Timothy R. Clark: Elected office was never intended to be a career

Published: Thursday, April 25 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

There has been a steady rise in careerism in Congress as witnessed by the steady rise in the average tenure of service. But the most telling statistic is the average percentage of senators and House members who seek re-election: 90 percent.

J. Scott Applewhite, AP

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Cincinnatus was a Roman statesman twice called to serve as dictator of Rome. In both cases, he went home to his farm after doing his duty. George Washington was the American Cincinnatus. He, too, was summoned to public service twice and went home twice. Once after defeating the British. The second time he walked away on his own accord after two terms as president despite no term limitation in the Constitution.

We romanticize these stories because it’s a rare thing for a politician to go home without being forced. Instead, we are led to believe that members of Congress are indispensable public servants who possess singular skill and expertise.

A staffer for a United States senator once told me his boss, who has now been serving in the Senate for 36 years, could be the CEO of any corporation he wanted. He simply loved his country too much to leave his post. The delusions of grandeur are astonishing. Sometimes I wonder if we should trade the British House of Commons for the U.S. Congress – straight across.

A new report from the Congressional Research Service by Matthew Glassman and Amber Wihelm explains, “Most lawmakers in the 18th and early 19th centuries can be characterized as ‘citizen legislators,’ holding full-time non-political employment and serving in Congress on a part-time basis for a short number of years.” Things have certainly changed.

There has been a steady rise in careerism in Congress as witnessed by the steady rise in the average tenure of service. But the most telling statistic is the average percentage of senators and House members who seek re-election: 90 percent. To net it out, 90 percent of our nation’s legislators seek re-election. Of those 90 percent, 90 percent of them win.

Whether you are Democrat, Republican, or a member of the United States Marijuana Party, you know that we face a catastrophic crisis of leadership in Washington. As a reflection, congressional approval ratings averaged 15 percent last year, the lowest registered average since Gallop began asking the question in 1974.

There are of course many factors at play here, but one of the biggest is that our politicians won’t go home. They are under the grandiloquent impression that elected office is a career.

America is in desperate need of entitlement, budget, tax, immigration, campaign, regulatory, and education reform. Meanwhile, Congress spends its time speechifying, gridlocking and spending others people's money.

Can you remember the last time a member of Congress admitted a mistake? The partisan bickering is so intense, the rhetoric has become extreme and often meaningless. Many senators and House members are dangerously beholden to special interest groups, which in turn prevent them from enacting sensible reform.

Every election cycle, members of Congress tell us we need them for their political clout. The tragedy is we believe them and return them. Both parties are equal opportunity abusers of no term limits and the voting public obliges. Yet the corrosive forces of incumbency prove that a lack of term limits has been a certified failure. The current incentive structure keeps the lawmakers coming back. Precious few have any kind of homing device telling them it’s time to go home.

Sadly, we have reached a point where the political will needed to administer the nation’s medicine cannot be found. It’s easier to pursue instant gratification, to borrow and spend and redistribute and build the welfare state.

Václav Klaus, who just finished a 10-year term as president of the Czech Republic, said, “Europeans today prefer leisure to performance, security to risk-taking, paternalism to free markets, collectivism and group entitlements to individualism.”

That description resembles a couple of law-making bodies I know.

Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. He holds a doctorate from Oxford University. Email: trclark@trclark.net

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