Congress is broken. Much of the public discourse in recent months has focused on our august legislative body’s inability to deal with the pressing issues of our day. Fiscal stability, immigration and education reform have been crippled by partisan rancor and short-term mindsets. Americans’ faith in the institution of Congress has reached a historic low.
According to a recent Gallup Poll, Congress ranked 16th out of 16 institutions in public confidence, trailing even reviled Wall Street and health maintenance organizations. The public no longer thinks Congress has the capacity to act in our nation’s long-term interest. A lifetime of campaigning is poor substitute for true leadership earned through authentic experiences such as combat or business ownership. The only thing more disheartening than watching this slow-motion car wreck of legislative dysfunction is our perpetual impotence in electing better candidates.
Examining the roots of how Congress lost its way is illuminating. Congress, of course, is made up of individuals - 535 people with varied experiences, intellects, ideologies and motivations. Historically, this body was a true cross section of our citizens, with individuals rising to the cause of public service only after successful careers in business, private law, military service or distinguished academic accomplishment. But today we suffer from the rise of a career political class. Lifetime politicians whose resumes are filled exclusively with “public service” and election management have seized control of the government gavel.
Tellingly, the average tenure of our elected representatives has distended. An average tenure of a little more than five years just a century ago has more than doubled to 10 years in the House of Representatives and 12.8 years in the U.S. Senate. Add in typical decades spent in elected office at the state and local level for the average professional politician, and it’s easy to see why many in Congress have spent their entire adult life campaigning. While a political class may be appropriate for country-club boards, it does not belong at the helm of the American experiment. The issues we face today require genuine leadership and perspective gained through the crucible of what I term “clarifying experiences” - experiences in which decisions made have real, life-changing consequences for the person making that decision.
Two professional situations are particularly clarifying: meeting payroll as a business owner and service in military combat. The risks in each are significant: losing one’s business or employees or potentially losing one’s life or limb. The leadership education gleaned from successfully navigating these grueling challenges is invaluable and not easily gained elsewhere, certainly not from lessons learned in political campaigns. As Yogi Berra once quipped, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”
Our country is desperate for leaders who have real leadership experience. Nothing accelerates the attainment of leadership and prioritization skills quite like an enemy’s bullets or a looming payroll deadline; both require absolute clarity in thought and action. Unfortunately, few members of Congress have ever faced either.
Although 21 percent of Congress has some military affiliation, just 5 percent have ever served in an active combat zone - woefully low given our nation’s historical presence in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Business experience is only marginally better. In the Senate, just 20 percent of members have business experience, while 50 percent are former lawyers - perhaps an acceptable ratio for a bar association fundraiser, but terrible odds for prudent governance in strong economic headwinds.
The results of this month’s historic elections have only a modest chance of improving congressional performance. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have produced many quality candidates of late. Both need them in droves. We must break the monopoly that lifetime politicians have on Congress and seek to install citizens who have cut their teeth in the genuine experiences of military combat or meeting payroll as business owners. In the balance lies our nation’s ability to tackle looming and politically difficult issues such as education reform, immigration reform, deficit reduction and economic revitalization. It is incumbent upon us, the electorate, to demand and elect leaders with clarifying life experiences.
Raj Shah is a partner at Federal Systems and a reserve F-16 pilot in the Air National Guard. He recently returned from Iraq.