Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Is your congressman much like you?

I'm listening to an audio book about James Madison and his role in the debates that led to a Bill of Rights accompanying the U.S. Constitution.

And a particular passage, from a Madison speech to the Virginia ratifying convention, seems relevant to some of the recent coverage of just how differently members of Congress live compared to their constituents.

Said Madison:
"Powers are not given to any particular set of men. They are in the hands of the people, delegated to their representatives chosen for short terms. To representatives responsible to the people and whose situation is perfectly similar to their own. As long as this is the case we have no danger to apprehend."
I wonder, are we there still? Or have we arrived at a place where our leaders no longer live in situations "perfectly similar" to our own? Do the short terms House members serve offset this effectively, or have the over-riding result of our partisan redistricting process and the advantages of incumbency negated that check on out-of-touch congressional influence?

The median net worth of a member of Congress is more than $900,000, compared to $100,000 for the average American, according to The New York Times which looked at this issue in December. As ABC's The Note summarized:
The average American’s net worth has dropped 8 percent during the past six years, while members of Congress got, on average, 15 percent richer, according to a New York Times analysis of financial disclosure.
Members of Congress also saw their wealth advance faster than the country's richest 1 percent over the last six years, The Times found. You have to think that's at least partly due to stuff like this, this and all sorts of this.

I'm not in a position to say whether today's wealth disparity is unusual in our country's history. Neither was The Times, other than to say Congress "has long been populated with the rich ... but rarely has the divide appeared so wide." Madison himself was well-off, growing up on one of the larger plantations in Virginia.

But when you look at the money it takes to run for Congress, the subsequent $174,000 annual base salary paid to House members, their staff budgets, health and retirement benefits, various privileges and the fact that House members represent nearly 710,000 people each, it's difficult to trust that the majority of them know what it's like out here in the cheap seats, even if they have to stand for election every two years.

It seems we've evolved a system that elects a disproportionate number of wealthy representatives from our political fringes. Which is perhaps what made this section of The Times' report particularly disheartening:
In an effort to gauge how directly the country’s economic problems affected lawmakers, The New York Times contacted the offices of the 534 current members (one seat is vacant) for an informal survey. It asked if they had close friends or family members who had lost jobs or homes since the 2008 downturn.

Only 18 members responded.


Nick said...

What I always found funny about Madison harping on the common man and Congress was how far from common the founders actually were. They were the best, brightest, and wealthiest. So maybe talking out of both sides of the mouth isn't a modern political problem.

Lucid Idiocy said...

It most certainly is not. My concern is whether we have evolved the system to make it more difficult, and perhaps impossible, for members of Congress, and particularly House members, to be like the people they serve. If I focus on it, I suppose I'm less concerned about the wealth disparity and more concerned about the disparity in philosophy. America is not a far right or far left country, but so much of our Congress is. That is largely due to redistricting, and that can be addressed, particularly these days where computers can do much of the work and help create a non-partisan process in much the way they are employed now to create a partisan one.

Shella Lott said...

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