The Citizen-Legislator

A fundamental problem with our (Federal) political system is that it is comprised predominantly of two forms of legislator: the professional (i.e. career) politician and the elite (i.e. moneyed) politician. Often, these are the same, but not necessarily.

The professional politician makes his way in the world (produces his income) by holding elected office. The archetype of this sort is the current Vice President, Joe Biden. Biden was elected to the Senate as a young man and stayed in that position for three decades before becoming VP. He had a brief stint as an private attorney, but since then has been on the public dole. He is somewhat infamous for not having made additional income either through industry or investment, relying instead on the promise of a future pension, and for his relatively paltry gifts to charity, per his tax records. I believe his argument in the latter case is his service to the people through his role as a legislator more than compensates for the apparent lack of charitable giving.

The elite politician, on the other hand, doesn’t need the office for financial remuneration. He or she holds office rather for the elements of power. The archetype of this sort is Nancy Pelosi, the extremely wealthy congresswoman from California.

Both of these types of politician are problematic in the same way, but for different reasons. Both will reflexively compromise integrity and values: the professional for money, the elite, for power. As I said, sometimes they cross categories. A lowly professional politician, such as Bill Clinton, through years of “service”, can through his connections become quite wealthy and thus, an elite. This crossover is perhaps the most disgusting of the realms of politics, as it often exposes the shameless graft, influence-peddling, and corruption that can and does take place at very high levels of government. What’s the difference between (former Illinois governor) Rod Blagojevich and any of his Chicagoland political cronies? He was caught.

Another, perhaps more palpable issue for conscientious Americans is the isolation of the legislator from the citizen. While it is quite possible the professional politician will become disconnected from the realities of life for average Americans, through the many insular perks which come with the job, it is almost guaranteed the elite politician will be disconnected from these experiences. George H. W. Bush famously marveled at an electronic supermarket scanner – a technology that had been in place for years – and the image of this hurt his perceived connection with the public. That this story was reported out of context is less important than the fact his connectedness with the average American was injured. Where is the public outrage at the obvious insular world in which many of our politicians live? Stymied, I suggest, by a largely sympathetic & incestuous newsmedia which does not wish to show our (liberal) representatives in a poor light.

Burt Prelutsky appears to have a simlar concern about the cloistered representative:

I almost felt sorry for Tom Daschle. I, for one, believed him when he said he hadn’t realized he had to pay taxes on his car and driver as a private citizen. After all, he’d had a tax-free car and driver when he was a senator. What I would really like to know is why my tax money is going to pay for cars and chauffeurs for our public servants. After all, the more isolated these weasels are from normal life, the more they see themselves as royalty. Here in L.A., we used to have a mayor who lived on a hilltop in the San Fernando Valley. He commuted downtown to City Hall by helicopter. Do you think he spent a lot of time worrying about potholes on the street and traffic on the freeway?

The argument, of course, is that these people get a lot of work done going to and from the job. But why would anyone buy that malarkey when we know how little work they actually do when they reach the office? Most of the actual work is done by their staff, while they, themselves, concentrate on raising campaign funds so they can continue living like King Louis XIV.

Such is why my favorite politician – the only one I really ever trust – is the citizen-legislator. This is the sort who has had a successful career as something other than a politician. He or she made his or her way in the private sector long before entering the public. This politician often bucks the system, escehwing many of the unadvertised (and questionable) perks, and chooses to remain as loyal a representative of his or her constituents as is possible.

This is not to say I do not admire more traditional politicians who hold views similar to my own. But I am always somewhat less disposed to trust them. Congressman Eric Cantor is a good example of this category of politician. We see eye to eye on many subjects and yet, because he is more a traditional career politician, I am less likely to believe he is acting in my best interests. There’s a very good article on his recent prominence in the New York Times, no less.

As for the citizen-legislator, several names come to mind. Probably my favorite is Tom Price of Georgia. Here’s a snippet from his House bio page:

Congressman Price received a Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Michigan and completed his Orthopaedic Surgery residency at Emory University. Price established an orthopaedic clinic just north of Atlanta. After nearly twenty years of private practice he returned to Emory University School of Medicine as an Assistant Professor. Before coming to Congress, Price was Medical Director of the Orthopaedic Clinic at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, teaching resident doctors in training.

Price is active in the Atlanta community, is a past President of the Roswell Rotary Club and has served on Boards of the North Fulton Chamber of Commerce, Orchestra Atlanta, the Arthritis Foundation, and the North Metro YMCA. He is a member of the Georgia Ensemble Theater, Roswell Clean and Beautiful, and the Chattahoochee Nature Center.

Like Ron Paul, he’s an MD. Who are you more likely to listen to on the issue of health care, a couple of MDs or a littany of elite and professional politicians? So why are we so eager to accept the machinations of the latter?

Other favorites of the nearly citizen-legislator category: Paul Ryan of WI, Mike Pence of IN, Jeff Flake of AZ, and Michele Bachmann of MN. From Bachmann’s bio:

Bachmann and her husband, Marcus, live in Stillwater where they own a small business mental health care practice that employs 42 people. The Bachmann’s have five children, Lucas, Harrison, Elisa, Caroline, and Sophia. In addition, the Bachmanns have opened their home to 23 foster children, which has inspired Congresswoman Bachmann to become one of Congress’ leading advocates for foster and adopted children, earning her bipartisan praise for her efforts.

Again, here’s a citizen with real-world experience in running a small business, with elements of the health care system, and with very difficult societal issues such as adpotion. Who do we want to listen to when it comes to adoption and foster children – politicians who have sat on committees, signed legislation, etc. or people who have actually done the hard work of being in these kids’ lives?

I realize there are a lot of good legislators (like Cantor) who fall into the more traditional class of politicians. So, I am wary of playing up the notion of the citizen-legislator too much. But even with the traditional politicians, there are signs that some of them are likely connected to the reality of the average American. On Cantor’s bio page:

The Cantors have three children, Evan, who is currently attending college, and Jenna and Michael, both of whom attend Henrico County Public Schools.

I think conservatives would be well-served to not only lean upon their citizen roots, but make this a – or the – centerpiece of their proposal to connect with the voting populace in 2010.