Imagine if your job required you to make decisions about the federal or state budget, the protection of the environment and climate change, public education, public health, national defense and foreign affairs in addition to almost everything else that affects your ability to thrive and survive in a civil society.
At the federal level your job requires you to understand and forge partnerships with 434 other elected leaders, some of whom have very different constituencies and values. Imagine that you are accountable to roughly 700,000 citizens who want to let you know how they feel and count on your decision-making skills. Then imagine that after the first nine months of elected office you are told you must raise 1.5 million dollars by the following year if you want to continue doing your job. It seems impossible to do yet this is what we ask of 435 people that we pay to represent us in the United States House of Representatives each year.
Anytime someone transitions into a new job, there is a learning curve. Most employers want to hire experienced people with verifiable qualifications so that the learning curve is shorter and smoother. Most of our members of congress have professional job experience prior to coming to Washington. However, many have no government job experience that adequately prepares them for the complexity and responsibility they will face in the US Congress. Furthermore, at no time in the election cycle can citizens find a vetted resume for the people running for positions of elected public service. A few states, such as Washington State, make resumes available to citizens before they vote in a voter guide, but this is the exception not the rule.
The US Congress has an average age of 57.8 years, so it makes sense that they would arrive with work experience. Business, law, public service and education are the four fields represented most in the US House so on these topics our elected officials should have a head start (source Congressional Research Office 10/1/18). In reality, do they have a head start? Why do we so readily accept that someone who served in one state in the union even as governor can assimilate the necessary knowledge to understand the needs of 49 more states and their citizens overnight? How can we expect them to quickly understand all the topics that they must make decisions on and begin to run for office again nine months after they move in?
This is the first part of the unholy structures. We expect good decisions from people who are new to a profession with sizeable constituencies and we expect them to do it well, if not the day they arrive – certainly in less than two years. Ironically, these expectations pale in comparison to what the job really requires. Our best representatives spend years developing critical partnerships across partisan boundaries so that budgets get passed, policy is put in place, and laws are executed. The reality is we are living with systems at all levels of our democracy that are antiquated and no longer fit the complexity of the work or the needs of the country.
The second part of the unholy structure is that somewhere before the end of that first year they must focus on raising money, campaigning and keeping their job. Surely some of this is helpful in the process of educating a representative and keeping them in touch with their constituents. However, while they are on the campaign trail how well are they researching, supervising their staff, and representing you in Washington?
We know through research that multitasking is less than effective. For one whole year of their job their attention is divided between campaigns and governing. If you hired someone to do a job and you learned they were moonlighting on the side how might that impact your thinking about them? Would your expectations change if you knew there was the continuous distraction of raising money and campaigning that would go on throughout their tenure? The cost to citizens when all levels of elected officials balance fund-raising and running for office instead of governing is extensive. Unlike other western countries, we do not limit the length of campaigns. Such limits could improve the quality of people considering elected office and the quality of representative government that citizens receive. Many capable people complain that the fund-raising and lengthy campaign cycle keep them from considering public service as a career.
Finally, the two-year cycle leads to heightened polarization in our elected officials hurting their ability to work together for sustainable solutions to our most vexing problems. Ever present elections are meant to hold our politicians accountable, but now it seems to tie their hands. They must face challenges from the far left and far right of their parties if they make any attempts to work together in spaces where compromise could create good policy and laws. The time needed to show progress to constituents isn’t there.
To be sure, representatives don’t need lifetime appointments, nor do they need short term limits, there are serious unintended consequences with both. We also do not need lengthy campaigns with unlimited budgets. Other democracies around the world have approached these structures very differently, setting limitations on the length of the campaigns and the expenditure of funds. The systems we have no longer serve the public good and are not sustainable practices.