This may sound strange, but I wonder if I may have been too hard on politicians.
I am quite serious, but perhaps that statement requires some explanation. I’ll begin with a confession.
It brings me sadness to admit it, but every so often, I tune in to watch some of the debate on the floor at the state legislature. I hope my readers will not judge me too harshly for this weakness.
The funny thing is, I can’t explain why I do it.
This compulsion is fueled by some sort of strange fascination, rather like a bird watching a snake. I want to turn away, but I can’t.
Fortunately, this bizarre obsession is generally short-lived. Before long, I am able to snap out of it and turn off the television or leave the room.
It is the time I am under the strange hypnosis and watching our elected officials in action that makes me wonder if I have been too hard on them.
Just the other day I watched part of the Senate debate about adding an amendment to a bill.
It was then that it struck me.
For a long time, I have been under the impression that most politicians are mendacious, incompetent, or both.
As I watched the proceedings, it occurred to me I may have been wrong.
Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that there are some honest politicians out there. I realize that may seem unlikely, but let us suppose it is true.
While we are supposing, let us also suppose that there are politicians who are open-minded, willing to accept new information, and have the best interest of their constituents in mind. That may seem improbable, but bear with me for a moment.
My hypothesis is this: even in the unlikely event that some honest men and women slipped through the cracks and got themselves elected, and even if those men and women were sincerely trying to do the right thing, the environment in which our elected officials operate has become so corrupted and dysfunctional, it is impossible for logical, practical, or efficient ideas to succeed.
Even if one of our hypothetical honest politicians were to present a proposal that was pure, simple, and would benefit every citizen in the state with no negative consequences, and even if every member in the room agreed with the proposal, it could not pass.
Such was the case during the debate I listened to last week, and to many I have heard in the past.
I didn’t hear a single person say he was against the amendment. In fact, most of the members who spoke expressed support for it.
But the litany of other things the members found to argue about was truly impressive.
Some argued about precedent and procedure.
Others spoke of holding legislation hostage.
One member indicated he was offended by comments others had made prior to the debate, and therefore refused to support the amendment even if he agreed with it.
There was discussion of trading and positioning and a general airing of grievances, but what I did not hear was any offers of compromise.
I was reminded of a line from the old Jefferson Airplane song, “White Rabbit,” about “when logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead.”
The more I listen to our elected officials at work, the more astonished I am they get anything done at all.
Think about that. If you can have a roomful of people who all agree with something, but will vigorously fight against it based on a wide range of factors that have little or nothing to do with the legislation in front of them, we have a problem.
When one party or special interest group can prevent legislation from moving forward unless it gets something else it wants in exchange, we have a problem.
When passage of legislation has nothing to do with the merits of a bill, but everything to do with petty arguments and political gamesmanship, we have a problem.
I am prepared to concede that it may not be the fault of individual legislators if they fail to succeed in St. Paul. If by some fluke an honest man were to find his way into the legislature, the deck is already stacked against him, and he has virtually no chance to make any meaningful changes.
This does raise another question, however.
If the system is broken, and individual legislators are powerless to change it, who is going to fix it?