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The decline of our democracy

Published Oct. 18, 2005

To see how far America has strayed from what some legal scholars define as "original intent," one need merely to read Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution. The framers ordered Congress to assemble "at least once in every year." That meeting, the Constitution says, "shall be on the first Monday in December," although a different day can be chosen by law.

Why the first Monday in December? Because it seemed like a reasonable time of the year to approve spending plans for the ensuing year. With due diligence, lawmakers could finish up within two weeks' time and be home in time for Christmas. (The fastest coaches took at least a week to make the journey from Philadelphia to Georgia.)

Who could have imagined the current spectacle of a year-round Congress paralyzed by chronic budget woes?

Back when this country got started, more than 200 years ago, all lawmakers were volunteers. A lawyer or a craftsman would suspend work for, at most, a month or two to attend to the public's business. Such tasks would be duly rotated among eligible citizens.

These days, a typical member of Congress serves 12 years. The longest serving member, Rep. Jamie Whitten, D-Miss., took his seat before the United States entered World War II.

Even after the advent of professional all-weather legislators, our politics retained an amateur cast. People who believed in a cause or a candidate volunteered their time _ to lick stamps, to knock on doors or to hand out leaflets.

No more. Now, volunteers are widely regarded as a pain in the anatomy. This is the era of hired guns: direct-mail specialists, computer programers, media gurus, poll takers, focus-group leaders, event-planners and fund-raisers. That cadre of professionals is hired to help pay the tab for all the other professional cadres.

"The modern campaign has become the equivalent of the B-2 bomber," says Fred Wertheimer, head of Common Cause, the citizens' lobby. "The campaign consultants have taken on the role of defense contractors . . . with gold-plated campaigns. We have a Pentagon philosophy _ with no discipline."

Occasional, sputtering efforts to reform the system serve to further escalate costs. These days, no serious candidate for federal office can go forward without retaining the services of high-priced attorneys steeped in election law and accountants to prepare balance sheets that conform to the arcane provisions of the Federal Election Campaign Act.

In 1976, Senate and House candidates spent $125-million seeking office. In 1988, they spent $460-million _ more than three times the intervening inflation rate. This year, they will undoubtedly spend more. And they will do so even though half the Senate incumbents and a higher proportion of House members remain, as Common Cause puts it, "financially unopposed."

Is it any wonder, then, that political insiders see limiting the length of time Senate and House members can serve as a hot new election issue for 1992? Raising his political weather vane, Vice President Dan Quayle has already donned his protective gear by endorsing such curbs.

A continuing decline in voter registration further swirls this vicious circle. Non-voters, studies show, often prove to be savvy people who nonetheless spurn what they regard as a corrupt system.

This is how the decline of the American democracy proceeds. It is hard to say how it will end. But if history proves a reliable guide, the outcome will not be cost-free to the republic.

Cox News Service