Legislators In Name Only: So What Do You Do, Exactly?

We’ve all had jobs where we have difficulty explaining what exactly we do, but elected officials, who are prominent public figures, should not be having that problem.   We call them legislators, yet very few of them actually legislate. What they are really up to is the topic of today’s article.

This entire political era is so awash with corporate funding that no single election or piece of legislation can fix it.  That is why we must begin the work of a generation, empowering people through civic education that in the long term will change the American public’s expectation of their political leaders, a process discussed in this ongoing series on improving democracy.

In Part I, The Bull Moose and the Sneaky Corporate Beast, we looked at the rationale for corporate influence and recognized that whether corporate influence comes in the blunt for of an Exxon commercial or a below the radar donation to the Chamber of Commerce, it is an adversarial force that is not going away.

In Part II, Sense of Entitlement, we observed another corrosive aspect of today’s political culture, the elected politician’s belief that he or she is a reverent figure, not a public servant, a worldview derived in part from a lavish corporate-funded  lifestyle that allows elected politicians the opportunity to avoid their actual constituents as much as possible.

In Part III, Politicians Are Crack Fiends for Cash, we assessed the politician’s desperate needs for constant campaign cash, a need that inevitably plays into the hands of cash-rich corporations looking to make a sound investment.

In Part IV, the most recent piece, Movin’ On Up, we marveled at the brazenness of politicians who use their elected positions as electoral placeholders and spend all their time campaigning for the next office, rather than getting any work done in their current office.

Today, in Part V, we explore what our elected officials are really doing with their time, and how to demand accountability.  Keeping in mind that Congress is not in session for large chunks of the year, and local legislatures are in session even less, what exactly are these folks getting done:

#1 Fundraising:  The amount of time our elected officials spend fundraising is disgusting for a variety of reasons, especially considering the usual sources of funding.   There are fundraising dinners and galas, and the various ‘receptions’ sponsored by interest groups.  True, these events normally take place after the “work day”, but as we’ll see, the work day itself is pretty thin.  But most elected officials spend hours every day “dialing for dollars,” work that potential donors or past donors list for contributions.

#2 Constituent Services:  Indeed, this is the one thing most smart offices actually do, though as we saw in the case of New York State Senator Pedro Espada, not even all officials bother with it.  Constituents call with various government benefit or government service issues, and the unpaid intern or low-paid staffer helps them out.   Hardly ever does the elected official himself get involved in such relatively trivial issues, however.  Thus, I am hard-pressed to give an elected official “credit” for constituent services.

#3 Voting:  Over the last four months, America watched the drama of passing a healthcare bill play out.  Granted, there were some Congressional leaders who worked their asses of getting the bill together, and even unhelpful participants like Congressman Stupak and Senator Gregg at least engaged in the process.  But of our 535 members of Congress, I’m guesstimating that at least 400 had absolutely no role crafting the final bill or any amendment to it.  They were presented with the same information as the American public, and just had to decide “yes” or “no.”    Voting is not hard, folks.  We’ve all done it, lots of times.   Here is the legislators guide to voting:

Majority party members:

Step 1: Await party leaders’ instructions on when to vote “yes” and when to vote “no”, especially on complicated procedural motions. Ornery, centrist Democrats, skip to Step 2.

Step 2: Make sure not to anger the donors:  These reelections don’t pay for themselves.  Is there a way you can complain about this being a government intrusion?

Minority party members (Republican):

Vote no.  Try to completely block a vote from happening, if possible.

Minority party members (Democrat):

Complain and “lead charge” to stop the bill.  Ultimately vote for bill anyway if lobbying pressure is strong.

That’s pretty much it.  Legislative leadership will ensure that wildly unpopular bills will never make it to a vote, or at least will be properly framed to confuse the electorate in advance.   It’s quite rare that a legislator has to make “the tough choice” between his party and his constituents back home.  Sure, Michigan legislators always support the auto industry, Texans support oil, West Virginians support coal mining, Arkansans support Walmart and New Yorkers support Wall Street, but those special interest groups are tough enough to block meaningful reforms in any of those areas before a bill comes up for a vote anyway.

So the next time your legislator votes the right way, cross yourself and be thankful they didn’t vote the wrong way, but don’t get head over heels about it.  This part of the job is simply not hard work for most legislators, and any of you could do it.

#4 Hearings: A few years ago I was thrilled to see one of my closest friends testifying on climate change before Congressman Markey, chairman of an important committee.  The camera wisely focused on my friend’s face, because as soon as it zoomed out, viewers realized that Congressman Markey was the only Congressman in attendance- the others hadn’t even bothered to send staffers.

The problem is no less acute in local politics- when I was working at the New York City Council, I became quite acquainted with the City Council hearing process, which usually involved one or two members doing the questioning, and others showing up hours late, or just making brief appearances, in order to ‘clock in’ for the day.

Finally, many important hearings are rigged against reform.  Unbelievably, in the weeks of healthcare hearings presided over by Senator Max Baucus, not a single representative of single-payer reform was even allowed to speak.  Several medical professions advocating for single-payer did try to demonstrate the hearings, and were promptly arrested.

#5  Meetings: “The Congressman is in a meeting.” Put simply, legislators should publicly post their schedules.  I remember attending one set of meetings. I was with AIPAC as one of their student delegates (LONG story), and we were given access to a Senator and a Congressman, as well as other staffs.  We’d go in, exchange pleasantries, joke around.  The AIPAC rep would explain to the official or staffer what vote he was looking for on a certain bill.  The official or staffer agreed, and we were on our way, maybe after a snack.

#6 Pandering/Media Outreach:  Rare if the gifted legislator like Eddie Murphy’s “Distinguished Gentleman”, who sees a constituent suffering and introduces legislation to help.  Most press releases are reactionary, behind the ball, finger-wagging at the culprit de jour, sometimes with the half-hearted promise to do something about the situation.   Media outreach is critical to a politician’s survival, so I’m not condemning the practice, merely the emptiness that usually accompanies it.

#7 Debate:  Just kidding. While we can certainly give props to the C-Span regulars on both sides of the aisle, it’s depressing to watch the camera pan to a completely empty gallery.

#8  Legislating:  Finally, we get to legislatin’.  So who writes these long, complicated laws?

In the New York City Council, the legal counsel to the City Council will receive a one or two paragraph description of the law the councilman wants to pass, and then do most of the work.  Congressmen have legal staffers to do legislative work, and Committee play an important role.   Sometimes special interests groups and lobbyists hand legislators pre-written bills that are only partially modified before becoming law.  Only a rare politician like Representative Alan Grayson takes personal ownership of his own bills, and he hasn’t exactly passed many of them.

#9 Running An Office:  Should a legislator receive credit for running an office?  And don’t most executives get credit for the work of their subordinate staff?  The difference is that in the private sector or in the non-profit world, at least in theory, executives’ success or failure directly impacts their access to resources, including staff.   However, every elected legislator receives a staff, an office and numerous perks, no matter how much he won his election by, or how little he accomplished last term.  It is not impressive to “run” an office that comes with a fixed budget and staff size year after year, especially when the Chief of Staff deals with its personnel issues.

Conclusion: This article has already gone on longer than I intended it to.  So much to say about how little our elected officials do.  I realize, upon reading it over, that it comes off as extremely cynical.  But when we started the Bull Moose Movement, it was our goal to take a big step back and look at odious trends in our democratic politics, rather than get hung up on individual leaders or bills.

In the next piece, I’ll discuss possible ways to make sure politicians are doing their jobs.  My hope is that demanding more from our elected officials can become a universal rallying cry, as it’s the least partisan reform imaginable.  For now, however, take a hard look at your own legislator, even putting politics aside.  Does your representative hold hearings, invite the key players, and ask the hard questions?  Does your representative take the findings and respond with action, including drafting legislation?  Most importantly, is your representative spending more time listening to the issues your community is facing or fundraising for the next election? The answer is a phone call away.

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