Most people who work usually get “evaluated” by a boss of some sort. Sometimes it’s formal (with official rubrics and goals and outcomes and such) and sometimes it’s informal (“Just keep doin’ what you’re doin’ and show up to work on time.”).
A good (and presumably fair) evaluation means, you hope, that you get that raise and you keep that job or you get promoted. But suppose you had a job in which the most common means of evaluation don’t seem to have much to do with assessing the job you were hired to do?
We elect 535 members of Congress (representatives every two years and senators every six years). But do we vote to keep them in their jobs based on a sensible, formal evaluation of what we hired them to do?
Perhaps an election is the only evaluation needed. Flick a switch, touch a screen, punch out a chad to indicate yea or nay. But the re-election rate (or recidivism rate, if you’re a cynic) for members of Congress is somewhere north of 90 percent. That suggests that voters aren’t applying a rigorous assessment of how members of Congress perform their jobs. Perhaps voters are merely listening to (gasp!) political ads or (double gasp!) political pundits and deciding how to vote based on those decidedly flawed assessment tools.
What is the job description of a member of Congress? The Constitution of the United States says a member of the House must be at least 25 years old, a citizen for at least seven years and a resident of the state from which he or she is elected. Senators must be 30, a citizen for nine years and a resident of their states. Collectively, they may propose and concur on legislation. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution details their powers â€” laying and collecting taxes, regulating commerce, coining money, declaring war and so on. They offer advice and consent to the executive branch on appointments of Cabinet members, ambassadors, judges and other positions.
How many of us carefully assess members of Congress on their performance of tasks assigned them by the Constitution?
One “evaluation” tool often used is the public-opinion poll. At the moment, polls don’t reflect a high opinion of the Congress. But polls don’t always test performance. Many polls examine the ideological divide: If you were going to vote today, would you pick a Democrat or a Republican? How does that meaningfully assess performance? Others examine popularity or “approval.” Why this? Does the constitutional job description for members of Congress include “being popular”?
Another assessment tool is simply determining whether they show up for work. The 110th has met for 111 legislative sessions this year, well ahead of the 109th’s 87 days (a dismal record).
Is it fair to fault members of Congress based on the number of days in session? Damn right it is. They’re getting a base pay of $165,200 and a whole bunch of nice bennies.
Okay, they do other things besides sit in session â€” attend hearings, conduct investigations, all that stuff outlined in the Constitution. But they spend so little time doing their constitutionally assigned tasks because they’re so busy fundraising to remain members of Congress. I don’t see where the Constitution’s job description for Congress includes time spent back in the district for the sole purpose of raising money so members can keep their jobs. A work week in Congress may begin Tuesday evening (after returning from the district) to Thursday morning (to return to the district). Members I’ve spoken with say they spend more than 60 percent of their time raising money to get re-elected.
Is that what we hired them to do? Spent more time on the task of staying in office than performing in office?
Maybe it’s time to get someone in Congressional Human Resources to crank up a Job Evaluation Rubric for Kongress (JERK) form. That’s what we need â€” a good scorecard that differentiates, on an articulated scale such as a Likert scale, performance in the behaviors required in the job description in the Constitution.
The New York Times took a shot at that today with this “op-chart” comparing the 110th Congress with the 103rd, 104th and 109th Congresses.
The chart details measures passed, oversight hearings conducted, markups completed, laws passed and earmarks used (and their cost!). That’s a beginning.
We shouldn’t vote for members of Congress based on their deceitful use of all that money they raise while they’re supposed to be working on the public’s business to buy ads to shape the public’s perception of them as actually working for the public.
Let’s begin building that JERK. Suggestions, folks?