Career politicians and the protracted decay of democracy
The Fulcrum September 13, 2023
Last Friday, Nancy Pelosi announced her intent to run for re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives. Pelosi has occupied that seat since 1987. In nearly four decades of service, she has accumulated political power and financial resources, earned tremendous influence over Democratic policymaking, and advanced the interests of many of her constituents.
She has also contributed to the decay of a vibrant and representative democracy. By staying in power for decades, Pelosi and other career politicians have contributed to a troubling and accurate depiction of D.C. as a place for “elite” politicians. Gone are the days of Mr. Smith going to Washington — this is the era of Mr. Smith going to Washington and planning to die there. From 2000 to 2012, 17 members of the House passed away while in office.
I do not intend to diminish the profound sadness of losing any American willing to serve their communities through elected office. My goal is merely to scream what has only been whispered about: The House and Senate are not retirement homes.
Of course, anyone who is physically and mentally fit to vigorously and relentlessly advance the needs of their hometowns and our nation belongs in D.C. The representative who “often sits in the back rows of the House floor gabbing with her closest friends,” however, must step aside.
Notably, that’s how The New York Times described Pelosi’s current habits.
Of the House members who stick around until retiring on their own terms, they still stay for quite some time: The average House member occupies their seat for about a decade. Note that I didn’t mention the possibility of members exiting through electoral defeat — that’s because incumbents win reelection 95% of the time.
The upshot is that a healthy rate of turnover is contingent upon representatives and senators recognizing the value of new voices, perspectives and ideologies breathing life into Congress. That norm has clearly not developed.
This would have been the perfect moment for Pelosi to step aside and let someone dedicate every ounce of their being to representing the needs of San Franciscans. Yet, finding a politician willing to relinquish power these days is like finding a NASCAR driver who enjoys turning right — nearly impossible.
In the coming months, the likely showdown between (1) a career politician in President Joe Biden and (2) a politician unable to dedicate their full mental energy to the responsibilities of the job in former President Donald Trump should give rise to a productive conversation about what exactly we’re looking for in our elected officials.
Some will try to derail this important conversation by coloring it Red or Blue and making it about partisan politics. Others will distract us from engaging on substantive issues by alleging people are ageist, ableist or otherwise. None of that’s helpful.
This conversation should not be postponed nor sidetracked. From reforming the Supreme Court to analyzing the fitness of several senators to continue to serve, the debate over the basic characteristics of the ideal public servant has spread into several important topics and can no longer be pushed aside. Moreover, this “talk” needs to go deeper than technical fixes like term limits; we need to get to the roots of who we want representing us. My hunch is that we’re not OK with representatives seeing the House as a social club. I’d also wager that we’re tired of hearing about health reports more so than status updates on actual legislation.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting energetic, intelligent and healthy representatives. So, let’s talk about it.
Kevin Frazier will join the Crump College of Law at St. Thomas University as an assistant professor starting this fall. He currently is a clerk on the Montana Supreme Court.
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