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The Founding Fathers never intended a permanent political class controlled by the wealthy

Apr 18, 2016

Have you ever noticed how often people invoke the Founding Fathers whenever anybody doesn’t like anything about government?

Yes, they like to claim that the Framers of the Constitution would be spinning in their graves if they only knew that someday the nation they created would become a socialistic welfare state -- or a military-industrial complex -- et cetera, et cetera.

Well, it’s easy to claim lots of nonsense when it comes to the founders, since they never weighed in on cruise missiles or telecommunications law. We also avoid talking about them in certain cases where we do know what they thought, including that slavery was legal.

But here’s something where we know exactly where the founders stood, and where their ideals were the same as ours – at least in theory.

The Constitution established two houses of Congress -- a somewhat more aristocratic Senate, and a House of Representatives that was supposed to be all about direct, grass-roots democracy.

As they saw it, the voters in every district would get together every other November, pick someone in their community they respected, and send him to Washington for a couple years to vote for their neighbors’ best interests and those of the nation.

This was not supposed to make you rich.

When the Constitution was ratified, members of Congress were paid six dollars a day, and then only when they met.

They make $174,000 a year today. That’s not all that much either, when you include the cost of living in two places.

But as a story in the Detroit Free Press Sunday devastatingly illustrated, today’s congressmen are anything but normal residents chosen on the basis of merit.

Congressional districts today are bought and sold, usually within a single party, since most areas are so gerrymandered the nominee of one party is virtually guaranteed victory. Take the 10th District for example, in Michigan’s Thumb.

The incumbent is retiring, so the seat is wide open – although everyone knows whomever the Republicans nominate in August will win. So far, the top spender is one Paul Mitchell, who has spent $1.6 million of his own money trying to win the primary.

That’s nearly 10 times the congressional salary.

But now here’s the real kicker -- he isn’t really from the district.

Four years ago, he spent $3.5 million of his own cash trying unsuccessfully trying to get the nomination for a district in Saginaw. He doesn’t care who he officially represents; he just wants to be in Congress.

My own congressman, Sandy Levin, is from his district. I don’t know what he has raised so far, but two years ago he spent $1.5 million dollars to win against only token opposition. Levin in fact used to be my state senator … when I was 12 years old.

I’m old enough to collect Social Security now, and he is technically old enough to be my father. He’ll be 85 before the election, and he isn’t even Michigan’s oldest congressman.

You can say what you want about this system, but you can’t say it does what it was intended to do – send normal citizens to Washington for a term or two.

Instead, we have a permanent political class, funded and controlled by competing pools of vast wealth.

Good luck convincing anyone that’s what James Madison intended.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.