Legal training is not a requirement to serve in Congress, although many of the members are, and have been, lawyers. Nor is it necessary for a House or Senate member to have served in another government post, although many have, and their experience at forging alliances and compromises has been helpful. We no longer have literacy tests for voters, a technique southern states used until the 1960s, effectively to disenfranchise African-American voters.
Yet, it might not be a bad idea to require incoming members of Congress to take a basic test in civics.
How else, other than an alarming misunderstanding of the basic of American government, to explain the effort of House Republicans to shut the Senate out of the budget process? Their sanctimoniously titled "Government Shutdown Prevention Act" would do just that, deeming that if the Senate failed to pass a measure to keep the government running amid the current budget dispute, that the House-passed version would become law.
The idea is bizarre on so many levels—not least because the Senate would actually have to pass the Government Shutdown Prevention Act for the House to assume a dictatorial role in one of the three branches of the world’s greatest democracy. The current fashion of anti-intellectualism in politics aside, do the House Republicans not understand the elementary-school fundamentals of how a bill becomes a law? [See who donates the most money to your member of Congress.]
The freshman GOP lawmakers are annoyed with the Democratic-controlled Senate, this time for failing to cave in on the dramatic cuts the House Republicans want in the budget. Join the club, folks: The House has long been irritated by the Senate. Ask the House Democrats, who approved more than 300 bills in the last Congress that ended up dying in a Senate that failed to pass them or even consider them.
But the rudimentary lesson of lawmaking (FYI—a bill has to be passed by both the House and the Senate, then signed by the president, to become law. If the president vetoes a bill, each chamber of Congress must summon a two-thirds majority to override the veto) are nowhere near as important as the lesson about getting things done in a country of diverse interests. The Tea Party crowd ran campaigns of anger and frustration, blaming Congress for its failure to get balanced budgets and myriad other things. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not because members are stupid (they’re not, and some of them are absolutely brilliant) or lazy (they work longer hours than most Americans imagine) or weak. It’s because this is a country of wildly divergent attitudes and perspectives, reflected in the lawmakers those citizens send to Congress. The Tea Partyers believe they were sent to Washington with a mission, and they likely were. So were Nancy Pelosi and other liberal members whose constituents have drastically different perspectives than those in the Tea Party team’s districts. And their views are no less valid. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Tea Party.]
Legislating requires compromise, and compromise is hard, especially during times of economic stress. Being a congressman is a difficult job, forcing them to balance their districts’ needs with the national interest. The new members signed up for this job. They should do it.