Roll the Bones

by Jeremy Hubble

Most high schools rely heavily on seniority. The seniors had the power to do what they want. They were in charge of the school. They made up the football team. A freshman might have been a better football player, but the 'fish' stigma prevented him from making the team. Then one day, the quarterback got caught using his popularity to sell drugs. His backup was out with a knee injury. The freshman quarterback was well liked. The coach had no other choice but to put the freshman in the game. The team won big. The young football player's following increased exponentially. The coach had to keep him on the team. The precedent for freshman inclusion was set. The little guys began to realize their full potential. Soon freshman filled the ranks of the team. Congress, like this football team, had to alter the status quo because of a privilege abuse. Furthermore, in both situations the alteration led to greater opportunities on all levels for freshmen.

People are granted freedom to do as they wish, until they mess up. Then the privileges are gradually stripped away. Had Sununu went on just one or two superfluous flights, the White House would have looked the other way. However, the administration couldn't help but notice the enormous number of trips he had been billing the taxpayers. Sununu abused his privilege and thus had it taken from him. Similarly, when the presidents started to abuse their powers, congress checked them.

Presidents from Wilson to F. D. Roosevelt had slowly been adding to their power. However, in both cases congress put snags in their plans by voting down such plans as League of Nations to court-packing. L. B. Johnson, however, used his tactfulness to get away with much more. He gerrymandered his bills through congress, and got the United States involved in an undeclared (and unnecessary) war, Vietnam. Congress's tolerance threshold was slowly diminishing. Finally, Nixon's abuses of executive power (especially in the much ballyhooed Watergate scandal) were more than congress could handle. They acted immediately to bring the executive down to the same level as congress.

In 1973 congress began its attack on congress with the War Powers Resolution. The resolution required congress to approve any long term commitment of American troops. (However, in the modern age of 'turbo-wars' this resolution's power is fading.) Congress also demanded reports of all CIA operations, and senate approval of all executive branch agreements with other nations. However these changes didn't stop with the executive branch. Soon, congress realized that their power was concentrated in just a few hands. Between 1973 and 1975 congress gradually altered its own power structure by whittling away at the powers of seniority. This reached a climax in 1975 when the House, led by a large number of newly elected members, voted three senior members out of committee chairs. The precedent greatly increased the power of the junior representative; however, there were other changes that were even more important.

During the seventies, everything was changing. The historic characteristics of 'good' fashion left as bell-bottoms, paisley suits and sideburns appeared. People had the gumption to publicly declare their objections to wars, and disco music (an oxymoron) became popular. The deterioration of the pop charts was one of the most noteworthy of the changes. Musical groups began to realize that music wasn't everything. They could make it to the top of the charts by repeating the same four bars over and over. Even with the invasion, the charts were still filled with some of the best classic rock. Unfortunately, even the rock began to slowly fade away, until the charts reached their present position were image is all important and true musicians are a rarity. What caused the deterioration of charts? None other than MTV. It demanded that musicians be able to dance. The public began to care less and less about the substance and more and more about the groups MTV presence. Similar success in politics has followed the same path in the modern days of C-SPAN.

Most of today's politicians are similar to Top-40 acts. Some followed a path like Milli Vanilli and used the television to leapfrog past the established acts, stuffed their legislation down everyone's throats, and achieved instant fame. Nevertheless, like the real Milli Vanilli, their faults and incongruities are often sneak out and effectively annihilating their political careers. Occasionally a congressman uses his image to establish a long term presence on Capitol Hill. Even in cases like this, he holds nothing more than a good image, just like Paula Abdul, continuously repeating the same formula. Someone else writes his music, plays his instruments, and occasionally helps him out with the singing.

Occasionally a congressman does come out and try to stress substance over image. Unfortunately, these Bob Dylans that try run the entire show by themselves soon realize they are attempting the impossible. The electronic society demands doesn't want to elect someone that will tell them the truth. They want someone to tell them what they want to hear. They also love to give him a piece of their mind. With the average congressman receive 500,000 pieces of mail each year, there is no way he can still read every letter, and remain abreast on all the current issues. He soon realizes the necessity of hiring additional staff members. Soon, the only things left for the congressman to do is perform in the show, where he is definitely going to try to get his name on everything possible.

Young congressmen, realizing the immense power available to them soon launched their own publicity stunts. Freshman senators Gramm and Rudman used their positions to launch a huge PR campaign - a deficit reduction act. The senators used the television to help push the act through congress. Theoretically, the act would have eliminated the deficit and slowly begin to cut away at the huge national debt. However, like plans for reducing the deficit, it was destined to fail, and its deadline is constantly extended. For Gramm and Rudman that didn't matter. They had their name on a key piece of legislation, and all over the evening newscasts.

Gramm and Rudman achieved every congressman's dream - abundant (and often positive) press coverage. The flocking of journalists to Washington opened doors necessary to the survival of all congressmen. A representative merely had to get on the right side of a few key journalists and he was worshipped at home. Similarly, if he got on the wrong side, he was spat upon. He could use these tidbits of propaganda to help fight through his club's semi-annual hazing, commonly known as reelection. A few Willie Horton's could sink his opponent, but that's not all it takes. An influx of millions of dollars is required to purchase all the newspaper, radio, and television advertisements it takes to win a big campaign. Then there are the trips to visit the constituents - to prove that their congressman is a real person, and not just another Santa Clause. The election becomes so complex that the representative has to begin planning for it the instant he takes office. Luckily, senators have a few years to concentrate on their work before the annual torture, but it still takes a large chunk of their time.

With all this time spent on reelection, key connections became even more important. Public image rules. A title, such as committee chairman, is required. Actual votes and legislation become less and less important. The same emphasis on public opinion occurred with the president. Compare the escapades of Nixon and Reagan. Each got caught in a scandal. Nixon had to resign in the face of impeachment. Reagan escaped unscathed, and closed out his term with one of the highest approval ratings ever. Likewise, on Capitol Hill, some congressmen (like Ted Kennedy) can get away with anything, while others are stigmatized for life by one minor event.

Ever since the seventies, congressmen have began to realize what Rush meant when they said "You're only immortal for a limited time." The congressmen that achieved notoriety in congress soon fell by the wayside as another, even younger, congressmen took their place. The past junior members soon learned the consequences of their previous rush to power. No longer does time grant privileges. All it does is reveal more weaknesses in the battle armor. Junior members can seize the day and make huge power grabs, but a year later, the bones are rolled, and someone else is in power.

- September 15, 1991