Is Congress out of touch with average Americans and the businesses that employ them?
According to a national magazine poll taken in the wake of the U.S. House of Representatives check writing scandal, the answer may be yes. In that poll, 75% of respondents said they agreed with the statement that members of Congress do not "understand the problems and concerns of people like you."
A more recent national poll gives Congress a mere 17% approval rating.
Whether this will translate into a political blood bath for incumbents in November, as some predict, remains to be seen. A slight majority of Americans still seem to have faith in their own congressional representatives.
But many pundits have cited what they call a growing belief that Congress has lost touch with the values of the American people.
A better question, however, may be: To what extent has Congress ever been in touch with the American people?
Billionaire industrialist and possible third-party presidential candidate H. Ross Perot thinks he knows the answer to that question.
"They (Congress and the White House) just dont know what to do," Perot said, in a recent speech summing up the frustration many feel with politicians. "Most of them are either lawyers or career politicians. They dont understand business, so they just stand there frozen, worrying about their images, taking polls, bouncing personal checks and raising money from foreign lobbyists as the economy deteriorates."
The popular belief that Congress is dominated by lawyers is correct.
Data compiled by Robert Schmults of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, and Investors Business Daily, drawn from a variety of sources indicates that about 40% of the 535 members of Congress are attorneys. This includes over half of the senators.
Yet, a quick look at the material the congressmen provide to the various political directories and almanacs would also seem to indicate a strong presence of businessmen. Counting businesses ranging from investment brokers to ranchers to morticians to farmers, about 30% of congressmen consider themselves businessmen, or to have been one in the past.
But critics note there are several problems with this quick glance at the sheer numbers. One big problem is that some congressmen apparently exaggerate their business background, or indeed are listed as having such a background when they have none at all.
Consider Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which is responsible for legislation concerning taxation and appropriations.
Rostenkowski is identified in Congressional Quarterlys annual book, Whos Who in Congress, as being an insurance executive. But an aide to the congressmen says that he never worked in the field. He began his political career at the age of 24, following in the footsteps of his father, also a politician.
Rostenkowskis lifetime rating from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, indicating how often he voted in agreement with the pro-business Chamber position on legislation, is a mere 29%. In 1991, he rated 30%.
Other congressmen have worked for the private sector, but only in positions that did not really expose them to the daily workings of business and the economy.
"My guess is theres a lot of people who have listed themselves as businessman on their resume, but if thats a person who manufactured a product or was responsible for a payroll, or who hired and fired people, that number is very small indeed," Sen. Don Nickels, R-Okla., who has a cumulative 87 rating from the Chamber of Commerce and 100% for 1991, told Investors Business Daily.
He added: "In the Senate, its certainly not more than a handful."
Other businessmen/congressmen have had only a little business exposure, or left their businesses a generation or more ago when things were far different than now.
Such is the case with Donald W. Riegle, D-Mich., chairman of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee of the Senate. He is one of many congressmen who may be loosely identified as a businessman.
And although he has an MBA and has nearly completed a doctorate in Business and Government Relations at Harvard before being elected to Congress, his only working experience in business was in the finance department at IBM from 1961- 1963. His cumulative Chamber of Commerce rating is 27%, with a 1991 rating of only 10%.
Said Nickels, speaking of no specific member of Congress, such short-lived experience "just means they werent on the public payroll a couple of years."
Moreover, whatever the number of bona fide businessmen in Congress, few have found their way into the leadership positions on those congressional committees which have a strong impact on business or could benefit from someone with business experience.
John L. Jackley is the author of Hill Rat: Blowing The Lid Off Congress, a memoir of sorts of his decade as a congressional aide, to be published early next month by Regnery Gateway.
A Political Class
In an interview with Investors Business Daily, Jackley said of members of Congress generally, "they come from a professional political class."
"The political class," he said, "doesnt think and act like ordinary Americans. With few exceptions, theyve never had to meet a payroll. Theyre already divorced from the rest of the country when they get (to Congress) and for the most part it becomes even worse" the longer theyre there.
It is to break the stranglehold of this so-called political class that organizations have sprung up around the country demanding term limits for members of Congress and other offices.
Said Paul Jacob, campaign director of U.S. Limits in Washington, D.C., "A lot of people in Congress and state legislatures have never had a real job other than being a politician."
"Sometimes," he added, "youll hear someone saying you wouldnt want to force turnover at IBM, but serving as a representative of the people is totally different from any other job. Its not a matter of expertise. People in government need to be ethical and have a connection to the people they represent."
Jackley also points out that congressional staffers are far more powerful than most people believe, often telling their bosses how to vote or giving them information designed to influence their votes, and that, "youll find that the staff have even less of a business background than congressmen do."
"I didnt work with anyone who had a business background," he said. "They were either right out of college or they took jobs out of college in public affairs or politics that would lead to a job on the Hill."
Does Business Experience Matter?
But would it really make a difference if congressmen had more real world" experience?
Former senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern, who since leaving government has become the owner of a hotel in Connecticut, said that if he had had the experience of running a business before entering Congress, it would have changed his position on some issues.
Jack Peterson, director of political affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Terry Hill, a spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business Inc., both note that some non-businessmen can be sympathetic to the needs of business.
Both cited, for example, Sen. Alan Dixon, D-Ill. But even Dixon has a cumulative Chamber of Commerce rating of only 45%, and last year he rated just 10%. Only four senators voted less often on the side of the Chamber in 1991 than did Dixon.
Peterson also said that while he is "distressed" at the number of lawyers in Congress, some lawyers can also be considered businessmen and can have developed business acumen if they ran their own offices.
Aside from what is probably the small number of such attorneys in Congress, however, Mark Petrucca, a professor at the University of California in Irvine said the main problem with congressman/attorneys is "these people think in terms of clientele," not in terms of representing the people as a whole.
The outcome, he says, are politicians who become masters at getting things for constituents seeking help with the bureaucracy and in getting favors for special interests, but not in representing the people as a whole.
"I would be just as opposed to a Congress full of CPAs," he said.
"Representing is just that, to represent the people before a body. Anybody ought to be capable of representing somebody else."
Circular Argument For Lawyers
It is sometimes suggested that because we have a government of laws, it often takes a lawyer to navigate the bureaucracy. But Perruca said thats a "kind of circular argument" in that lawyers have set up and continue to maintain the system to cater to lawyers.
Said NFIBs Hill, "I think if you had a group of business owners running (the) House, you wouldnt have had that check-bouncing scandal. The government doesnt allow them to operate that way, why should it allow Congress to?"
NFIB works to get business owners to run for Congress and Hill says it has had some success this year. Nevertheless, he says, its "something of a catch-22" in that small businessmen are kept so busy these days complying with laws slapped on them by Congress that its difficult for them to find the time for a campaign.
"If they want to survive in business," he said, "theyve got to spend a good portion of their time handling the paperwork of this constant barrage of regulations."