Friday, July 19, 2013

Dumbed-Down Congress

Do we want leaders or yes-men?

This week I attended a Congressional breakfast that featured the three members from northern Virginia. No new ground was broken, and the accused culprits for a soft economy and continuing political impasse were predictably partisan. None of our representatives is especially notable on the national stage even though the three Virginia counties that make up the majority of the districts – Loundon, Fairfax, and Arlington – have the highest median household income in the U.S.

Are we so fat and happy that we're content with the status quo? Our Congressional delegation has nearly 100 years of elected offices between them. Maybe all they can offer is what they already know. About 40 percent of jobs in northern Virginia are directly tied to the Federal government. Yet instead of finding ways to help diversify the local economy, our delegation continues to seek ways to entrench and fortify. This is especially true for transportation projects and government right-sizing.

As I've written before, we deserve the government we vote in. But Congress arranges itself to further the politics rather than govern effectively. Committee membership is determined by seniority and party loyalty rather than legislative effectiveness and subject expertise. Committee websites and social media accounts are driven by party and ideology rather than enlightenment and public service. (Each of the major committees maintains two websites: one for the majority party, one for the minority.) In committee hearings member questions are often petulant and pandering instead of probing and relevant.

Members can be smart without being elitist. They can help us understand how our government works and how it can improve. Moreover, they can and must lead without cowering to each dip in the opinion polls or fearing a slowdown in the flow in campaign contributions.

In an op-ed piece on his furlough in this week's Washington Post, federal employee Mike Penland said it best: "What our elected leaders have taken from us is not money but our trust, faith and confidence. In my mind, this is far worse than a temporary loss of pay."

I disagree with Mr. Penland on only one point: he called our elected officials "leaders".