Here We Go Again

Continuing to do the same thing, but expecting different results isn’t insanity, it’s just plain stupid…

“The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust. The elective mode of obtaining rulers is the characteristic policy of republican government. The means relied on in this form of government for preventing their degeneracy are numerous and various. The most effectual one, is such a limitation of the term of appointments as will maintain a proper responsibility to the people.”

~ James Madison,The Federalist Papers, No. 57, published 1788 (emphasis added by me)


Do we honestly think that our current leaders are concerning themselves with the common good of society?  With the start of the 113th Congress, it seems like a good time to think about what type of rulers we have found ourselves.  Of the 535 members of Congress, only 94 are new members (12 in the Senate and 82 in the House).  This means that despite the 112th Congress being of the most notably unpopular and unproductive Congresses in American history, an overwhelming 82% of its members were retained.  The leadership in the House and Senate also remain identical, despite the last Congress’ low approval ratings and abysmal ability to legislate together.  How does this happen?  How do we as the people think that anything in Washington will change if we keep reelecting the exact same set of people who could not find their way out of all of last year’s legislative debacles?  Perhaps there’s a tiny bit of hope in this Congress being the most diverse in American history.  But overwhelmingly, our rulers still remain more white, more male, and significantly older than the population they represent.  They also have been in office longer than any of their historical counterparts, the current average legislator has been in Congress nearly a decade.  The last thing the founding fathers ever intended was for us to keep reelecting inept legislators for the sake of it!

When the founders wrote the Constitution, they had the honest expectation that the vast majority of legislators would serve a term or two, and then return to their former occupations.  This was born out by their own experience serving and their theory that the public would continually seek to elect new members anyways.  It would have been difficult for them to for-see the career politicians that now dominate our legislature.  In fact, had they known, they would have most likely established term limits for the Senate and the House of Representatives just as they had the precedent of Washington to guide them on the Presidency.  As Madison points out in our quote, limitations on the number of terms force legislators to be continually held accountable to the people.  Especially in the case of the House of Representatives, the founding fathers had hoped that citizens would only elect those they judged to have merit, instead of those whose better birth or fortune or faith raised them above their fellow citizens.  That is why the Constitution stipulates only an age limit and a need for a certain amount of time as a citizen.

So basically, any good man with a good name could become a legislator.  But can we honestly say this is true today?  Do you think your really awesome neighbor who works hard and helps his community on weekends would ever be elected?  Unless he possesses the money and the connections to run, it’s exceedingly unlikely.  In fact, not possessing them, he is probably too intimidated to even try.  And therein lies the rub (that our charming two political parties have put us in).  Having wisdom, virtue, and an eye for the common good isn’t enough to get one elected anymore, nor to even get one on the ballot.  When was the last time you heard a political ad saying that the candidate in question was really wise or smart?  All of never.  And it’s a shame, because without merit, without leaders truly devoted to the common good, nothing will change.  Our Congress will continue to play its partisan games instead of represent its people.  And that is not what our government was meant to be about.

Res Publica

Documentation without Representation:

The Federalist Papers, No.57, published 19 Feb 1788

(There is debate whether the author of Federalist 57 was Alexander Hamilton or James Madison.  After his death a list became public where he had claimed to be the author of nearly 2/3rds of the essays.  However, modern historical and computer analysis makes it more likely that James Madison wrote the paper in question.)

Digital Text Courtesy of the Avalon Project at Yale Law School

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