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Bernstein focuses on the U.S. Congress constituent services, and the fact that Americans do not have equal access to their political representative. Bernstein suggests that Americans who contribute to the political representatives are far more likely to get access. In addition, political representatives are potentially burden with numerous citizens: for example, in Wyoming two senators represent 568,000 citizens, and in California 37 million citizens. Congress's operating budget has grown from $2.5 billion in 2000 to $4.7 billion in 2010.
The issue at stake as Bernstein articulates is micro management versus macro management, or special interest versus people's interest as a whole, and the increasing financial burden of catering to special interests.
A Congress for the Many, or the Few?
By Fred A. Bernstein
.... Instead, [the U.S. Congress] is busy helping Americans one at a time, an impractical and outrageously expensive operation, which is not only a kind of favoritism masquerading as compassion, but a thumb in the eye of the Constitution, with its much admired blueprint for separation of powers.
The authors of the Constitution were clear: Congress would make the laws, and the executive branch would see that they were carried out. Instead, a vast constituent-services machine, likely costing billions of dollars a year, is letting Congress micro-, not macro-manage, the executive branch.
Visit the Web site of virtually any senator or representative, and you’ll see a statement like the one by Senator Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, which promises constituents that solving their “individual difficulties” is “among my highest priorities.”
But solving people’s problems individually takes the pressure off Congress to solve society’s problems generally. By providing constituent services, Congress is like a fire department that doesn’t put out fires, but simply rescues those who scream the loudest. The danger is that “as constituent service becomes such a prominent part of the job, legislative duties suffer,” writes Dennis F. Thompson, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard. He describes such casework, “unmentioned in the Constitution” and “unimagined by the founders,” as a brand of low-level corruption.
That’s because Congress can hobble any agency that doesn’t do its bidding. Every time a Congressional staffer contacts an executive agency on behalf of a constituent, there’s an implicit threat: cooperate, or else.
.... It’s particularly galling when the constituents served are also campaign contributors. But Congress shouldn’t be pulling strings for anyone. A properly operating legislature apportions benefits and burdens in a way that balances competing interests. But the ability to “manage” the problems of individuals relieves senators and representatives of the obligation to conduct that balancing. And open debate, the hallmark of any democratic system, is missing. Constituent services is an unrepresentative function of what is meant to be the representative branch.
Eugene Volokh, a professor of constitutional law at U.C.L.A., believes public officials should have the same right to petition the government as private citizens; in fact, he says, it may be “important to have the unelected administrators be accountable to many democratically elected representatives, and not just to one distant and very busy president.”
Which sounds good, if you think Congress can be trusted to look out for the many while making phone calls for the few. But it can’t.
Constituent-services operations, no matter how vast, can’t help more than a tiny fraction of Americans. Particularly likely to receive assistance are the English-speaking, the educated, and the connected, who can write the most convincing letters, or make the largest campaign contributions. For that reason, according to Richard L. Revesz, the dean of the N.Y.U. law school, “the practice has negative effects on due process values.”
Nor do Americans have equal access to their legislators. Each state has two senators, who may represent as few as 568,000 people (Wyoming) or more than 37 million (California). But it’s not just about numbers. Some representatives are focused more on legislating than on casework, which is to their credit — but try telling that to their constituents, who may have a harder time getting government benefits than residents of other states.
And who pays for their exercise in misrepresentation? Congress’s operating budget — the money it spends on itself — grew to about $4.7 billion in 2010 from about $2.5 billion in 2000 — an increase of more than 80 percent.
It’s hard to know exactly how much of that money goes to constituent services. But conversations with former Congressional staffers suggest that many of the people working on the Hill, and nearly all of those in district offices, are focused on helping constituents.
The administrative costs are only the tip of the iceberg. A high proportion of constituent-services cases involves attempts to wrest benefits from the government (Veterans Affairs, the Social Security Administration) or to keep it from collecting money owed it (the I.R.S.). Aren’t the legislators just getting people benefits they are entitled to already? If the cases were open-and-shut, the constituent wouldn’t need the help in the first place.
Yes, executive agencies require oversight, but their decisions are already reviewed by administrative law judges — federal employees who, unlike representatives or senators, aren’t seeking votes and campaign contributions. And, as a last resort, there are the courts, which, for all their inefficiencies, have the virtue of independence.
Other protections can be put in place, but they shouldn’t be the province of individual legislators. Congress was never meant to be a retail operation.
Fred A. Bernstein is a journalist and a lawyer in New York.
Question for Readers:
Is there a value (character) deficiency in the U.S. Congress and politics in general that has contributed to the focus on special interests?