The new class of lawmakers will contain the highest number of members with no experience of elective office in decades, likely since 1948, when there were 44 such House members elected....The NRCC gushed, "Their lack of political experience was and is their best asset." The Times mused that "It remains to be seen how much impact the new class of inexperienced politicians will have on legislative matters." And Norm Ornstein suggested, "A lot of the members coming in believe what they've seen on television, that all you have to do is do the right thing and it will happen."
I'd posit that we may now be paying the price for that cluelessness. The Congress we have now is as dysfunctional a bunch as I remember seeing, and surely part of that comes from a complete lack of knowledge about how to legislate. Allen West may have been correct about the original intention of the Founders to have citizen lawmakers who serve and return home, but the Founders never pictured representatives who relied so much on their staffs. Congress starts to look like certain embassies, where the Big Name is simply for show and the little people behind the scenes do all the work.
Now we're facing a similar "Why not me?" from the other side of the aisle, as dozens of would-be representatives leap into the fray. In the 19th, there are six Dems eager to take on Faso: a deacon, a lawyer, a small business owner, a former Cuomo press aide, a teacher, and a cyber security entrepreneur with a degree from West Point. In the 23rd, we have a retired cardiologist, a retired Air Force colonel, a teacher, a small business owner, a cyber security entrepreneur, a lawyer, a minister, and a guy who worked for the Congressional Budget Office. If they sound interchangeable, well, there you go. Theoretically, citizen lawmakers come in all types, but apparently there is some crossover.
I won't broadly state that you shouldn't run for Congress without some legislative or executive experience. Elizabeth Warren did it, and she's done just fine. It may have helped that she'd spent two years chairing a Congressional Oversight Panel and knew a bit about Washington ways, or that she's a Big Brain and a quick study, but it is certainly true that she walked into the Senate without ever having served in a village, town, county, or state government.
However, she may be the exception that proves the rule. When I look at candidates, I want to know their opinions about problems and issues, sure. But I also want some sense of how they might perform at their job. That's not just about public speaking, although that's a piece of it. It's about understanding where the divides are among federal, state, and local law and how the three fit together. It's about constituent support and reading skills and ability to draft legislation without leaving the brunt of it to some staffer.
It's great that a handful of the candidates in 19 and 23 have done some committee or planning board work. It's nice that a few have lobbied for pet issues or are married to policy analysts. And it's absolutely true that we haven't done that well even when we've had longtime legislators in charge.
I liked Matt McHugh, who was never a legislator, although he served as Tompkins County District Attorney and as a State Democratic Committee member before running for Congress. I also liked Maurice Hinchey, who was a member of the State Assembly for many years before his time in Congress. I respected Amo Houghton, who walked into Congress from the business world. And I can't stand Claudia Tenney, who was an assemblywoman before winning the Congressional seat from the 22nd.
So maybe there's no reason for me to get my back up over the number of people running for Congress without having paid their dues and learned the ropes. Maybe it's fine to have citizen lawmakers fresh off the boat from whatever profession they currently occupy. After all, I'm for term limits; I don't want people overstaying their welcome in government.
But I'd feel so much more comfortable if I had a little more to go on than just "What I believe is what you believe." Bad enough that it's amateur hour at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.