Face the Nation’s Bob Schieffer seemed to step off the deep end this past Sunday. He gave his short editorial at the end his show on congressional reform. His proposal is so far out there the line between sarcastic commentary and legitimate suggestion is blurred.
“I’ve come up with my own reform plan: just create a second Congress…Here’s the broad outline of how it would work. Members of this new Congress would be elected for one year and barred from ever running again. Since no one would have to worry about reelection, they could dive into all the heavy lifting: entitlement reform, deficit reduction, tax policy, and rebuilding our roads and bridges and schools. It’s not exactly a new idea I sort of modeled it after the First Congress. Getting reelected was the last thing on those guys’ minds. They were worried about being hanged if it didn’t work out. So they put all their chips on the line and went for it…”
It gets even more absurd after that, which leads me to believe this commentary is part serious critique, part sarcasm. So it is a bit disingenuous to take him literally. Regardless of the proposal’s absurdity Schieffer clearly lays blame on reelection. For starters he couldn’t be more wrong about reelection or its history. First, members of the First Congress were concerned about reelection. They may have ‘laid their chips on the table,’ but they tried to do so in a manner that would bring them back to Congress. Roughly 70% of the members from the First Congress sought reelection. Of those members roughly 80% won (early reelection data isn’t perfect but these are the best estimates). Granted, it wasn't nearly as strong as it is today but it was not absent at the Constitutional Convention either.
Furthermore, the Framer’s wanted it this way. Many envisioned reelection as democracy’s fundamental cornerstone. “Frequent elections” were the most direct check necessary to keep elected officials from infringing on the peoples’ liberty (Federalist #52, #53 just to name a few). The pursuit of reelection was not seen as a vice but a virtue that forced members to adjust to their constituents’ demands. It is the fundamental check that allows the people to keep elected officials in line. Schieffer’s proposal (real or not) advocates eliminating this check. In other words he’s suggesting that the best way to get things done is to make Congress less representative. Schieffer suggests Congress is too representative and the solution is to simply eliminate that constraint. But instead of reforming how business is done within Congress he recommends creating a new one unaccountable to the people. In all, it sounds more like a criticism of democracy than a congressional reform.
In short, Schieffer’s criticism follows an all too common populous logic: in order to fix (insert problem here) elect all new people and (insert problem here) will be solved. This banal complaint wrongly assumes that new people in the same system will somehow radically change how Congress does business. A landslide election may introduce a shock to the system, but it doesn’t touch the underlying framework that shapes how elected officials interact within Congress.