Career politicians vs. "citizen legislators"

This thread was getting hijacked (my fault as much as Oakminster’s), so I thought I’d break out the hijack into a separate one.

Oakminster says the very existence of such things as “career politicians” is regrettable and bad for the republic. I can appreciate that POV, which once was very widespread in America, as Jacksonian populism. De Tocqueville wrote of how in early-19th-Century America, at the local level at least, ordinary citizens would take it in turns holding public offices and any prominent man would get a chance to learn on the job. In the ancient Athenian republic, many offices were filled for short terms by lot, like serving jury duty.

But I still say the idea of “citizen legislators” is astonishingly overrated. The existence of a career-political class as such is not a problem, it is indispensable to any modern democracy. Can you name any that has found a way to do without one and thrive?

The problems of government are a lot more challenging now than they were in ancient Athens, or even in the America de Tocqueville wrote about. Government is a very complicated business, and like any such is, for the most part, best left to career specialists. We could choose members of Congress by lot, but then we wouldn’t have a Congress, we would have a focus group. It would be unqualified to do anything but vote up-or-down on Executive-Branch proposals. And the Executive Branch pretty much has to be a set of mostly career specialists. It is best we have a set of elected career politicians to check it; they are at least more regularly accountable than bureaucrats with civil service job protection.

Career politicians are boils on the asshole of America. They contribute little of value and exist mainly to get re-elected and thus avoid doing anything useful for yet another term. The basic functions of the legislature ain’t that damn hard to learn. Show up most of the time, reasonably sober, try to have some clue about the content of bills, and vote yay or nay. Advanced functions aren’t exactly rocket science either. Draft a bill. If you can’t express an idea in writing, you shouldn’t have graduated from high school. Hold hearings–we’ll give them the Cliff’s Notes version of Robert’s Rules of Order and let them go for it. Listen to arguments pro and con, and pick the one that makes the most sense. If you can’t do that, flip a damn coin.

Was it Mencken? Politicians know what Americans really want and are ready to give it to them, good and hard.

We get what we elect, they are our creatures. If we were willing scrutinize our legislators with the same intensity we interview a potential babysitter, it would be different. If we demand better men, we will have them, so long as the Apathy Party leads the nation, we won’t.

I don’t think there is anything inherently morally destructive about being a servant of the people, ambition and greed, however, are usually pretty reliable negative indications. But it is not that good men are impossible, its only that they are rare, that a man willing to make the needful sacrifices to attain power usually does it for bad reasons. Duh.

A “professional” politician isn’t necessarily more corrupt that a citizen legislator, a bumpkin can be dazzled by hookers and blow in a New York minute. And even though a man of average intelligence can certainly learn the basics in a few hours, he’s a poor match for the man who learned the basics thirty years ago and has been applying them ever since,

So, no, I don’t care if my legislator is a pro or not, so long as he never forgets who works for whom.

He said, “Democracy is the idea that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” A process which in theory can work with or without career politicians.

Yeah, Mencken. Mr. Sunshine.

There is no impediment to citizens becoming legislators. There is nothing more professional about a lawyer, doctor or professor that makes them more uniquely suited to being a legislator. And, as always, there is a check on job performance: we can vote them out if they fail to perform.

We have left the business of government to these “career politicians”, and what do we have to show for it? Corruption, through and through. Scandal after scandal. I would submit that Joe Blow the farmer from Iowa can do the same job as these guys. He can take the PAC money as well as everybody else. He can be swayed by lobbyists just like E. Clifton Egomaniac III, Esq. Or, just perhaps, because he doesn’t owe anybody anything and isn’t a part of the good ol’ boy network, he can be more trusted to do the right thing.

Finally, what were these “career politicians” before they were politicians? They were mere citizens, just like everybody else. The only difference is that they wanted to be elected to office, which to my way of thinking is exactly why they should not have been elected to office.

I like Mencken, except he’s a little too optimistic sometimes.

I’m with Oakminster on this one, mostly. I don’t know if I feel as passionately that it’s inherently bad to be a politician for life, but I do think that in most cases, the longer a person is in office the more their career becomes about serving their own re-election desires and less about serving the people.

I started another thread before seeing this one, and my OP was basically:
I was listening to the radio today, and in discussion about the health care summit, some commentator or caller-in mentioned, roughly, that no one is willing to risk their seat by really advocating anything that isn’t vetted by massive support from the public and the media.

Well, why not have term limits for legislators, then? If protecting their job becomes an important part of a legislator’s job, then something needs to change. It doesn’t have to be super-short. 12 years, maybe. Maybe a little longer? Long enough to really have some time in the system, but short enough that it’s not a job for life. Short enough that a senator who’s been in DC for 6 or 8 years has a lot less to lose by standing for his/her principles, or suggesting more non-party-line solutions.

Damn, that was well stated!!!

That’s the problem with career politicians in a nutshell. Doing the “right thing” is irrelevant. What matters is doing the politically convenient thing. Can’t dare take a stand that might be unpopular with major donors, because they’ll run some other sock puppet in the next primary.

If you go into office knowing you’re not going to be there forever no matter what, you’re then free to actually do whatever you believe to be best for the country, and let the chips fall where they may.

There is one major obstacle to term limits for Senators or Representatives. The people that you want to limit to definite terms are the ones that would have to write and pass the Constitutional amendment that limits them. How likely is it that will happen? ( A Federal law might work, but I doubt it. And even if it would, the same people are the ones that write it.)

If you actually got enough people into Congress to pass something like that, you have already solved the problem.

The argument against “citizen legislators” that resonates most with me, is that they simply won’t know what the hell they are doing and be forced to rely on the people who do; people who probably won’t be elected at all. There’s no gain in throwing out corrupt politicians, and replacing them with people who are the puppets of unelected advisers that they don’t know enough to judge the reliability or agendas of. Not to mention bureaucrats working behind the scenes that the elected officials won’t even be around long enough to know they exist. It seems to me the result of a “citizen legislature” would be a bunch of placeholders who have no real power; the actual decision making would all be in the hands of the unelected people who stay there permanently, while the citizen legislators make speeches and flail about in ignorance.

As long as it doesn’t become hereditary.

But I do think that it’s necessary for people to have a career outside politics before entering politics. And lawyers should be barred from holding office - it’s a conflict of interest.

For some actual facts, let’s look at a list of states with term limits on their legislators: Link. Now let’s look at a list of the best-run states: Link.

Now let’s correlate them:

* Arizona Legislature: B-
* Arkansas: C
* California State Legislature: C
* Colorado General Assembly: C+ 
* Florida Legislature: B-
* Louisiana State Legislature:  B
* Maine Legislature: C
* Michigan Legislature: B+
* Missouri General Assembly: B+
* Montana State Legislature: C+ 
* Nebraska Legislature: B
* Nevada Legislature: C+
* Ohio General Assembly: B-
* Oklahoma Legislature: C+
* South Dakota Legislature: C+ 

That works out to a C+ average for government of term limited states. I’m not going to do all the math, but there are 17 states receiving C grades, and half of them are states with term limits. Of the 28 states with B grades, 7 of them have term limits. There are no term limited states with A grades. Keep in mind that term limited states make up only 30% of all states.

What can we conclude? I will restrict my comments to merely the unassailable point that states with term limits don’t appear to run any better than states without. One might make the argument that they tend to run a little bit worse.

In any case, it doesn’t seem that term limits provide any quantifiable benefit to states. And since it involves taking choices away from voters, what’s the point?

Maybe California would be an F were it not for term limits. :smiley:

I think the dysfunction in both the states and in Washington DC has little to do with the individuals there. You could replace all of them with whoever your shining paragons of virtue are, and you’d get roughly the same results in a decade or so. The dysfunction is institutional: an uninformed and apathetic public, an extremely complex administrative state, a polarized country with declining sources of social cohesion, gerrymandered congressional districts, a high cost of campaigning, and a set of genuinely hard problems that have been ignored for many decades. Various states have additional institutional problems, like California’s referendum system.

At most, you could cut out the problem of the expense of campaigning by having citizen politicians. That wouldn’t change much.

If only there was some means of periodically reviewing a legislator’s job performance of deciding whether or not that legislator should remain in office.

The only thing that term limits obviously accomplish is incentivizing politicians to loot their constituencies faster.

You pay a cost to run for office. While you are in office, you want to recoup this cost. If you have no chance of reaping a lifetime’s worth of benefits, then you need to extract what you can as fast as you can. This just encourages people who don’t value future streams of benefits very much to run for office. It doesn’t take a formal model to see why this is undesirable. Term limits can also exacerbate moral hazard and dynamic inconstancy. It is simply harder for a politician to be able to credibly commit to any policy that he may not bear the direct electoral consequences of.

I’d rather be slowly and gently bled over time by one leech than lose a pint a day. Using a new needle every day does not really improve things.

The only way that term limits might make sense is if you enforce a corresponding reduction in the cost of political candidacy. If you believe that running for office is a competition between which candidate is less corrupt, then lowering the entry costs means that politicians willing to bleed the country less are able to run and still at least break even. But then I think having no term limits is still strictly better than term limits even under this constraint.

The issue of legislative competence, i.e. what subset of policies can actually be implemented by the legislator, is actually kind of a red herring. It is not immediately clear that the republic would do better or worse under the rule of more capable but more rapacious politicians. I think that what really does matter here is what institutional incentives and costs we impose on the election of political officers.

This is the truth of it, beautifully summarized.

I’m not against citizen legislators. I’m against the delusion that longtime politicians, whether professional or lifelong amateurs, are going to be worse at what they do than novices. That’s like claiming that Steffi Graf is a worse tennis player than someone who plays only on weekends.

You have corrupt politicians not because being in politics corrupted them, but because you voted for someone corrupt in the first place. And you voted for someone corrupt because you weren’t paying attention, in fact no one was, except the fixers who picked a corrupt person of their choice.

Term limits does not even address this problem. It’s a false solution floated as a distraction so stupid voters will waste their efforts on meaningless “reforms.”

Alternatively, if you go into office knowing you are going to be there forever no matter what, you’re then free to actually do whatever you believe to be best for the country, and let the chips fall where they may. The Claudian Caesars made a point of keeping each governor of a conquered territory in place for a long time. The more men served in a post in a given period of time, the more men would try to make their fortunes from that post in that time. The peasants would be “taxed” more (really robbed, considering the irregularity of Roman tax practices) &/or Caesar would get less. But keeping one man in the office a long time encouraged him to identify himself with the province & mellow out somewhat. Better business overall.