Monday, April 15, 2013

America: Put Up or Shut Up

This is not a political blog, and I usually don't drag politics onto it, but I've been chewing on this post for a while. So, here we go...

Okay, I think I speak for pretty much every American when I say that our current political climate sucks. It really does. The general consensus seems to be that our legislators—mostly career politicians—are out of touch with the lives of the American people. All over the country, hand-wringing and earnest political discussions pepper meals, car rides, water cooler conversations, and social media. Everyone’s worried, everyone’s upset, and everyone knows exactly what the problem is.

“Congress,” we all say with knowing nods. “They’re corrupt, and greedy, and out of touch. Just a bunch of rich white guys looking to get themselves re-elected and have their pockets lined by big corporations.” And then we shake our fists at the sky because Congress sucks and there’s (allegedly) nothing we can do about it.

I’m not here to argue that Congress is a room full of misunderstood saints. Quite the contrary. What I want to point out is the thing that doesn’t help any of us: Armchair legislators. We all have solutions in mind, and we all know what Congress should be doing, and we’re all angry about the things Congress is doing. Usually it’s the fault of those from the other political party, so the Republicans point at the Democrats, the Democrats point at the Republicans, and not a damned thing gets done. Kind of like in Congress.

The thing is, folks, for all we want to fix America, we’re collectively not doing very much about it.

According to Wikipedia, there were 33 seats up for grabs in the U.S. Senate during the 2012 election. When the votes were tallied, 21 of those seats went to incumbents. In 2010, 21 of 34 seats also went to incumbents.

In two elections, with 67 opportunities, we elected 25 new Senators and kept 42 incumbents.

The 2012 results in the House weren’t much better. In the state of Arkansas, there were four seats up for grabs with three incumbents running. All three were re-elected. Out of California’s 53 seats, only 7 representatives lost their re-election, and 35 incumbents won (remaining seats were either new seats or representatives who didn’t seek re-election). In over half of the states and all U.S. territories, every incumbent seeking re-election won.  Only New Hampshire saw a complete turnover, with both incumbents losing re-election. Overall, only 26 incumbents lost.

Let’s read that again:

In more than half of the states, and all U.S. territories such as Guam and Puerto Rico, every incumbent seeking re-election won.

So, for all we complain about Congress being the problem and Congress not getting the job done… we’re, um, not doing a heck of a lot to change it.

Seriously. What should we do if our legislators suck? Quite simply, stop re-electing them.

Let me draw your attention back to the above figures.

67 chances for new Senators. 25 new Senators obtained.  Over half of the states re-electing 100% of their incumbents to the House. We complain that Congress is the problem, and yet we were only compelled to vote out 26 representatives.

Now, do all of those legislators suck? Of course not. Heaven help us if they did. But if Congress really isn’t doing what we expect Congress to do, why do we keep re-electing the majority of the people in Congress?

If a legislator is awesome and ethical and actually doing their job, then by all means, keep them. But I find it hard to believe that the vast majority of our legislators are awesome and ethical and actually doing their jobs, or we wouldn’t all be complaining about how Congress isn’t getting anything done.

So what do we do if they’re not doing what we elected them to do?

Vote. Them. Out.

Okay, but what happens when that legislator runs against someone who’s even worse? Or what happens when they run unopposed?

That, my friends, is where we need to step up. This is where the government needs to start being a bit more “by the people.” Those words weren’t meant to be lip service. We as American people have a responsibility to make sure we are governed “by the people,” and that doesn’t mean “by someone else who hopefully won’t screw me over.”  It doesn’t mean “by the Democrats or the Republicans, depending on who has the majority.”

It means us. It means you, it means me. It means we need to run, and it means we need to vote. When the options on the ballot are not good enough, then there is only one solution left:

We need to get our butts out of our armchairs and put those butts into the seats currently occupied by the butts of irresponsible, unethical, corrupt, and dishonest politicians.

If we want to see things change, we need to make those things change. We are not without power, and we are not without responsibility. I don’t think it’s enough to call your congressman. I don’t think it’s enough to write to your congressman. I don’t think it’s enough to pass around memes on social media and hold up signs at demonstrations.

Don’t call your congressman. Be your congressman.

Think about it. There are 33 or 34 seats in the U.S. Senate up for grabs every four years. In the House, there are 435 seats. That means that in 2014, there are 468 opportunities for American citizens to occupy seats in the United States Congress.

Four hundred sixty-eight seats, folks.

And that’s not counting all the seats available in state legislatures.

You want things to change? You want your voice heard?

Then do something.

Get off your butt and get on the ballot. Don’t have a lot of money for a campaign? Use social media. Contact your local media. Work together to promote a potential candidate. Make some noise, folks! We live in a time of unprecedented ability to transmit and receive information. If a music video can get millions of hits on YouTube and turn someone into a global celebrity virtually overnight, then there’s no reason a potential candidate can’t reach their voters, get noticed, and get elected.

If the only way someone can get elected in this day and age is still to be a rich, party-backed candidate who charms and smooth-talks his way into the hearts of voters, then we have no one to blame but ourselves, the voters who allow ourselves to be won over like that. We can reach people, and we the people can be reached.

“But I can’t run for Congress! I’m not a politician or a lawyer!”  You don’t need to be. There is no such requirement to get into Congress. And we don’t need more politicians or lawyers. We need people who are willing to raise their voices, rattle some cages, and approach legislation from the point-of-view of the people who will be affected the most by that legislation: everyday Americans.

We need people who will raise unpopular measures like Congressional term limits and pay cuts, forcing those in Congress to decide if holding onto that cushy paycheck is worth the backlash when it comes time for re-election. The only way things like that will pass is via Constitutional amendments, which means someone with a butt in a chair in Congress needs to get the ball rolling. We can start all the online petitions we want, but if we want something like this to actually happen, it needs to make it into Congress. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a lot of faith in our current seat-occupants that someone will propose, let alone push, something like that.

“But I don’t know how to be a good politician/Congressman/etc!” Quite frankly, neither do the people currently occupying Congress. We need our voices to be heard by Congress, and at this point, I think that means getting a few of us into Congress. We don’t need to be experts on political strategy and smooth-talking to see when a bill—and the people discussing it—don’t have our best interests in mind.

And whether you get yourself on the ballot or not, vote!

Seriously, people. Vote! Don’t like the incumbent running in your district? Vote him or her out!  Research your candidates. Read about them. Vote for the person whose ideas align with your own, not the one who looks slick in a suit and kisses babies for the camera. Vote for the one who’s as tired as you are of the way things are, not the one who happens to be in the same political party you usually vote for. Vote for someone because he or she makes sense, not because he or she has a catchy slogan and shiny campaign signs.

If you can’t take the time to know who you’re voting for and make an informed, responsible decision, then don’t take up my time complaining about how Congress isn’t doing what they’re elected—and paid—to do.

So let’s say people get off their butts and get elected. Now what?

Now it’s time to get to work. Time to rattle some cages and get some stuff done. Such as?

For starters, since they can only happen via Constitutional amendments, I propose:
·         Congressional term limits.
·         A significant pay cut for legislators and the President.

What if these don’t pass?  Well, voting records are public. If your congressman doesn’t like the idea of a pay cut or a term limit and can’t offer a satisfactory explanation, or if you simply don’t like how he votes on issues that matter to you, he doesn’t have to be re-elected.

So, Lori. Are you going to put up or shut up too?  Yes, I am. Residency requirements are proving to be a sticky wicket after I’ve moved several times thanks to the military, and I will likely move again between now and the 2014 election. However, if I can iron out those details, I will be putting my name out there as well. 

In closing, I think we’ve all had enough, and it’s time to make some changes. If we can’t rely on our legislators to make those changes—and judging by the incumbency rate, I’d say most of them have had ample opportunity—then we need to get in there and do it ourselves. Which means we need to get ourselves on the ballots, and we need to stop voting in the same old faces who apparently can’t get a damned thing done.

It’s time, America. Put up or shut up.