Merit Pay for Congress?

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "Fixing Congress" by Jim Cooper, in Boston Review, May-June 2011.

CONGRESS IS BROKEN. THIS little piece of political analysis is a favorite of the chattering class. But do things look so bad to someone on the inside? At least to Representative Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), they do.

Cooper first won election to the House of Representatives in 1982. Congress was very different then, he remembers, "imperfect but functional." Speaker of the House Tip ONeill (D-Mass.) saw himself as leader of the entire House, not just the Democratic caucus. "O'Neill's was a House intent on making policy, not partisan mischief," Cooper recalls. He left the wrangling over vote tallies to the majority and minority leaders and, in the end, members were "expected to vote their conscience and their district." Representatives were thought of as party loyalists if they voted their party's line 70 or 80 percent of the time.

In those good old days, a group of elite staffers known as the Democratic Study Group provided authoritative memos before each important vote listing the pros and cons of the bill. The quality of these reports was so high that even some Republicans subscribed.

Members from both sides of the aisle would often interact socially outside work. They brought their families to live with them in Washington, D.C. Few representatives were members of what O'Neill called the "Tuesday-Thursday Club"--those who went to their distriers over the weekend to see their families and constituents. …