Is It Public Service or Servicing the Public?

By Jim Morford

As summer is officially underway we find ourselves as a nation about half-way through the process by which political parties select the candidates who will carry their banner into the fall General Election.

Candidate selection takes several different forms. No matter how they are chosen, elected or anointed most incumbents seeking election to the US Congress this fall will be re-elected. Historically, incumbents win about 95% of the time. Even in what seems to be shaping up as an anti-incumbent year it is likely that over 80% of them will be re-elected.

In stark contrast to what the framers of our government believed, we have evolved a class of professional politicians. Those honorable men who crafted our Constitution believed that citizens had an obligation to give back to their communities in the form of public service, but only for a short time and only after having achieved some other success in life.

George Washington, who could have been king or president for life, established the tradition of two terms for the president – a tradition that served as a check against any one person, or presidency, accumulating too much power. It is a tradition that was honored until Franklin Roosevelt ran for and was elected to four terms becoming in effect president for life. FDR’s strangle hold on the office generated the Twenty Second Amendment to the Constitution which provides that no person shall be elected to the office of president more than twice.

The framers envisioned serving in elected office as a temporary civic duty. Our politicians have twisted the word service from its original intent to today’s elitist expectation that the public exists to serve its elected leaders.

When my great grandfather sought reelection as Clerk of Monmouth County the local weekly newspaper strongly criticized him for having the audacity to run. Having served one term the paper charged, “…. he is not satisfied—like Oliver Twist he comes around with his platter and asks for more. He is like the horseleech that cries give, give, give! His desire for office is insatiate.” That was in1888 and he was only seeking a second term. (By the way, he won reelection.)

How times have changed. Unencumbered by a term-limiting constitutional amendment, members of congress can serve for as long as they can get re-elected. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) is the longest serving United States Senators with 47 years in office. In the House of Representatives John Dingle (D-CA) has been in office there for more than 54 years and John Conyers (D-MI) has been in the House for more than 45 years. It is not unusual for members of congress from both political parties to serve for 30 years or more.

The professional politician living off the taxpayers is relatively new in American history. Most of those politicians who have served the longest tenures in office came in after the time of the New Deal. Prior to that, professional or career politicians were more the exception than the rule.

A story is told of a man who was confused by the use of the word “service” as in Internal Revenue Service, Postal Service, Civil Service and politicians pointing with pride to their record of Public Service.

One day he happened to overhear a couple of farmers talking and one of them said he had just hired a bull to “service” one of his cows. Now, so the story goes, he understands what the politicians mean by “public service.”

The current congress is one of the most irresponsible congresses in the history of the country. It has passed bills of hundreds, even thousands of pages that greatly expand the powers of the federal government and recklessly increase our national debt without most of the members having read, let alone analyzed, the legislation.

This 111th Congress has abdicated one of the most basic duties of a congress which is to pass a budget for the operation of the federal government. The majority leadership has determined that it would be too politically dangerous to try to enact a budget this election year. So congress will just ignore that responsibility. Yet the members of both political parties seem to have no problem feeding lavishly at the public trough and continuing to reward themselves for not doing their jobs.

In recent years there have been attempts to refresh our democratic institutions by instituting term limits. These efforts have not met with much success. It is understandable why a frustrated public would seek to limit the terms of office for those who make a career of living high off the taxpayers and to retire with generous pensions. However, in a representative democracy the citizens should be able to elect, re-elect or reject their representatives as they see fit.

So how do we deal with the political elitists who shower themselves with automatic pay raises and a wide variety of other benefits?

There are at least two ways that would discourage those who are leeches on the system.

The first would be to not allow any service in elective office to be pensionable or be credited toward any pension. This would certainly separate those who truly want to render civic service from those who want the public to serve them. Any person who would not seek elective office unless it had the promise of a pension after successive terms is likely to be a person more dedicated to self service than public service.

The second would be to require that for every year in which the federal government’s spending exceeds its income the members of congress would have their salaries and benefits reduced by 5% or an amount equal to the percentage each annual deficit adds to the national debt, whichever is greater. Managing the fiscal affairs of the government – not the economy – is the responsibility of congress.

Since enacting either of these ideas into law, or proposing them as constitutional amendments, would require an act of congress, there is a greater chance of a snowball lasting for a decade in Hell. Perhaps just getting these ideas discussed by voters might begin to separate those who should be elected to office from those who should be retired from office. Maybe it is even time to consider a national initiative process.

These days we are governed by many who come to congress to do good, but then stay on to do very well.

Jim Morford is former Assistant Director of Government Relations for the NJ Education Association, former VP and chief lobbyist for the NJ Chamber of Commerce, former President of the NJ Food Council and is Executive Director Emeritus of NJ SEED. He is a partner in the consulting firm of Morford-Drulis Associates, LLC. The opinions expressed in this column are his and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any clients or associates.