Sunday, November 3, 2013

Congress: A Life-long Career and Family Business

 A few weeks ago my class watched a documentary, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? The documentary follows the 2004 campaign of Jeff Smith, a young man running for Congress. Jeff Smith’s campaign shed light on two major issues within the American legislative system.  One of the problems that plague our Congress and Senate currently is the lack of turn-over and the other being the increasing number of political dynasties.

The seats in Congress and the Senate are being held by one individual for decades. For example, the seat Jeff Smith was running for was only made available after the former Congressman, Dick Gephardt, decided to retire after nearly three decades as a representative. If incumbents choose not to retire they usually die while in office; two examples being Senators Rob Byrd and Ted Kennedy who spent nearly a half century in office.  House representatives serve two year terms, while Senators serve six year terms. It amazes me that we will not allow for a president to serve more than two terms in office but are content to allow our legislative body to hold crucial congressional seats for life.  It is my understanding that only the members of the Supreme Court were allowed to be appointed for life. I don’t believe that this is what our founding fathers hand in mind while establishing our government.

Current polls indicate that Congress has a low approval rating but the career politicians occupying those seats remain. These career politicians have been able to protect themselves against removal via gerrymandering as well as seniority practices. This is why an average Joe like Jeff Smith will never be able to usurp a seat from an established career politician. One has to wait until these individuals either decide to retire or die while in office. Even then seats are in danger of being held by a close relative of the former Congressman or Senator.

In the documentary one of the opponents that Jeff Smith was running against was Russ Carnahan. The Carnahans are a strong political family.  His grandfather A.S.J. Carnahan served seven terms in Congress. His father, Mel Carnahan, was a former governor and posthumous Senator elect, a position later served by his wife Jean Carnahan.  It is apparent that regardless of Jeff Smith’s qualifications, intentions, and popularity, he did not possess a notable political name like his opponent and unfortunately that makes a difference.  The Carnahans are not the only political family that has turned congressional seats into a dynasty. There are 37 current members who have relatives who have served in Congress and they are only increasing. As I witnessed in the documentary a political name does not necessarily mean that individuals are the most qualified. Congress does not need more incompetence and political monarchies are not helping at all.

Many are proposing a limit to the amount of terms an individual can serves in Congress. This limit would do away with the abuses stemming from seniority and political monarchies. Maybe then Congress would accurately represent the people of this country instead of supplying individuals with comfortable, lifelong careers for themselves and their relatives.