The Outstater: The Dukes of Democracy
“Be thankful we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for.” — Will Rogers
MEMBERS OF THE COFFEE GROUP are discouraged by the announcement that their senator will retire after only a single undistinguished term. The members, several of whom worked hard on this guy’s earlier campaigns, are searching for a better way to manage political succession.
They all agree that the system is broken. We don’t have public servants who are provided pensions but pensioners who occasionally provide the public a service. They are more likely to be candidates for defenestration than retirement.
Harry Truman returned to Independence after his presidency. His daily routine involved a walk through his neighborhood, greeting old friends along the way; a few hours writing in the study; lunch with more friends; a few more hours writing; another walk; dinner with Bess and to bed — all in the house from which his political career had begun three decades earlier.
How much did that cost? There was no phony foundation for Nigerian cash drops, no inflated speaking or consulting fees for the spouse and children, no personal jet. Today, even a county official can lay claim to enough of his neighbors’ tax money to escape to better company and more pleasant surroundings, freeing himself from the demeaning job of meeting the expectations of a bothersome constituency.
There is nothing wrong with paying men of this ilk to leave the state or, better, the country. There’s more to it than that, though, more to it than money — and we’re talking about piles of money.
The most powerful politicians not only retire comfortably but with a family fortune. Our nation, strangely and incongruously, seems to be drifting back toward peerage. The dukes, earls, barons and viscounts of democracy win their titles not on the field of battle but by crafting campaign promises.
On the desk are clippings that quantify this deviation from the Truman example:
- Fifty percent of retiring senators and 42 percent of retiring House members stay in D.C. and become lobbyists. That is compared with 3 percent in 1974.
- Last year, the combined net worth of members of Congress went from $150 million to $2.1 billion.
- The minimum net worth of the Senate is nearly $570 million, with 50 senators topping $1 million. The House has a minimum net worth of $1.53 billion, with at least 138 millionaires.
- Taxpayers paid a total of $3.5 million last year in pensions and benefits to the four living former presidents, including $2.25 million to just two of them — George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. (Franklin Roosevelt denied Herbert Hoover even a security detail.)
These are the fellows, please know, who want to means-test your Social Security check before they embark for the Caribbean. But again, the money only tracks a philosophical shift. More critical is the realization that we are losing our constitutional republic to pompous, self-serving frauds.
For nobody seriously thinks that a majority of Americans would approve payouts to such ingrates and expatriates. And nobody argues that the big money is justified by service. It is won trading favors — the favors of one special interest (the political class) for the favors of any of a thousand other special interests seeking government advantage.
If reform seems too painful, consider a return to an honest-to-goodness spoils system. Those who take bribes at least have an incentive to preserve the bribers. Thus the Pendergast Machine spits out a Harry Truman and Tammany Hall an Al Smith.
And if not that, then a heredity monarchy. It will deliver a Henry VIII or an Elizabeth I at least now and again.
— Craig Ladwig