Drain the swamp. That catchphrase has been sweeping the nation and is the buzzword of government reform supporters from far and wide. There are other catchphrases as well along these same lines: Washington insiders, the Deep State, the establishment, and so on. If I were to write James Bond films, these would be the names of villains for their sinister sound and ominous implications.
Government has always been this way. The Roman government would make us look like third rate gangsters. But this is not Rome, and we were supposed to evolve over time. We complain about the ineptness of our Congress, whose approval rating hovers between 17 and 20 percent. The Congressional approval rating hasn’t hit 30 percent in ten years. We analyze presidential approval ratings on a daily basis, almost to the point of obsessing about it, but rarely do we pay attention to those same ratings of Congress.
Think about it: members of Congress are elected far more frequently on average than the president but don’t have term limits, don’t receive the scrutiny the presidency does, and certainly don’t have the same public oversight as the executive branch. That means they can hide in the shadows, do things behind closed doors, or do very little and pay little to no price for it. Only occasionally do members of Congress pay a price, and then only when they are lax enough to get caught.
What’s worse is they often skate by but still get reelected. A number of years ago, after being found guilty of corruption charges, Dan Rostenkowski lost a hotly contested election, but two years later, constituents said when canvassed that they’d vote for him again if they had the opportunity.
That last sentence, in a nutshell, is the problem. WE are the problem. Yes, “We the People,” but be sure to add, “We the Problem.” We are the problem because we are charged with holding our elected officials accountable through voting, but we do not regularly exercise that prerogative, only show up for presidential elections, or vote the same person back into office despite any meaningful accomplishments. Name recognition is the primary reason for casting a vote more so than any other reason. Let’s face it: as a voting populace we are either lazy, programmed, or apathetic.
We complain about the government, the Congress but sit idle. While it seems that a significant portion of the population desires term limits, we don’t impose them through our vote, preferring to keep incumbents rather than vote them out. Consider that members of the House of Representatives have an average retention rate of over 94 percent dating back to 1974. For the Senate, that rate is around 83 percent over the same period. We complain that too many members serve for 30 or 40 years but we continue to return them to Washington. We are to blame. Not the Russians, not corporate America: us.
Political pundits will point to gerrymandered districts as the reason for high retention rates, but if “We the People” were to hold our elected representatives accountable for their policies, there would be no gerrymandering. Instead, we allow the political machine to run roughshod over us with nary a complaint, as long as our district is taken care of. During the Great Depression, FDR famously held jobs for votes. Vote for him and his party and magically, jobs appeared in the district.
We’ve forgotten the one fundamental truth about our republic: the people are the source of all political power. We’ve been conditioned to think that’s not the case, but it is. All we need to do is vote. Vote in an informed manner, but vote. Don’t vote party, person, or personality. Vote policy.
The great failing of a republic is when the people abrogate their responsibility to hold those in power accountable for their actions. It’s not solely the presidency, but Congress, along with the presidency, that matters. Remember, all 435 members of the House are up for re-election every two years, along with one-third of the Senate. There is a reason they call it an “off-year” election but not for the reason you think. With rare exceptions, the lowest percentage of voters turn out in those years.
We’ve become complacent, and the members of our government know it. We care too much about the presidency and not enough about congressional elections. Until we remember our power, we will continue to get, and deserve, career politicians who laugh at us behind closed doors.
Michael DiMatteo has taught American, European, and world history and political science in the Illinois school system, both public and private, for over 32 years. In 2010, he was recognized as an Illinois Golden Apple Teacher of Distinction. His writings can be found at Think31.com.