Several weeks ago Senator Barbara Mikulski announced she was retiring at the end of this term. Unless you're a political junkie or a resident of Maryland that may not mean much to you. Around Annapolis where I live, however, it's big news. Mikulski, physically diminutive, is a powerful and polarizing presence.
Mikulski is also a classic example of that fixture of modern American political life, the professional politician. Mikulski has been in the United States Senate since 1987. She has held political office of some sort, virtually continuously, since 1971 when she was elected to the Baltimore City Council. When Mikulski first took office Richard Nixon was President, there were still 150,000 American troops in South Vietnam and Apple Computers hadn't even been founded yet.
That's a long time. Add to that the fact that prior to running for office Mikulski was essentially a community activist, and you have a picture of someone who has never really had a job in anything approaching the real world. She has never met a payroll. She has never worn the uniform in defense of her nation. She has never punched a time clock and pulled a night shift.
Mikulski is, of course, not unique. In fact, if anything, she is representative of the new normal in American politics, the career politician, who spends virtually all of his or her life running for office and climbing the ladder politically.
It was not always so. In the beginning, on a hillside in Athens, all of the citizens gathered to debate, to vote and to decide on matters of import. This was direct democracy. There was no such thing as a legislature. We, all of us, were the legislature, and participation in political life was as integral to existence as working a job, raising a family and putting food on the table.
Over the centuries, indirect forms of democracy evolved to deal with ever increasing populations and the complexity of the issues faced. Representatives were elected to represent their fellow citizens at assemblies and vote on their behalf. No longer did each citizen act directly as a member of the legislature, but still the representatives chosen were members of the community. They were fellow citizens, and, in many cases, they took turns shouldering the burden of serving in the assembly.
Representatives were not distant, unknown actors. They were members of your community, who you had probably known all your life. They knew your concerns, because they lived among you, and they had to contend with the same issues themselves. Democracy may have become indirect. It was still representative.
All that has changed. Our elected representatives, particularly those in Washington, have become members of a self-perpetuating class of professional politicians. In the 113th Congress, which concluded in 2014:
- 184 Congressmen listed their previous occupation as politics.
- 42 Senators listed their previous occupation as politics.
- 51 Senators had served in the House of Representatives before election to the Senate.
- 10 Senators were state governors before entering the Senate.
- 9 Senators and 24 Congressmen were mayors before entering Congress.
- 219 Congressmen were members of state legislatures before entering Congress.
- 43 Senators were members of state legislatures before entering Congress.
- At least 100 members of the Congress were former aides to other members of Congress.
Perhaps equally disturbing are the numbers on occupations in short supply:
- In all of Congress there were only 19 physicians.
- In all of Congress there were only 29 farmers or ranchers.
- In all of Congress there were only 106 veterans. That number included all individuals who had served in any branch of the military, active or reserve, at any time in their lives for any duration.
Imagine a Congress, faced with sorting out a highly dysfunctional and ruinously expensive health care system, in which only 19 of 535 members are physicians.
Imagine a Congress, trying to deal with complex issues of farm subsidies and economic threats to small towns and rural America, in which almost no one has ever lived on a farm, run a dairy or plowed a field.
Imagine a Congress, faced with an increasingly chaotic and dangerous world and the prospect of seemingly endless war, in which less than 20% of its members have ever even served in the military.
Never mind. You don't have to imagine. You only have to open your eyes, turn on the news and pick up a newspaper. The nightmare is real.
If you look at statistics on how long the average Congressman or Senator has been in office, you'll see a number that only tells you part of the story. No matter how long your Senator has been in office the likelihood is that he or she was in politics long before they ran for the Senate. In fact, increasingly, the odds are that your elected representative has been in politics his or her whole adult life and does not actually know anything about the real world in which you and I live.
Serving in office for this individual is not an honor, a public trust or an opportunity to apply a lifetime of experience to complex national issues. It is a job. For this individual the goals are clear, keep the job and climb the ladder.
Barbara Mikulski, career politician, is about to step down. There are plenty more like her. In fact, in my own congressional district, the Congressman, Steny Hoyer, is actually an even better example of someone who has literally spent his entire life in politics.
Steny was born in 1939. He graduated from college in 1963. He was already working as an aide to a US Senator at that time. In 1966 he graduated from law school, ran for office and took a seat in the Maryland State Senate. In 1981 he won a runoff election for a seat in the House. He's been there ever since.
When Mikulski first took office people were still numb from the shock of the Beatles breaking up and hoping they would reunite. When Hoyer first took office the Beatles were playing outdoor venues and the White Album was two years away from even being recorded.
That's a long time.
We claim to have a representative democracy. One of the keys to that claim is the premise that it is truly representative. Increasingly, that premise is in doubt. Increasingly, we are represented, not by fellow citizens, but by a separate political class.