Seeking Independence

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Every year around the 4th of July an old, uncomfortable question always comes to mind for me: exactly how independent are our representatives in Washington?

For years I thought a good way to measure this would be to establish some kind of Independence Quotient (IQ) for members of Congress – a formula that would take into consideration all those elements that tend to divide, not reinforce, their responsibilities to their constituents.

Elements like the following:

What proportion of their campaign funds – the mother’s milk that every politician has to raise to keep their seat – comes from outside their home state?

How much comes from lobbyists? You can make the argument that local people give to their congressman or senator because they believe in them. But lobbyists in Washington? Their job is to represent their clients, not the public at large. That’s anti-independence money all the way.

How much comes from interest groups with business before the committees the member sits on? In other words, if they’re on the Appropriations or Armed Services Committee, how much are they getting from defense contractors? If they’re on Commerce, how much are the telecom companies pouring into their reelection fund? If they’re deciding energy policy, how much are the oil companies kicking in?

What about other economic pressures, even within their own district? With Congress debating the possible end to inheritance taxes for people with multi-million dollar estates, how many of those $1,000 campaign contributions came from people with personal fortunes above $5 million – people who’d be directly affected? That’s a pretty narrow slice of the U.S. population, but I suspect a much larger slice among those contributing serious money to congressional campaigns.

Face it, delivering $1,000 checks to politicians isn’t something most people do – especially in a country that’s always had a deep suspicion of politicians. Yet every year our representatives in Washington collect dozens or even hundreds of checks that big. Not all of them are coming from people whose only desire is good government for all.

Is there a good side at all? Raising money for the next election is something almost no politicians enjoy, but they’ve all got to do it. Are there any ways to collect it that won’t compromise their independence in representing their constituents? Sure. Small contributions from people who live in the district are a good measure of local support, and they don’t distract from the representative’s main duty: watching out for the people back home.

But I confess: after all these years, I still haven’t figured out exactly how to turn all those plusses and minuses into a workable Independence Quotient – and no doubt members with low IQ’s would rise up with some indignation that the measurement was unfair.

So okay, I won’t insist on an IQ level for every member of Congress. But even without it, I’d like to see more independence from our representatives, more pressures in Washington that tie them to their district rather than splitting their loyalties.

A good way to begin would be simply by acknowledging that those anti-independence pressures are out there. Every member of Congress understands well that they have to keep two sets of constituents happy: the real constituents who’ll be voting in the next election, and the cash constituents whose money it will take to run that election campaign. We should never forget that dilemma they face: the more it costs to win election, the more dependent they become on the goodwill not of the public at large, but of those who are able to write big checks, and motivated to do it.

But enough of politics on a national holiday. Enjoy that barbeque. Have fun at the fireworks. And when you see that American flag marching down the avenue this 4th of July, give just a moment’s thought to the concept of independence – how important it was in the founding of our country, and how important it remains today.

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