would be refreshing to know that the person I’m sending to Washington actually understands how a law if formed.  It would be nice if these people could explain how the Constitution works.  I would be very confident in saying that a good number of our Representatives in Congress have no idea how many articles there are in the Constitution, what each of them describes, or even what an amendment is.  All too often our Constitution gets dragged out as some defense of a ridiculous position when the Constitution actually says the opposite.  I want possible Representatives to have to pass a basic knowledge and skills test prior to them being allowed on a ballot.


Next I would like to see changes made to term limits and the inclusion of minimum and maximum age restrictions on representation.  I firmly believe that before someone is allowed to become a representative they must first have some understanding of the world around them.  Without that knowledge, how can they truly find solutions to the complex issues that face us?  With that in mind I would like to see a minimum age requirement added to the requirements to run for Congress.  I think 30 is a good age for someone to jump into the political arena, as they should have 8-10 years of real world experience to rely upon.  


On the other end of that same issue, I would like to see a maximum of age 60 for service.  It is imperative that as a Representative you have an idea of the things that are facing the majority in society and in the workforce.  We have way too many Representatives that don’t have any idea about technology or changing social norms.  How can you represent a population you can’t relate to?  Also, and this is a broad generalization based on nothing but empirical data, age 60 is when our cognitive function starts to face challenges and our faculties first start to show negative performance trends.  In a fast changing world it is extremely important that our Representatives have their wits about them and are grounded in the world of today, and tomorrow, and not stuck back-in-the-day.  This would apply to the Presidency as well.  So if someone wanted to run for President, with plans of serving two full terms, they would have to win the office by their 51st birthday, because they would have to give up their office on their 60th birthday. No more choices between 70 year olds who don't understand half of the matters they will be making decisions about.


Some may find this to be a little controversial and ageist, but I think this addresses the long standing problems of term limits and desires of being in government quite effectively.  Anyone getting into office is doing so by giving up the prime years of their life, and with knowledge when they are getting out.  They are also doing so knowing there is a hard cap on service, in essence a forced term limit.  For someone in the Senate, with the longest election cycle, this would mean they can serve at maximum five terms, or 30 years in office.  To me, this solves so many problems.


How would this affect the current Congress?  Well, using this cycle as an example, anyone born before 1957 would have to give up their seat.  Anyone born before 1960 would be in their final term.  That means that in the House of Representatives 200 of 435 people would be replaced.  It would also mean that another 21 would in their final term.  In the Senate, the numbers are even more striking.  Of 100 Senators, 66 would be replaced, with another four facing mandatory retirement by the mid-term election.  That would mean 55% of our Representatives in Congress would flushed from the system.  Surprisingly, the Party most affected by this would be the Democrats.  They would see 110 members of the House, and 33 in the Senate, requiring replacement.  The Republicans would still see 90 members of the House dispatched, and another 31 in the Senate, meaning significant changes in both Parties.  This is change I think we can all agree is required in Washington!


The next great change to be addressed is with the Electoral College.  Like it or not, the Electoral College has become antiquated and counter to our democracy.  The basis of our democracy is one person, one vote.  When the Electoral College creates imbalance in the system, and allows small populations to dramatically affect the outcome of larger votes, the system is no longer functioning.  This past election saw just under 80,000 votes, across three states, swing the election based on Electoral College ballots.  That just wasn’t right.  Not when the majority of the nation voted for other candidates.  Not when the majority of the population where the economic might of the nation is centered was not represented.  A staggering 67% of the economy voted for the losing candidate.  This was also reflected in the popular vote.  All indicators point to the system no longer being representative of the People, it no longer being of the people’s desires, and it not working to the benefit of the majority of people.  In a modern world, the Electoral College is no longer relevant except to be yet another mechanism which works against the needs and desires of the majority.


The final change that absolutely needs to be addressed is re-districting.  There needs to be a neutral method for drawing district lines, preferably on population and political identification.  Just as in any successful business you can only have a manager oversee so many reports.  In politics you need to have fair representation based on changing populations.  This should be the only measure used to define districts, and the votes falling accordingly.


There are 435 seats in the House of Representatives.  Based on a population of 321 million people, that is about 736,000 people per seat.  This lines need to be drawn by a neutral agent, preferably by computer working off of nothing but population data.  It would be beneficial if economic might of regions were included in the model to provide a greater sphere of influence by those who produce the majority of the GDP, but that is counter to our basic belief of one person, one vote.  We need to end gerrymandering and make the system more impervious to manipulation and undue influence, not encourage more.


(There is another change that needs to be addressed, and that is outside money in politics, but that is for another post.)

I think that if we can start to focus on finding a better system that is more reflective of the people it will begin to work for the people.  When we get to that point I think satisfaction on government will increase and the confidence in our institutions will return.  At that point our democracy will again begin to be “of the People, by the People, for the People.”

Dr. Bryson is an adjunct faculty member at Fielding Graduate University, teaching classes in media and political psychologies.  He is the author of the book, The Trump Card: The Long Game of Discrediting Media and Influencing Elections.