August, 2011

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Throw The Bums Out?

By Thomas Vincent

Interested readers are invited to check out Tom's Political Blog "Certain Doubt"

One of my favorite right wing sayings is: All politicians are corrupt. We should get rid of the lot of them. Throw the bums out!

Of course many will argue that people who utter such over sweeping statements are guilty of nothing more than over-generalization. I disagree. I think that within such statements lies an anti-government sentiment that has burrowed deep into the psyche of the American people, a fundamental disgust with democracy that has been building since at least the 1970’s. Ever since Richard Nixon yanked the country off the gold standard and made a hash out of our economy, people in this country have had a growing distrust in government.

I empathize with this distrust. However, to respond to a dissatisfaction with government by advocating replacing all elected officials is not only irrational, it is downright dangerous. If enacted I believe it would produce a spectrum of results ranging from calamity to outright disaster.

I understand the idea of wanting to replace a sitting elected official with someone new because you feel the incumbent has been poisoned by years of campaigning, constant fundraising, and the need to kow-tow to lobbyists and special interests. But to state blithely that the way to get better representation is to hand all experienced legislators a pink slip is ludicrous. By themselves, term limits do absolutely nothing to ensure that the incoming class of Congressmen and women will be any better or more responsive to their constituents than those they replace. In fact, a very good argument can be made that term limits would have the opposite effect, producing representatives who care less about the people than the ones we have now.

True, many incumbents pay only lip service to the people who elected them and that only because they need those people to vote for them in the next election. But if an elected official knows going in to his first term that it will also be his last, what possible incentive does he have to even pick up the phone when a voter calls or show up at a town meeting to listen to voter’s complaints?

Need further convincing?

The current “revolving door” trend in Washington where officials write legislation and regulations and then go to work for the very industries they were just overseeing is disturbing enough. But free up these same legislators from the need to campaign for re-election and the phenomenon is almost sure to get worse.

The most damaging thing about the idea of term limits, however, is that it negates the importance of experience and it’s effect on stability and continuity in government. American’s are understandably proud of the role revolution played in the formation of our government. But no one wants the country to undergo a revolution every year. Not ordinary citizens and least of all wealthy bankers. Despite what neo-con ideologues would have you believe, revolution is bad for business.

To underscore this point, consider if your alma mater decided that every year it would fire the football coach an bench all the upperclassmen. Think of it. A team full of pimply faced freshmen led by a green coach. How many games do you think they’d win? More importantly, as an alum how many games would you go see?

Term limits aren’t the only idea to grow from the desire to “throw the bums out.” At the other end of the crazy train we have the quasi-libertarian ideal of smaller government. Republican strategist Grover Norquist’s now infamous statement that he wanted to “shrink government to the size where he could drown it in a bathtub,” is hardly hyperbole. As the debt ceiling fiasco has proven, there are people in Congress right now who would like nothing better than to shut the government down.

If you say the government is broken, I’m in total agreement. The recent debacle over the debt ceiling is proof positive that the legislative process in America is in tatters. But just because government is broken doesn’t mean we don’t need it. If your brakes don’t work does that mean your car’s still drivable? If your parachute is ripped do you say, “Oh well, I guess I’ll make the jump without it?” Broken government isn’t a valid rationale for smaller government or even no government. Broken government means we have to fix the things that are broken before we wind up as a shattered pile of blood and bone at the bottom of a cliff.

Shrinking the size of government has to take the cake as the most destructive idea the right wing has ever come up with. And while I would not begin to lay the blame for our current legislative dysfunction solely on the doorstep of the so called Tea Party, I think a very good argument can be made to support the notion that the actions of the freshmen class of Congressmen - many of whom owe their seats to support by the moneyed interests behind the tea party – have definitely made government less functional.

Moreover, smaller government is not just a destructive idea, as a political platform it is downright silly. The idiocy of a candidate advocating shutting down the very institution that is to pay his salary and benefits is laughable in the extreme. It strains credibility to the breaking point. Sort of like a doctor who advocates that the way to cure your migraines is to saw through the tree branch you are both sitting on.

The problems we have today – and by we I mean anyone without a trust fund – have nothing to do with the size of government or the amount it spends or borrows. Our problems are a direct result of the fact that our government no longer works. It doesn’t matter how big or small your motor is, or how much oil or gas it uses. You can replace the engine with a smaller one; you can buy a new starter motor or alternator; you can spray Armor-all on the tires. It won’t matter. If you can’t turn the car on because some right-wing nut job is holding the keys and threatening to throw them down the sewer, you’re not going anywhere. Period.

Replacing Senators and Congressmen wholesale, downsizing government, reducing spending; none of these things will matter a damn. If we can’t fix the things that are broken, none of us are going anywhere except off the cliff.