Last week I watched the swearing-in ceremonies with the new Congress.
When I was growing up, I was taught that public service was a noble endeavor. It felt right to respect and admire our elected members to Congress. The U.S. Capitol was, of course, “The People’s House.”
But sadly, as I watched the ceremonies on TV, I did not feel anywhere near the sense of admiration I once had. It struck me that many of the incumbents in Congress are not public servants, but driven by self-interest and entitlement.
Let me explain.
Every election, incumbents on both sides play a dirty little game called “run out the clock.” Instead of debating their opponent, where they run the risk of the opponent scoring points with the voters, they avoid debates, sometimes altogether.
I know from first-hand experience from my radio show. Countless times I contact incumbent politicians and ask them and their opponent to come on my show for an on-air debate.
Their campaign people act as if I was asking for their politician’s kidney. They throw the most ridiculous excuses back at me:
He or she is traveling. They have a busy campaign schedule. They can’t come into the station. They have an important function to attend. Or “important business” calls them back to Washington.
Or sometimes they just plain don’t respond to my requests at all.
Are our elected officials that afraid to face their opponents and their constituents? Obviously, the election risks outweigh the benefits.
But this is not about them. Holding elected office is not a “job” or “entitlement.” It is a privilege that is granted to them – temporarily- by the voters.
Turn the Oath of Office into a Legally Enforceable Contract
Unfortunately, many incumbents fail to remember that they serve at the pleasure of the people. So here are my proposals to add some real legal substance when Congress members are sworn in and take their oath of office:
- A minimum of one Town Hall meeting per month. If they fail to hold a town hall meeting with their constituents in a given month, they are docked a month’s salary.
- A minimum of five debates with their election-year opponent. Make it a requirement of holding office, or again dock them “election season salary” from September through November.
It’s time to call out these frauds. This is not sports, where a team tries to run out the clock to protect their lead. They are elected to represent our interests, not theirs.
There is a real sense of arrogance and entitlement that permeates the thinking of many incumbent Congress members and Senators. But much of the fault comes back to us. We have allowed these incumbents to think that they are entitled to be “career politicians.”
Incumbents get cagey when they try to hold onto their congressional seat. Their press people are eager to get them on my show to talk about some meaningless bill they’re introducing or pet project they’re sponsoring. But come election time, when it’s time to talk about and debate important issues- they’re nowhere to be found.
The Hypocrisy Applies to Both Sides
I think that is shameless and gutless. I have seen this election strategy in practice by both Democrats and Republicans. No matter what the political affiliation, it is dishonest and insulting to voters. How can you have a truly fair election when an incumbent becomes invisible and inaccessible?
I frequently bring this topic up when political groups invite me out to speak. I notice that whenever I call out an incumbent for not being more accessible and avoiding debates, the party faithful get quite upset at me.
“Don’t you want a conservative to hold that seat?” they ask me. My response, whether I am at a Republican event, a Democratic event or even a mixed gathering is still the same:
Don’t you realize that if an incumbent refuses to meet an opponent or meet his or her constituents, that it gives you a clear idea of their value system? Trying to manipulate their elected office is a slap in the face of voters. It cheapens and denigrates the election process.
If we want to bring fairness back to elections and a new degree of accountability from our elected officials, we have to demand it. They are certainly not going to take the initiative and give it to us.
That means holding every politician, regardless of their political stripes, to the same high standards. It means calling them out, even if they’re “your” politician.
Short of the President, Vice President and some key Cabinet positions, there is no more important job in Washington than serving as a U.S. Senator or member of Congress. If a Representative or Senator has good standing with their voters, he or she should not have any objection to monthly Town Halls or five election-year debates.
The Real “Entitlement” Issue in Washington
I always hear politicians talk about “tackling the entitlement issue” in Washington. It’s time to tackle the other entitlement issue: that our elected officials are allowed to stonewall their opponents or do the bare minimum (or worse) when it comes to meeting with their constituents.
More Town Halls and election year debates ate a step in the right direction. In order to get the undivided attention of these politicians, we have to talk in a language they’ll clearly understand: you don’t follow the “People’s rules,” the People are going to dock your pay.
It’s time to send a strong message- and make it part of the Congressional oath & contract- that these elected officials work for us…not the other way around.