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Part-Time Congress for a Full-Time Superpower?

David Callahan

Public approval of Congress is now at its lowest level ever recorded by modern polling, so it's no surprise that Governor Rick Perry might find this branch of government a juicy target; Perry said yesterday that he favored cutting pay for members of Congress in half (as well as cutting its budget for staff in half) and moving to a part-time citizen's legislature.

That might be a swell idea if it were 1811, but it's a very bad idea in 2011, and here's why: The United States is too big, too powerful, and too important to be run by professional lobbyists and entrenched bureaucrats -- and that is exactly who would dominate the federal government, far more so than today, if members of Congress were demoted to amateur status.

Even under Perry's ambitious plan for downsizing government -- he's called for capping federal spending at 18 percent of GDP -- the United States would still have a very large centralized state that spends nearly $3 trillion a year. And even under his plan for axing three cabinet departments, there would still be another 13 departments in the U.S. government undertaking a myriad of tasks, not to mention a host of other agencies. The national security establishment, which Perry largely wants to preserve, is a vast administrative apparatus in of itself, with a military presence in about 150 countries worldwide.

Congress already has a hard time overseeing everything that the U.S. government does, and that wouldn't much change if the government shrank to the level Perry envisions. So what would happen if suddenly Congressional members were holding down what Perry calls "real jobs" back in their home states and attending to their oversight responsibilities on a part-time basis? Nothing good. Ironically, in fact, the outcome would be diametrically opposite to what Perry imagines: The permanent Washington establishment would wield even more power, running circles around amateur and under-staffed legislators.

Just look more closely at the national security area. Right now, we have veteran members of Congress who have developed enough expertise on defense issues -- like Senators Carl Levin and John McCain -- to go head-to-head with four-star generals or top DoD officials about weapons systems, war strategy, and spending. You don't develop that expertise when you're also running a law firm back in Kalamazoo.

Speaking of Michigan, that's a good state to study to find out what happens when legislators are turned into amateurs. Michigan passed term limits in 1992 -- the shortest in the nation -- which limit state representatives to six years in office and state senators to eight. Term limits reflect the same impulse behind Perry's proposal, and these laws have generally backfired. A twelve-year study of Michigan's term limits by scholars at Wayne State University, led by Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson, found that:

lobbyists' influence over legislators was not only maintained after term limits were in effect, but may have increased. For instance, special interests' importance as a source of "information and guidance" on a bill about school choice increased after term limits began. Lobbyists were also cited among the top three actors that determined whether a bill reached the floor of the chamber after term limits were in effect.

The study also found that term limits greatly diminished the amount of time and effort legislators spend monitoring state-run agencies, despite the fact they were supposed to increase legislators' independence from bureaucratic influence.

Everyone agrees, in theory anyway, that lobbyists already have too much power in Washington -- including Rick Perry. So why does he want to give them even more power?