A Republic of Special Interests

RICHARD REEVES

May 15, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES. — Los Angeles -- I am not persuaded that Ross Perot has the stuff -- ''endurance, perseverance and agility,'' John Kennedy called it -- to last more than a couple of months on the national political scene, but before he fades, I hope he might be able to do something for his country: Begin a dialogue about the processes of American democracy.

For more than 10 years, Mr. Perot has been pushing the idea of ''electronic town meetings'' -- weekly or monthly polls of the electorate by television or telephone after intensive issue education and debate on prime-time television -- constituting a kind of super-Congress. Whatever you think of that one, it is an idea, and we need more of them to break out of the big-money political prison of election laws ranging from unfair to ridiculous that has been built over our apathetic bodies.

The architects are a new class of professional candidates who no longer represent people or even the interests of states, regions or communities. America, for worse rather than better, is outgrowing its political boundaries -- in Washington and in many of the big state capitals -- and professional legislators have seized both the moment and more power than they should have.

In Washington, we have a true Republic of Special Interests, with senators and representatives competing to represent attention-getting causes or money-getting businesses.

From among the big interests and issues -- abortion, aerospace, the pharmaceutical industry, international banking, unions, the U.S. Navy and its suppliers, to choose a random sample -- ''our'' persevering representatives take their pick, so long as no other member of Congress has been agile enough to get there first.

That kind of work and its rewards -- getting on television or onto rich political-action committee lists -- has nothing to do with whether a man or woman came to Washington in the name of Alabama or Alaska. The name of the Capitol game is to find an issue or agenda that interests a diminishing press or expanding PACs.

In Sacramento, capital of the biggest and richest of the states, California, state senators now represent far more people than congressmen. There are 40 Senate districts representing more than 30 million Californians -- almost 800,000 people per senator -- and that number is still growing every day. And, like most state legislatures, the California Senate and Assembly (there are 80 assemblymen and women) routinely consider matters at the micro-management level. It is, if you prefer a bit of hyperbole, a form of nit-picking totalitarianism.

Beyond education and taxes and a couple of other biggies, the issues in Sacramento and other capitals beg for men and women with the endurance to handle laws down to the level of you-must-paint-your-door-blue-if-you-liv e-on-the-south- 6 " side-of-the-street -- and don't forget you need three permits on how that might affect cyclists, pine trees and rabbis and mullahs in the former Soviet Union.

It can't be done. No representative on the nit-picking level can get close to 800,000 different people. The volume of grunt-work inevitably drives legislators away from the people who once were constituents and neighbors right into a professional political class, and then, in some cases, drives them right into overcrowded state penitentiaries. Three members of the current California Senate are there or just under indictment -- three of 40.

That kind of legislative overload, I must hasten to say, is the product of the legislators themselves. Long hours justify more perks and more staff to make even more work. There is a Parkinson's Law in there someplace: Elected officials' work expands to fill the amount of staff allotted to each.

Who holds these overworked lawmakers to account -- aside from district attorneys and federal prosecutors? Well, it is supposed to be the press, but there is less and less of that -- and most of what's left in both print and television concentrates now on what people want rather than on musty old maxims about giving readers and viewers what they need to know.

So, because of trends we can control and many we cannot, politically and governmentally, we are moving into the same kind of infrastructure collapse that is happening on old roads and bridges and sewer lines. That is part of the reason voters don't vote anymore, which doesn't much bother the rest of us who sometimes wonder why we still do it.

Incumbents, though, like the lower and lower turnouts. What they fear is unpredictable multitudes.

I would like to see new voters and new candidates -- someone agrees with me, because California voters have now mandated term limits in the Legislature -- along with reduced staffs and less federal and state business. For my money -- and that's whose it is -- a bare-bones Legislature should meet for a couple or three months each year to consider big stuff, truly statewide problems and legislation. It seems basic to me that the workings of democracy and the republic have to be comprehensible to its citizens -- or citizenship loses its meaning and value.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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