Congress is a mess these days. I am not talking about politicians with whom I disagree on policy. The problem is the growing group of clearly unqualified people who somehow got elected to Congress. Many of them have little ability to understand policy, ethical issues, and who evidence temperaments incompatible with service in Congress. I call these legislators dysfunctional. They undermine the ability of Congress to do its work.
Currently, the Constitution provides minimum qualifications to serve in Congress. Article I, Section 2, clause 2 of the Constitution reads, “No Person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the age of twenty-five Years and been seven Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen.”
Qualifications to serve in the U.S. Senate are more detailed, but also minimal. “No Person shall be a Senator who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty Years and been nine Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State for which he shall be chosen.”
It is not difficult to understand why so many obviously unqualified people have been elected to the House and Senate. More people are eligible to serve in Congress than not.
One solution to better screening candidates would be to amend the Constitution to add more qualifications. One simple example would be to specify that persons currently in federal or state prison cannot serve in Congress. In 2002, an Ohio Congressman, James Traficant, ran for Congress while serving an eight-year sentence for bribery and racketeering. He won 15 percent of the vote.
Other criteria would be trickier to write and enforce. Currently, in Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, and Nebraska, candidates have been accused of sexual assault, stalking, and domestic violence. Should the Constitution bar them from running for office? What if subsequent trials or disclosure of facts prove their innocence?
A better approach than the unwieldy and lengthy process of amending the Constitution would be to encourage a credible, neutral organization to assess the qualifications of individuals seeking election to Congress. The organization would develop a set of criteria against which to assess the suitability of individuals to serve in Congress. The vetting organization would then issue a report indicating whether candidates are qualified.
The process would be voluntary. Political parties and voters could ignore the findings of the organization, sometimes with good cause, but many clearly unqualified candidates would either be discouraged from running for office or would lose.
What might the organization conducting the assessments look like? Fortunately, a model exists–the American Bar Association (ABA). Acting through a specially composed committee, the ABA has been offering evaluations of the suitability of individuals to serve as federal judges since 1953.
Importantly, the ABA, does not endorse nominees or recommend them. It comments on individuals after they have been nominated for office. The ABA notes, “In conducting its evaluation of each nominee, the committee focuses strictly on professional qualifications: integrity, professional competence, and judicial temperament. The Committee does not consider a nominee’s philosophy, political affiliation, or ideology. The Committee’s objective is to provide impartial peer evaluations of the professional qualifications of judicial nominees to assist the Senate Judiciary Committee in assessing whether such individuals should be confirmed by the Senate.”
In the case of judges, the President, and the Senate, which confirms judicial appointments, are free to ignore the ABA’s evaluation. That is the right approach.
The ABA would not be the best organization to assess Congressional candidates. Finding the right organization would itself be a challenge. The organization must have financial independence and a governance structure that ensures the integrity of the process.
An appropriate organization would need to select the criteria to use in measuring candidates’ qualifications. One good starting place would be the standards currently used by the ABA in evaluating judicial nominees. Three criteria used by the ABA are integrity, professional competence, and temperament.
The most important qualification to serve in Congress is integrity. In evaluating this qualification, the ABA looks at “the nominee’s character and general reputation in the legal community, as well as the nominee’s industry and diligence. “
As applied to individuals seeking to serve in Congress, individuals’ records would be examined. Does the individual have a criminal record? If in business, did he/she have a reputation for honesty? Were they successful? Do they have a solid record of complying with regulations?
A second category of criteria is professional competence. In evaluating individuals for the bench, the ABA looks at “such qualities as intellectual capacity, judgment, writing and analytical abilities, knowledge of the law, and breadth of professional experience.”
As applied to Congressional candidates, this evaluation might include a look at educational credentials, the individual’s communications skills, their experience in working with laws or in a legislative or governing body, and a summation of their professional experience.
There would be no wrong answers here, but an individual with 10 years of experience serving as a state legislator would be rated higher in that area than one with no prior experience in government. Similarly, a doctor might be viewed as having valuable professional experience that might benefit Congress as it considers healthcare legislation.
Congress benefits by having individuals with a broad diversity of professional experience. It benefits less from members with little experience in working on public policy or who evidence little interest in listening to and learning from others before deciding to run for Congress.
The final criteria is “temperament.” The ABA qualifications reference “judicial temperament,” but the criteria listed are equally applicable to serve in Congress. These criteria include, “the nominee’s compassion, decisiveness, open-mindedness, courtesy, patience, freedom from bias and commitment to equal justice under the law.”
I hope that both political parties will see the benefit of screening candidates. Both parties have suffered from “unqualified” people running for office. I will spare readers listing names of incompetent members of Congress. I will note, however, that the two best-known Democrats running for the First District seat in the House of Representatives would be deemed “qualified” or “highly qualified.” That is my opinion.
I would not expect Andy “Handgun” Harris to be deemed “qualified” based on his blind loyalty to the defeated ex-president, Trump, and for attempting to carry a loaded handgun onto the floor of the House of Representatives. Legislators with balanced temperaments and sound judgment do not do things like that.
J.E. Dean is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant writing on politics, government, birds, and other subjects.
Letters to Editor
Michael Callahan says
An interesting idea but hardly addresses the key issues surrounding representation in the current environment. In Maryland, it would be a fine move to require that U.S. Representative candidates and (subsequent elected office holders) actually reside in the Congressional district represented. Another fine change would be to allow campaign contributions only from individuals eligible to vote in the election that the contribution is for. The next would be to reverse the direct election of United States Senators; as it is now Senate elections are simply “Super-House Member” elections and fail to preserve the original intents of the Framers when creating a senior body. These require constitutional changes, so there’s likely little hope for them. As to temperament and qualifications, there should be no abridgment of the electorate’s right to chose, but this idea has bit of merit when combined with other changes. And I see a contradiction contained in the following; “Congress benefits by having individuals with a broad diversity of professional experience. It benefits less from members with little experience in working on public policy…” The first is true. We need broader experiences in the Congress. The second seems to endorse professional office holders, of which we likely need fewer.
John Dean says
Thank you for this excellent comment–a real addition to the conversation. I particularly agree that the direct election of Senators made that chamber into something of a “super-House.” I appreciate the arguments on the other side but agree that the Founders intended the Senate to be insulated from the daily passions of the people. I also have reservations about eliminating the filibuster in the Senate for the same reason, despite its sometimes shameful history in blocking civil rights legislation.
You are right that my language on the benefits of diverse experiences is contradictory. I should have crafted that language more carefully–I definitely believe that experience in public policy is a plus for a Congressperson. I also would not want everyone to be a lawyer or former state legislator.
In any case, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate it.
Jim Franke says
At the State level, there was a Delegate who was”found guilty of misdemeanor theft of General Assembly funds and misconduct in office” and “was suspended from her office without pay or benefits due to a Maryland constitutional provision”. This ex-Delegate is running for Delegate again. Lessons from Marion Barry?
John Dean says
Thanks for your comment. I was not aware of the situation, so I appreciate you mentioning it.
I appreciate your reading the piece and adding to the conversation.