Converting Congress Back Into a Real Citizen Legislature : Likely GOP presidential contender Lamar Alexander wants to ‘cut their pay and send them home.’
In 1776, John Adams declared: “The representative assembly . . . should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason and act like them.” Ever since, the ideal of the citizen politician has been one of American politics’ most powerful symbols--the presumed corrective to the machinations of professional politicians seduced by the distant capital. The ideal was at the heart of the political revolution instigated in the 1820s by Andrew Jackson, who championed the cause of rotating federal jobs among his rank-and-file supporters. It was immortalized in Frank Capra’s classic movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” in which Jimmy Stewart, as an ordinary American armed only with idealism, shames the Senate into reform. And it powered the 1992 presidential campaign of Ross Perot, who presented himself as a modern Cincinnatus, reluctantly summoned down from the boardroom to rescue a beleaguered nation.
Now comes Lamar Alexander, the former two-term Republican governor of Tennessee and President George Bush’s education secretary, who wants to institutionalize the ideal by converting Congress into a citizen legislature. Alexander, who is diligently laying the groundwork for a 1996 presidential campaign, wants to cut congressional salaries in half and send members home over the summer to work at real jobs in their districts. He has even distilled the idea into the first memorable rallying cry of the 1996 campaign: “Cut their pay and send them home.”
Alexander says Congress should convene in January, work until about opening day of the baseball season in April and return home until Labor Day, when it would go back into session until Thanksgiving. In between, legislators could take any jobs they wanted: He would entirely lift the limits on outside income. “You would come closer to having some conflict of interest than you would in the system you have now,” Alexander allows, “but you’d also have men and women in the Legislature who know more about what they’re doing.”
Alexander figures that spending half the year at home would keep lawmakers in closer touch with the country. And it would make them less likely to meddle in affairs more properly handled at the state and local level. To further encourage Congress in that direction, he offers a variant of Ronald Reagan’s stillborn “new federalism” proposal: Alexander wants the federal government to turn over to the states $90 billion in welfare, food stamps, job training and infant nutrition programs in return for picking up the full cost of Medicaid.
And he is intrigued with the idea of moving federal departments outside of Washington--relocating the Interior Department, for instance, somewhere in Marlboro Country. “We’re about ready for a dismantling of our central government almost the same way our big companies have had to do,” he said.
As a political gambit, Alexander’s call to send home Congress puts him ahead of his potential rivals in formulating a message for the ’96 race. Buttoned-down and soft-spoken, he had never been known as a firebrand. This idea could establish him as the field’s most radical critic of Washington--not a bad position when the only group less popular in the country than Congress is probably major league baseball players. (Unless it’s the baseball owners.)
It crystallizes his efforts to define himself as the candidate from outside the Beltway, in contrast to better-known Washington figures who could enter the race, such as Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), former Rep. Jack Kemp and Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.). Perhaps most important, Alexander’s call to shut down Congress gives him a potentially resonant calling card with the remnants of Perot’s army. “Lamar,” said Republican strategist William Kristol, “would like to be kind of a kinder, gentler, saner Perot.”
As a practical matter, Alexander’s signature idea could be more problematic. In some ways, the concept (based on an idea pushed for years by former Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr., another Tennessee Republican) recalls the Congress of the 19th and early 20th centuries. At least until the explosion of legislation under Woodrow Wilson, Congress was often in session less than half the year--and rarely after “it got too hot to stand Washington,” notes Richard A. Baker, the official Senate historian. On their long absences from the capital, legislators frequently held second jobs, most often as lawyers or farmers.
But would the practices that allowed Congress to govern a largely homogenous, relatively agrarian society with few international interests still be practical at the end of the 20th Century? Steadily since the Progressive Era, Washington has filled its arms with stacks of responsibilities, and Congress couldn’t return to spending half the year at home without letting some drop.
That’s fine, says Alexander: He wants Congress to do less. But some fear that a part-time Congress couldn’t fulfill its minimum obligation of appropriating the money to keep the government operating, a process that now often drags on until the very end of each year.
It might be possible to overcome those problems with such procedural reforms as multiyear budgeting. More intransigent would be the conflict-of-interest questions inherent in Alexander’s scheme. The most attractive aspect of the citizen legislature idea is the prospect of forcing members to experience firsthand the laws they pass from a distance. Who doesn’t believe that deliberations would be improved if the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee spent one summer working as an assistant district attorney and the next as an assistant public defender?
But many skeptics consider it more likely that legislators would end up in sinecures provided by interests hoping to influence their decisions in Washington. “The notion of going back home is a romantic notion, but they would never get out of their class or status,” predicted David Cohen, co-director of the Advocacy Institute in Washington. “They are going to go into their law firms, into speaking for fees.”
Other practical problems loom. Could Congress finish the “dismantling” Alexander urges in the short window he would allow? And if Republicans regain control of either house of Congress (or both) by 1996, would Dole really want to spend half the year drafting wills and settling contract disputes in Russell, Kan.--and tilting to the executive branch the increased power implicit in Congress’ surrendering its oversight functions six months at a time?
In the end, Alexander’s idea--like the allure of the citizen-politician idea throughout our history--rests on the myth that conniving career politicians are ignoring the common-sense solutions of a virtuous citizenry. In fact, the citizenry is usually as ambivalent and conflicted as the politicians.
With his passionate calls for shuttering Washington, Alexander is sailing into the crosscurrents of that ambivalence. His agenda reduces to its essence the assumption animating from almost all the likely 1996 Republican contenders: that the overriding lesson of Bill Clinton’s turbulent presidency is that Americans want Washington to do less. Clinton has undeniably overestimated the public’s tolerance for massive new federal programs. But it is also clear that Americans perceive pressing problems, from crime to economic insecurity, that they want someone to address.
Balancing that yearning for renewal against the enfeebling suspicion of government amounts to walking a tightrope--one on which Clinton has repeatedly stumbled. But Alexander, like other Republicans, risks falling off the other side if he assumes that Americans want Washington only to close its doors and leave the search for solutions to governors, mayors and those among us who extend kindness to strangers.
The Washington Outlook column appears in this space every other Monday.
Getting a Jump on ’96
Lamar Alexander could announce his 1996 presidential candidacy as soon as late this year, aides say. He’s already furrowing the ground--driving across 36 states this summer to build grass-roots support and organizing a fund-raising network. And he’s not alone: Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), and former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney all are taking purposeful early steps toward the race. Why the rush? The answer lies below--in the dramatic acceleration of the 1996 primary-and-caucus calendar. By late March, 1996, when California casts its ballots, the GOP will have selected about 60% of its 2,210 delegates for the nominating convention.
Date Primary/caucus location Delegates Feb. 12* Iowa 23 Feb 20 New Hampshire, Arizona, Maine 82 Feb 24 Delaware 19 Feb 27 South Dakota 19 March 5 Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Vermont 150 March 7 New York 100 March 12 Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, 422 Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas March 17 Puerto Rico 14 March 19 Illinois, Michigan, Ohio 240 March 26 California, Connecticut 236
* Likely date.
Source: Republican National Committee