Congress: Why throwing the bums out won't improve it

I like sausage. I don’t care what names attach to them. I like sausage, be it bratwurst, kielbasa, bauerwurst, chorizo, bangers, Italian, summer, or linguica. Different meats (beef, pork, even reindeer) and seasonings produce the vast panoply of sausage found worldwide.

But, after a while, no matter how different the ingredients, it’s still just sausage.

At the heart of sausage making is a common device: the meat grinder. Drop meat into the hopper. Add seasonings. Crank the handle. Grind chunks of meat. Slide into casing. Result: Sausage. No matter what enters, what emerges is sausage.

Congress has become little more than the meat grinder that produces sausage. Yes, there’s the old saw: Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made. That’s not the point here. Rather, it’s about the machine. It’s about why no one should foster belief in the “throw the bums out” approach to correcting continual congressional ineptitude and ethical malfeasance.

Consider: I plan to vote for a 29-year-old hospital administrator, Nate Shinagawa, to replace my current congressman, Tom Reed. Reason: I don’t like Reed’s ethically ambiguous approach to communicating with constituents. I like Shinagawa because I was young once — and believed in politics as an honorable calling. He believes; I don’t.

Reed’s been a politician for a long time. He’s been in Congress just long enough for the machine — that influence-peddling, leadership PAC-manipulating, anonymous donor-condoning meat grinder — to have ground him into sausage indistinguishable from most other members.

Shinagawa’s public stances on issues paint him as youthfully idealistic. But if he beats Reed, there’s a high probability that the same machine will grind him, too, into sausage virtually indistinguishable from the other 434 representatives. Shinagawa’s campaign goal is poignantly liberal and hopeful — Working For Us — but impossible to accomplish now in a thoroughly degraded Congress.

Consider some of the political effluent surrounding Congress — how members raise money, from whom, and in what amounts; their inability to behave as adults and actually legislate; the revolving door that shuttles legislators and staff from the Hill to K Street to the Hill; Grover Norquist’s no-tax-hike pledge feared by virtually all members; and the minimal work week spent on us because the bulk of the week is devoted to fundraising from them. This is the meat grinder that young Shinagawa would enter should he defeat Reed.

This is the meat grinder that will stay firmly in place even if voters, as they did in 1994, 2006, and 2010, “throw the bums out” to change party control of Congress.

Whom we elect to Congress may no longer matter. In fact, it is hard to rid Congress of incumbents. Throwing out the bums has become particularly difficult to do, as John Avlon writes, because of gerrymandering risen to an exceedingly refined political art.

Over the past decade, has the performance of Congress in Working For Us improved by any significant measure? Has the rancor among members of Congress decreased by any significant measure?

What should be America’s best hope for the future — an intelligent, compassionate, effective Congress — has become merely a means of making sausage out of its members. And foul-tasting sausage at that.