Suppose for a moment that I am the head of a new trade association, funded by business firms sharing some common interests, say participants in the same industry. I have the task of hiring a law firm to represent the interests of my members in the halls of Congress, and, more importantly, in the offices of Congressional staff.
I must hire a firm that has the right expertise, and I will want to hire one that has a track record of successfully influencing legislation. I expect the firm I hire to maintain close contact with my association, to understand our interests, and to faithfully represent them. I expect to be kept informed of the progress of pending legislation and notified of any developments that might affect my members. Above all, I expect the firm I hire to remember who they work for. And I will not be shy about bringing suit, or even charges, against that firm should malfeasance or outright fraud demand it.
Fortunately for my association, the voters are not getting the same sort of representation. In fact, I rest confident they’re not getting much of anything.
A member of Congress receives a paycheck from the faceless United States Treasury, emblematic of the fact that he or she works for no one and reports to no one, their pretty speeches to the contrary notwithstanding.
After gaining office and swearing to uphold the Constitution, the member is now in business for himself. He’ll hire someone to handle “constituent services”, like nominations to a military academy, flags, and souvenir letters. “Are you celebrating your 50th wedding anniversary…or another special occasion,” reads one House website, “and would like to receive a note of congratulations from the President of the United States? My office will be happy to help.”
Come recess, and he’ll head home to shake hands, make speeches, and fan the flames of whatever passions may smolder in people sheltered from the actual workings of government and ignorant of the underpinnings of the economy. But very much not to make a report to his employers. They aren’t his employers.
If my law firm conducted affairs in this way, I’d make it my mission to get every lawyer on my retainer permanently disbarred.
Let us suppose there was a time when any citizen with a sense of integrity could have made a capable legislator, serving a term or two out of civic duty, and then retiring gracefully to private life. If that time ever existed, it is well behind us. It is more the rule than the exception today that we must habitually entrust our interests in the hands of others, people we are entitled to believe are trained, qualified, and alive to their duty of care. Doctors. Lawyers. Engineers. Accountants.
But not members of Congress.
It is a curious omission, existing perhaps because the Constitution dates to a time when a yeoman farmer might live out his entire adult life personally responsible for every facet of it. ‘Fiduciary duty’ was an unheard-of job description, at least where most people lived.
A lot has happened in a quarter of a millennium. We face a rising power in the east led by powerful officials who, while not elected, can be held accountable for corruption or failure in quite personal ways. Imprisonment, for example. Meanwhile, our legislators might create one disaster after another without endangering their jobs, if they can keep enough voters inflamed, and without endangering their pensions if they can’t.
Democracy will never be a well-oiled machine. It’s principles will never attain the purity of religious tenets. The people will never abandon their biases. Our system of government needs to thrive in spite of all that, which strikes me as increasingly unlikely with 535 national legislators owing a duty of care to no one.