Stanford: Congress could learn a lot about accountability from the NFL
January 2, 2013
After four horrible seasons, the Jacksonville Jaguars canned their general manager. The Bears missed the playoffs, and now Lovie Smith is unemployed. And now Andy Reid, once called “coach for life” by the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, is out of work.
Why? Because their teams stunk. Their teams had losing seasons, so the coaches lost their jobs. Sports has a wonderful corollary to Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action, there is an equal an opposite satisfaction. Lance Armstrong cheats; he loses his Tour de France titles. The scab refs blow a call in Seattle; the NFL ends the lockout. And the Eagles finish 4-12; the owner fires the coach who once took them to the Super Bowl.
If this were true in politics, we would have fired congress. Our lame duck congress is failing to get out of its own way long enough to prevent a self-induced recession, and the fan base known as the American people notice. In Aug. 2012, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll registered an 82 percent disapproval rating, the highest ever in the history of the poll. You think this country is divided along partisan lines? Bah. Everyone – Democrats, Republicans, independents, and the Eagles’ hungover, grumpy fan base – hates Congress. Congress is only slightly less unpopular than Jerry Sandusky is in Pennsylvania.
Congress has earned this enmity. The congress that the people in all their temperate wisdom elected in 2010 has passed 219 bills into law. The last time we had a congress this ineffective, we were fighting Hitler. If Congress were a child, it would be three years old and refusing to go on the potty, preferring to make a mess in its pants instead of growing up. What do we, the ineffectual adults get out of this? We’re left with a diaper load of higher taxes, unchecked deficits and a lower credit rating.
If our country is divided when it comes to Congress, it’s not between Democrats and Republicans but between insiders and outsiders. Parents can wait for rebellious toddlers to mature. Voters don’t have that option with politicians. Citizenship is more like owning a football team, and Election Day is like Black Monday, the day after a football season when owners traditionally fire coaches. At the end of the season, we vote on whether to fire our congressman or pick up his or her option for two more years. At least it’s supposed to work that way.
The problem is that insiders – in this case, state legislatures – redraw congressional lines so that only one party can win each seat, immunizing congress to popular will. Dr. Scott DesJarlais, the anti-abortion, family-values Tennessee Republican who cheated on his wife with his patients and asked two of them to get abortions, was easily re-elected despite his sex life becoming a national scandal. Why? He’s a Republican, and the Republican-controlled legislature made sure only a Republican could win his district. Now DesJarlais only needs to worry about placating another group of insiders – Republican primary voters – and can more-or-less safely ignore the majority of his constituents who only vote in November elections.
The problem isn’t just that DesJarlais is immune from popular will. The problem is that there are a ton of districts like Tennessee’s otherwise lovely 11th congressional district that are drawn for only one party to win. And because Republicans control more statehouses, Republicans will continue to control congress until at least the next decade, no matter what. Don’t believe me?
America tried to fire congress on Election Day when Democrats won a slight majority of congressional votes, 49 percent to 48 percent, yet Republicans ended up with the second-biggest majority in 60 years. The most-ineffective, most-unpopular congress in American postwar history is immune to our votes.
If only Congress were as accountable to voters as football coaches are to their teams, and by extension their fan base. This all started in Philadelphia, and as he puts his house on the market there today, Reid might be watching the news and wondering why he’s the one who is out of a job. It’s time for Americans to care as much about politics as they do about football and demand election reform.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who has helped elect or re-elect more than two dozen members of Congress. He lives in Austin, Texas. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jasstanford.