We saw one inducement to it in Florida, in the chaos after the 2000 presidential balloting. The state legislature had made it a requirement that election returns be certified no later than seven days after the balloting. The Florida state supreme court ruled that seventeen days must be allowed...and the legislature did nothing.
We saw an egregious case of it in the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act, a darling of the odious John McCain that purported to reduce the influence of “big money” on elections. The proponents could not have failed to know that their bill was unConstitutional. For that matter, President George W. Bush, who signed it, said as much but signed it anyway. It was left to the Supreme Court to strike it down. Its legislative proponents merely shrugged and continued onward.
We saw an eruption of it in New York State’s Orwellian “SAFE Act.” That act, as written, outlaws the use of detachable rifle or pistol magazines that hold more than seven rounds. Many supposed defenders of the right to keep and bear arms voted for that bill...realizing only afterward that it criminalizes the use of virtually every firearm owned by anyone in the state, as no magazines that small are available for most such rifles. Yet the legislature did nothing, instead allowing Andrew Cuomo to decree, by “executive order,” that the ban would not be enforced just yet.
We saw a major explosion of it in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare), as legislators openly voted to pass a bill of whose contents they were utterly ignorant. When it developed that a key provision of the Act, expressly designed to induce the states to erect “health care exchanges” by the open admission of one of its chief architects, failed to produce the desired conformity among the states, not one of the bill’s legislative proponents stepped forward to say “Yes, we meant it to operate this way.” Instead they allowed John Roberts et alii to claim telepathic powers and rule on what they “intended.”
Congressmen and United States Senators take oaths to the Constitution, which defines their offices. State legislators take similar oaths to their states’ constitutions or charters. Then they proceed to violate those oaths, serene in the knowledge that nothing will be done to them for doing so. As icing on this distasteful cake, they routinely pass bills that delegate, de facto, lawmaking power to unelected bureaucrats: persons who can’t even be turned out of office electorally.
Federal legislators receive salaries of $175,000 per year for their “labors.” That’s apart from their franking privileges, travel privileges, office budgets, the salaries of their staffs, and so forth, which easily total to eight figures once all the bills are paid. State legislators are remunerated less opulently -- $79,500 per year in New York, exclusive of expenses – but still well above the average salaries of their constituents. At those prices, you’d think that you have a right to hold them accountable for their performances.
You’d be wrong.
It is the case, apparently immune to “wave elections” or similar upheavals among Us the People, that a legislator, once elected, can reasonably expect to remain in “his position” until he chooses to retire. They’re harder to get rid of than an infestation of roaches, a species with which they share more characteristics than that one alone.
I hardly need comment on the many documented cases of felonious behavior among legislators. Those tend to make headlines, at least in certain fora. The ones that involve sexual misconduct are especially salacious, but the ones that involve sale of access and influence have far more serious impact upon our notions of governmental integrity. After all, we can’t help but wonder: For every one we catch, how many others do we miss?
Ferdinand Lundberg put it most memorably:
...it is a settled conclusion among seasoned observers that, Congress apart as a separate case, the lower legislatures -- state, county, and municipal -- are Augean stables of misfeasance, malfeasance, and nonfeasance from year to year and decade to decade, and that they are preponderantly staffed by riffraff, or what the police define as "undesirables," people who if they were not in influential positions would be unceremoniously told to "keep moving." Exceptions among them are minor. Many of them, including congressmen, refuse to go before the television cameras because it is then so plainly obvious to everybody what they are. Their whole demeanor arouses instant distrust in the intelligent. They are, all too painfully, type-cast for the race track, the sideshow carnival, the back alley, the peep show, the low tavern, the bordello, the dive. Evasiveness, dissimulation, insincerity shine through their false bonhomie like beacon lights....
As to other legislatures, Senator Estes Kefauver found representatives of the vulpine Chicago Mafia ensconced in the Illinois legislature, which has been rocked by one scandal of the standard variety after the other off and on for seventy-five years. What he didn't bring out was that the Mafians were clearly superior types to many non-Mafians.
Public attention, indeed, usually centers on only a few lower legislatures -- Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, California and Illinois -- and the impression is thereby fostered in the unduly trusting that the ones they don't hear about are on the level. But such an impression is false. The ones just mentioned come into more frequent view because their jurisdictions are extremely competitive and the pickings are richer. Fierce fights over the spoils generate telltale commotion. Most of the states are quieter under strict one-party quasi-Soviet Establishment dominance, with local newspapers cut in on the gravy. Public criticism and information are held to a minimum, grousers are thrown a bone, and not many in the local populace know or really care. Even so, scandalous goings-on explode into view from time to time in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Missouri and elsewhere -- no state excepted. Any enterprising newspaper at any time could send an aggressive reporter into any one of them and come up with enough ordure to make the Founding Fathers collectively vomit up their very souls in their graves.
[The Rich and the Super-Rich, 1968]
Somehow I doubt that Lundberg, were he still among the living, would continue to except the United States Congress, especially considering how gaining a seat in that body seems guaranteed to make its occupant wealthy. Rare is the U.S. legislator whose net worth is less than $5 million; I cannot name one whose net worth is less than $1 million. The usual derisive dismissal is to comment that “we have the best legislators money can buy.” Whose payrolls they occupy is left to the hearer’s imagination.
Now that the courts, both state and federal, appear willing to rewrite their laws for them, what more can we expect? Considering that they normally continue in office despite any and all departures from integrity – does anyone else remember the censure of Charlie Rangel, long a ranking member of the tax-writing House Ways and Means committee, for not paying his taxes? – what prospect is there of compelling them to walk the line?
When irresponsibility among those with authority goes unpunished, it tends to increase. It’s certainly increased among “our elected representatives” in the decades since World War II. So has the average tenure in office of those...persons, a phenomenon for which We the People bear the odium. After all, isn’t “turning the rascals out” our responsibility?
Of course, there is what H. L. Mencken said:
The government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government. They have only talent for getting and holding office. Their principal device to that end is to search out groups who pant and pine for something they can’t get and promise to give it to them. Nine times out of ten that promise is worth nothing. The tenth time it is made good only by looting A to satisfy B. In other words, government is a broker in pillage and every election is a sort of an advance auction sale of stolen goods.
At each election we vote in a new set of politicians, insanely assuming that they are better than the set turned out. And at each election we are, as they say in Motherland, done in.
How about it, Gentle Reader? Do you still think your vote matters? Do you still believe that “elections have consequences” – consequences of the sort you would favor? Would you still vote to return “your” Congressman or Senator to office on the grounds that “he’s better than the other guy” or that “we can’t afford to lose his seniority?”