In the 1990’s the NBA started drafting high school kids and letting them play in the league. It was an idiotic decision that has haunted them to this day. High school boys are not ready to play at that level and they lack the maturity to develop as a bench warmer for a few years. It is fairly well established that the peak years for athletes of this type are from 25-to-32. Taking a player who is seven years from his peak is sure to retard his development and waste a lot of money. The result was a steady decline in the level of play in the league.
That is an important lesson. Even in sports like track that are based on pure physical gifts, you need more than natural talent. There is a set of skills and a degree of maturity that allows the athlete to fully exploit their natural talents. Development systems not only help nurture talent, but they also weed out the mercurial and erratic before they are put into a position where others are counting on them. More than a few great talents have washed out before they hit the professional ranks because they lack the character or maturity for the job.
For political athletes, a similar development system is necessary to police the ranks efficiently. One or two corrupt individuals slipping into the legislature is manageable. A whole parliament full of crooks is a recipe for disaster. Making the process of getting there arduous is a time tested way of filtering at the source. The Roman Empire became unstable right around the time they started taking shortcuts and cutting corners in their development of their political leaders. They started making exceptions and before long no one respected the rules and customs of the Republic.
American politics is suffering an NBA problem. The Senate and House are both stocked with far too many people who never served time in the minor leagues of politics. It is hard to find anyone who has a job, much less did the grunt work of being a town manager or city councilman. Instead of earning their bones in the minor leagues, they are jumping right to the big show.
For example, the great hope of the Trotsky wing of the GOP is Ben Sasse. He spent a year in the dreaded private sector after college and then got on the gravy train of government work. A dozen years on the dole and runs for Senate and is now the shiny new penny “representing” Nebraska, a place he rarely visited for twenty years prior to his election. Instead of working his way up from dog catcher or state rep, he just parachuted into the Senate without much vetting.
Marco Rubio is an example of trying to rush guys along before they are ready. Rubio had a successful career in the Florida legislature. Making the leap to the Senate was a big step, similar to going from AA to the majors. He had the skill to do it, as long as he was going to spend his first term learning the ropes and growing into the position. If he flourished, then maybe he could be offered a spot on the 2024 GOP ticket or perhaps run for governor of Florida. Instead, he is a has-been at 44.
One way to restore the development system is to return the Senate to the states. The original design was to have the Senate represents the interests of the states, while the House was the democratic voice of the people. The 17th Amendment, passed in 1913, changed that and threw the system out of balance, making it just as prone to democratic impulses as the House. More important, it has made the Senate more accessible to the overly ambitious. The result is a chamber increasing full of feckless climbers like Ben Sasse.
Repealing the 17th would not be an easy sell, but simply returning the selection of senators to the states is probably a workable compromise. Each state could then create a system for picking senators. Given this power, they will inevitably create a system controlled by local interests, even if it maintains the veneer of popular selection. Having the legislature nominate candidates for the public to vote on is an obvious solution.
Another reform that would help restore the development system is to expand the House of Representatives. The Apportionment Act of 1911 set the current size of the House in an age when the population of the country was a third of what it is today. Doubling the size of the house would get the apportionment closer to what it was a century ago. It would also make buying influence much more expensive. Buying off two hundred legislators is much easier than bribing five hundred of them.
Expanding the House would also make being a congressman less important. Lowering the prestige of the House, while increasing the prestige of state legislatures will help keep the kids on the farm until they are ready for the big show. That means state government gets better at protecting the interests of the state as a counter to federal power. The good people of Nebraska would washout a poser like Sasse long before he could be inflicted on the nation.
Finally, another angle of reform could be on the pay side. Paying Congressman and Senators $200K a year sounds like a lot, but Washington is not a cheap city. A pol has to maintain two homes and bear the cost of commuting, to some extent, from the district. It’s why guys like Paul Ryan take advantage of insider information to make money in the markets. It is perfectly legal and they all do it.
It is how a guy like John Kasich gets a net worth of $25 million, despite a lifetime in elected office. Harry Reid became a millionaire off shady land deals he was able to broker first at the state level and then in the Senate. One of the surest ways to become a millionaire is to get elected to Congress. On your first day there is a line of lobbyists ready to give you investment tips.
In order to strip away the self-dealing, the pay would have to go up considerably. Maybe giving Congressman and Senators an allowance for a house in Washington and a salary commensurate with the importance of the job would be enough to make a ban on self-dealing workable. There is some history here as Congress passed the gift ban twenty years ago. There will always be bribes and people willing to take them but removing some of the justifications makes it easier to police.