- The Washington Times - Friday, January 27, 2006

Some people fear term limits for members of Congress or other elected officials will just put more power into the hands of the permanent government bureaucrats and congressional staffers.

This overlooks the fact that the powers of bureaucrats are set by elected officials, who can abolish whole bureaucracies if they wish, as the Civil Aeronautics Board was abolished, ending its protection of airline cartels. As for staffers, they are hired and fired by elected officials.

To judge any proposed reform, it should be compared with what exists. As things stand, congressional staffers are often young people with little or no experience in the real world outside politics. Their skills often are largely confined to the political; their highest priority is to get their bosses re-elected.

The power and the glamour of politics may attract many young people, even at salaries less than those available in the private sector. Yet it is extremely penny-wise and pound-foolish to let such people influence the nation’s destiny.

That influence can be considerable when members of Congress are too busy with public appearances and other activities designed to promote their political careers to personally read and master often complex legislation on which they must vote.

Staffers, like members of Congress, need salaries competitive with what seasoned, top-level private-sector professionals receive. Someone with 20 years of experience in the private sector has far more to contribute to legislation than someone who has barely been in the world 20 years.

Someone who has spent 20 years in the real world seeing bright ideas come and go — and often end in disaster — is unlikely to be as susceptible to the sort of bright ideas hatched in academia or various movements of true believers.

People with years of real world experience are likely to also have real world obligations, like supporting a family, paying off a mortgage, sending children to college and putting something aside for retirement.

You can’t hire such people as cheaply as some hotshot fresh out of college who sees being a congressional staffer as a golden opportunity to apply the heady notions he picked up on campus. But you are unlikely to get more than you pay for.

The costs of government include not only salaries of government officials and other direct outlays, these costs include the devastating effect of half-baked policies that can stifle economic activity or even lead to national destruction from within or without.

Some people still have Utopian ideals of a government run by ordinary folks. But in making serious decisions in real life, we go to people who know what they are doing — whether we want a transmission fixed or medical treatment.

Nowhere is it more important to have people who know what they are doing than in Washington. And nowhere is it more important that what they do carries out the duties of the job, not spends their time working for re-election.

Many fear government has become so complex only permanent bureaucrats can cope with it; turnover among elected officials would make the bureaucracy the country’s real rulers. But the “expertise” of bureaucrats, like the expertise of congressional staffers, is largely about personal political survival.

Do you seriously believe the Federal Emergency Management Agency has expertise in dealing with natural disasters, despite all their own disasters? Or that the Education Department has expertise in education, when it has presided over decades of dumbed-down education?

These and other bureaucracies have expertise in political survival amid the cross-currents of special interests. Such “expertise” has caused more problems than it has ever solved.

One benefit of attracting a higher caliber of elected officials is they can curtail or eliminate such counterproductive and corrupting “expertise.”

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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