A better way to elect a Congress

Fred A. Mael

December 16, 1992|By Fred A. Mael

REVIEWS of the print media's coverage of the 1992 presidential campaign have been mixed. On one hand, many papers and writers showed a concerted effort to focus on issues and candidates' track records instead of concentrating solely on tales from the campaign trail.

But we still were treated to tabloid-driven scandal-mongering, overdoses of polling, fund-raising and strategy news, and a tendency to rude and tendentious questioning and ill-concealed contempt for many of the players. The result was a partial attempt by candidates to bypass traditional outlets such as newspapers and network news, a phenomenon columnist Ken Auletta foresees as the "end of the boys on the bus."

So much for the presidency. What about Senate and congressional races? In Maryland, every local race featuring a single incumbent was a landslide: Sen. Barbara Mikulski garnered 71 percent of the vote, Rep. Kweisi Mfume 85 percent, Rep. Ben Cardin 74 percent and Rep. Helen Bentley 66 percent. My unscientific polling on Election Day confirmed that many voters didn't even know the challengers' names, and if not for straight party-line and pure anti-incumbent voters, the margins might have been even higher.

On reflection, there was minimal local coverage, either in op-ed pieces or articles, about the merits of the incumbents and their challengers. Those who started without name recognition finished that way. The little coverage was devoted to -- as usual -- polls, money raised and spent, and the occasional controversy (such as Mrs. Bentley's Serbian ties and Senate challenger Alan Keyes' spat with the GOP). Regardless of these incumbents' merits, the voters would have been better served by knowing more about their choices.

Perhaps reporters don't find the characters in congressional races sufficiently compelling. However, a good deal of the problem is that unlike the presidency, many voters and reporters are unclear as to what their congressmen are supposed to do, or the criteria by which to judge performance in office. Here are some suggestions for framing the issues in future races (coming less than two years).

* The dual role dilemma. A member of Congress is a legislator -- someone who needs to enact laws and make wise policy decisions that benefit the country as a whole. To do this, he or she should be working in tandem, if not with bipartisan coalitions, than at least with other like-minded peers. From this perspective, if your representative is incompetent or crooked, the more seniority he or she has, the better favor you would do yourself and all Americans by firing him or her and electing someone else.

But members of Congress also have evolved into lobbyists for constituents. They reflect not only the values of the state or district, but constituents' tangible interests and are expected to bring home largess, even at the expense of the country as a whole or of sensible national policy. The more seniority, the more strategically placed the member of Congress, the better for constituents.

From this perspective, all members of Congress are competitors who can avoid a zero-sum game only by trading (and escalating) favors. When your representative vows to "fight to bring good jobs to Maryland," he or she may need to generate pork-barrel projects to do so. Conversely, a so-called "tax-and-spend Democrat" may merely be taxing poor folks in Oregon and Oklahoma in order to spend in Maryland. Depending on your sensibilities, that may be at least a mixed blessing.

Which frames the question: How is the incumbent handling both roles? Which function is, or should be, a priority for voters? How would the challenger step into both roles? Rather than the junk mail paid for through overused franking privileges, voters need objective assessments of how their representatives perform. For example, the financial magazine Worth recently rated Helen Bentley first among the 10 most economically illiterate members of Congress, long on inflammatory, protectionist rhetoric, yet short on plausible solutions. Is the magazine's view correct, or are there dissenting, valid voices?

* Working with others. How effective is the member of Congress at working with other legislators and building coalitions? Does he or she work well with subordinates, ensuring the free flow of needed information? As an example, Senate staffers polled in Washingtonian magazine rated Senator Mikulski as the second-hottest temper in the Senate. Does that help or hinder her effectiveness? Similarly, if a challenger (like Ross Perot) has experience only as an entrepreneur, how can voters determine if he or she can function as a peer within a legislature without corroborating evidence?

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