Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Why Evan Bayh's Address Doesn't Matter

One of the most common subjects that inevitably occurs in every single election cycle in at least one race (but typically more) is about alienation from constituents and whether or not a politician has "forgotten where they came from."  It may be the most cliched political attack in the book, and it's rarely that effective, though on occasion it does have some cache.  Four years ago, Sen. Richard Lugar succumbed to this after it was revealed that he had spent little to no time in his Indiana home, and lost his primary as a result to Richard Murdock, resulting in the Democrats ultimately taking the Senate seat in a huge surprise that cycle.  Two years later, Sen. Pat Roberts got caught in a similar imbroglio, when it was revealed that he had listed Alexandria, Virginia as his primary residence and it turned out that his "home" in Kansas was in fact a $300-a-month place on a golf course that he barely, if ever, used.  This year, the same question is being asked of former Sen. Evan Bayh, the frontrunner for the open Indiana Senate seat, who couldn't even remember his own address during an interview he has spent so much time away from the Hoosier State during his six years out of office.  My question here is not whether or not Evan Bayh will suffer for this sort of issue in November (he likely won't, especially in a general election where even Roberts was able to overcome such concerns, and Lugar's problem were only partially that he had "lost touch with Indiana" and more inclined toward "he had lost touch with the Indiana GOP), but whether it should matter at all.

On the surface level, it really shouldn't.  I'm not going to get into the quality of these three men.  As a Democrat, I'd be happy to vote for Bayh, and could see very few (if any) circumstances where Lugar or Roberts would get a checkmark on my personal ballot.  But I think it has to be said that if the candidates were still representing the interests of their constituents, regardless of how tertiary the connection they maintained with their home states was, it shouldn't ultimately matter in whether you voted for them or not.  It's certainly likely that Lugar, Roberts, and (were he elected) Bayh would maintain multiple representatives in his staff in their home states, would place a higher premium on the needs of their home states than on other needs, and would continue to monitor things at home.  If, for example, an issue were important to 70% of Hoosiers Evan Bayh is going to care about that regardless of whether he's spending most of his nights in Fairfax County rather than in Fort Wayne.  They're going to care because the principle function of a politician is to care about reelection and who sent them to Washington in the first place.  That's a fact of life, and isn't going to change regardless of how connected a politician is to a state.

Secondly, we have gotten to the point where most moderate members of the US Congress have largely gone extinct, and so really it's your party more than anything else that helps decide how you will vote.  There are occasional exceptions like Susan Collins and Collin Peterson, but by-and-large you put any bill, regardless of the person's background, in front of the US Congress and I could tell you how a specific party is likely to vote, regardless of that person's background.  There are a few exceptions, issues that still have a regional bias (I'm thinking agriculture, trade, and military spending, in particular, are going to have a geographic bias because of the potential opposition commercials if that industry is a big part of the state's economy), but we don't see a lot of regional bills anymore go before Congress.

In fact, one of the big argumeents against needing congressional representation that is very attuned to the geographic needs of an area was removed by the same people who likely bemoan the lack of connection members of Congress have with their constituency: the earmarks ban.  There's a lot to be said for the removal of earmarks from the political process.  After all, there was FAR too much wasteful spending on the table happening and it made sure that specific areas of the country were constantly being showered with help because they had a senior member of Congress on an important committee.  However, it also meant that those members of Congress could find goodies for their specific district, things that might help drive growth at home, that would have made it easier for them to tackle the concerns of their home district.  If bringing funding for a federal highway (and the jobs and eased transportation that comes with it) or a new plant or factory was something that you could essentially incentivize a member of Congress to come to your side with, it actually meant more bipartisanship and more bills being passed.  There was, undoubtedly, an ugliness to the process (when earmarks felt wasteful or like a backroom deal), but it put more pressure on members of Congress to represent their specific geographic interests in a more direct approach.

Finally, there's the small matter of reality in this entire equation.  We are constantly telling our elected officials that we don't want just "millionaires and billionaires" in Washington, and yet, despite the paychecks that congressional members receive being robust compared to the average American taxpayer, they aren't enough to maintain two full-time homes without some sort of additional income.  Even if they could, we also want them to do their full-time jobs and work a five-day work week, while still finding time to see constituents on a regular basis.  This expectation on anyone is unrealistic, and it's worth noting that it's hurting congressional relationships.  Gone are the days when members of opposite parties socialized, perhaps implementing some much-needed civility, because they're hurrying home to make sure that they aren't being accused of abandoning their constituents or being forced to raise mountains of money to run for reelection (again, a problem that feels more pressing than where your address is).  There aren't enough days in the week for members of Congress to be all these things, and so it'd be nice if we accepted this reality.

We're starting to see that happen, quite frankly, as people like Trey Hollingsworth and Alex Mooney run in states that they have little connection toward except the right letter behind their name for their district.  The reality is that in a far more mobile economy the accomplished men and women we hope to represent us in Congress are going to be less-and-less likely to consistently have been in our home states.  This isn't to say that we still shouldn't use them representing our interests as a metric.  When Rep. Tim Huelskamp voted against the House Agriculture bill in a district that is overwhelmingly filled with farmers, he deserved to pay the price at the polls, and did.  But let's not pretend that you need a constant presence in a state to know what the state needs.  And let's also not pretend that Evan Bayh, five-time statewide officer in Indiana and a former governor (whose job is to know the state backward and forward) isn't fully aware of the needs of Hoosiers.  It's time for us to realize that it's the record and the constituency services that matter more than an address.

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