It’s present in the rhetoric of virtually all politicians. “We need to have a work ethic; it’s not American to be lazy.” Like so much that is said by politicians, the high esteem with which they regard work has an exclusion clause in it. The rules don’t apply to them.
Actually, many politicians do work hard, just not doing their day jobs – you know, the one that we elected them to do. Texas Governor Rick Perry makes $150,000 a year, not a king’s ransom for those who do the bidding for the wealthy, but still a healthy chunk of money. It’s certainly enough money that if your state is on fire you would want to at least pretend to be in charge. You might fly in, wearing your custom hard hat for a photo op while the fire fighters are cursing you under their breath as they wait for you to leave so they can do their day (and night) jobs.
But Rick Perry was enjoying his fifteen minutes of fame as the presumptive Republican nominee for president. He discovered that his gift for gab scorched him on the campaign trail, particularly in the heat of debates. He probably wished that he was paying a little attention to the fires in his home state. But like so many of our leaders, he was AWOL when it counted. And while he was AWOL, the state treasurer was signing his paycheck.
He’s not alone in this regard. Sarah Palin was away from Juneau so much when she was governor of Alaska that she decided that her services were no longer needed. She declared her job done, resigned, and hit the high-paying lecture circuit while writing (or having ghost-written), her book Going Rogue.
It’s not just Republicans. Bill Clinton was away from the office raising money dozens of times during his two terms as president. But Barack Obama seems to be trying to outdo Clinton. Clinton was the key-noter at five fund-raisers in his first year as president; Barack Obama was the headliner twenty-three times in his first nine months.
Barack Obama was a U.S. senator for four years. During that period of time (1,461 days), he was on the job only 143 days. Part of that is due to the fact that twenty-three of the forty-eight months that he was a senator he was busy either being a presidential candidate or a president-elect. As a senator, his average salary was $165,450 per year. His presidential campaign raised over $650 million. Perhaps he could have saved the tax payers a few dollars by not accepting his salary for the days he was absent. Instead he could have taken a stipend from his campaign. The same could be said about Rick Perry now as well as other candidates who hold public office.
In fairness to the president, many of the days when he was not working as a senator, his colleagues were also away from Capitol, often dialing for dollars. In fact Congress is in session only two out of three weeks and many of the weeks when it is in session, both the days and the hours are few.
There are clearly consequences of the work schedules, or lack of work, that many of our political leaders.
1. Basic functions of government are not being fulfilled. The presidency requires an individual at the helm who is “focused like a laser” on the job to be done. Yes, time off is necessary for sanity, but shilling for money is not the kind of relaxation that re-energizes someone.
Members of Congress can only do their job if they are gathering information, synthesizing it, and evaluating it. The committee system provides opportunities for small numbers of Congresspersons to engage specialists in Q & A. If witnesses were knowledgeable and had no connection with lobbying organizations that donate to campaigns, they could be of enormous benefit to members of Congress in doing their jobs. Additionally there could be on-site inspections of national and international problems as well as the programs that are trying to address them. The trips would be serious inquiries; not old-fashioned junkets.
2. Public officials need to bring more integrity to the jobs they hold. If Congress comes back from its August vacation and then goes on vacation after two weeks, it’s a public relations disaster. Here they are talking about the great American values of responsibility and hard work, and they’re some place other than on the job. When they reconvene, it’s often to try to deal with gridlock that developed in part because they weren’t on the job when they should have been.
3. There is a “trickle-down” impact of not working. FEMA is running out of money; it needs new appropriations from Congress. These are dollars that provide shelter, food, clothing, and additional support for real people, the victims of disasters. Even if Congress eventually meets its obligation, the uncertainty of if or when they will get around to it undermines local planning and adds to the trauma of the victims.
The Brits and others do it differently. They have six-week campaigns. Elections occur in a compact period of time when voters can be focused. By virtue of being only six weeks, excessive money is not needed.
When our public officials talk about the need for oversight of the spending of public monies, there is a single institution which is geo-centered and accessible to evaluators. If Congress and the president would simply look at themselves with one purpose in mind – ensuring that we get a good day’s work out of them every work day, we could solve many of our problems. The cost would be abandoning hypocrisy. That might be asking too much, but if the public doesn’t shed light on it, we’ll continue to get less than optimal government. A simple question to ask any public official who is scrounging for dollars would be, “What would you be doing now if you were at work?