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The real Washington scandal

July 29, 2013

Contrary to the President’s opinion, most people seem to think that there are some scandalous things going on in Washington DC, and they don’t have anything to do with a digital camera. Well, OK, not that we know of today anyway.

The real scandal in Washington DC is…Washington DC. No, not the town. I truly don’t care about their crime rate or whether it costs as much to live near there for a month as it does to live for six months in most American towns.

No, I’m talking about why it is still there at all. I’m not talking about overthrowing the government. I’m talking about making it truly relative in the 21st century and beyond.

At first glance it makes sense to have all of the government functions in one place. And in 1776, the idea of a fixed central location for governing the United States did make sense. Transportation and communication were both difficult, so why spend a week riding your horse to Washington? Just live there instead. Trouble is, I don’t see many national legislators riding horses to work anymore, no matter how environmentally friendly they are. We do have other forms of communication today.

Most states don’t have full-time legislatures. Of the ten that do, it seems to be a function of the size of their population. Legislators are supposed to be attending to the needs of their constituents as a part of their job description. The more people, the more time it takes to serve them, or so goes the conventional wisdom.

In 2009 there was an interesting bit of data published that used the salaries of the legislators as one of the guidelines for classifying state legislatures as full, mostly full, or part-time bodies[1]. To be considered full time, the legislators had to derive at least 80% of their income from the salaries as legislators. In other words, the legislator had to be a full-time politician. If population is a deciding factor, then of course we must need a full time national legislative culture.

Then there is the issue of salary. When you do anything that provides 80% or more of your income, you are going to protect that job at all costs. Legislatures pass laws or tweak or repeal old ones. That’s their primary job description, or more properly, that’s how they justify the salary they draw to their so-called bosses, the voters.

The problem with that is that when you have passed all the laws that make sense for your constituency or the country, how do you continue to justify your salary?

I submit that you start making work for yourself. If some tiny little fringe element has a beef, you pass a law to make them happy, so they’ll vote for you again. If that doesn’t produce any reason to write a new bill or tweak an existing one, you have your staff start data mining for things you can propose more legislation to address. If that doesn’t work, you just make something up out of thin air, like the proposed national historic park on the moon proposed by Maryland Representative Donna Edwards and Texas Representative Bernice Johnson. That might not go anywhere, but hey, it got them some press for fifteen minutes.

This is the culture in Washington DC. We need laws, but we don’t need laws that don’t work for the country as a whole. We don’t need the government micro-managing everything we do or say or wear or eat to protect their jobs. There is a reason why New York City fast food workers want to get $15.00 an hour. It’s because everything costs a fortune there. Why does it cost a fortune? Because there is a constant onslaught of new laws that make doing business more expensive, and that gets passed along to every consumer.

Speaker Boehner may have had it right. If the Congress of the United States started reviewing and evaluating for effectiveness and cost/benefit ratios every law it has passed in even the past decade, that would be job security for the next decade or two. After that, we could have Congress convene in regular session for four months a year, from January 1 to April 30  maybe even in someplace without all the fancy watering holes and perks. Some place like, oh, I don’t know, maybe International Falls or Death Valley. After that they go home, instead of making  Washington DC and it’s immediate adjacent environs their home.  That might get these people back into the real world of working for a paycheck or running a real business with real payrolls, or even, God forbid, living under the laws they pass.

OK, part of that last paragraph is a bit tongue in cheek. Why would International Falls want to have to deal with Congress? But we have to find a way to make government work better, provide more real benefit to the people and cost the country less on every level. Less time in Washington DC and more time in the real world could be the answer.

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