Mr. Smith's Son Goes to Washington
J L Higgs
"Mr. Speaker, I yield to my good friend, Mr. Smith," said the congressman, taking his seat.
A quiet hush fell over the chamber as if everyone present was holding their breath. Even the galleries which had been overflowing and full of boisterous activity the prior four days of the new legislative session fell still.
The Speaker frowned. After relying on parliamentary tactics and other maneuvers to prevent the rookie legislator from speaking, he no longer had any choice.
"The chair recognizes, Mr. Jason Smith."
"Here we go," said one of the House members to the representative seated beside him, shaking his head.
Mr. Smith shuffled the papers on his desktop. He looked up, his eyes scanning the room for the few friendly faces among his colleagues. This was it. The moment everyone had been waiting for. The tension in the air was like that before a thunderstorm filled with lightning.
Mr. Smith cleared his throat and looked at The Speaker. "Thank you, Mr. Speaker," he said. "Fellow members of Congress and others present today, I'm sure most of you have an inkling of what I'm about to say. And I'm sure it's something many of you will take exception with. But the people sent me here to say it, so doggone it, I intend to lay the facts before you."
He took a sip of water, squared his shoulders, and continued. "When this august body met for the first time in 1788 it had fifty-nine elected members. On that first day, about fifteen members were present. Now, those who were not here were likely wrapping up personal affairs or traveling en route. But one thing I'm certain of is that not one of them wasn't desperate to be here fulfilling his patriotic duty to his family, his neighbors, and friends."
"In today's Congress, there are four hundred thirty-five representatives. That's a lot of folks when you're trying to get agreement on something. But then with fifty states and three hundred or so million people in our country, it's a heck of a lot bigger than it was in 1788."
"Now, anywhere you look, any poll or survey makes it crystal clear the American people are dissatisfied with the U.S. Congress. In fact, it's fair to say they think we're no better than pond scum or a dog's business. And the question is why? Well, the primary reason seems to be they don't see us getting a gosh darn thing done. We talk, attend meetings, do this and that, but when you get right down to it, we do nothing about the things that really matter to the American people. Our legislative body doesn't function. It's broken."
"Now, when I was a boy, my dad always told me, Jason, when something's broken you can fix it, throw it away and live without it, or replace it. Why that's just common sense with nothing confusing about it, just like the words, "public servant." Well, maybe not. Y'know those words seem to have become an oxymoron, like "jumbo shrimp."
"Anyway, the average salary of a member of Congress today is $174,000 a year. The average wage for the typical American worker is roughly $60,000 a year. In congress, we get an annual cost of living increase every January 1. Outside this building, there are people who's bills have gone up and they've had no wage increase in three or four years. How about vacation time? For a member of Congress it's twelve weeks or three whole months. The average American worker, about one month after they've completed twenty-five years of service and that includes accumulated vacation days. How can anyone justify that? No one can say the average American doesn't work as hard or as many long days and hours as a member of congress. But then, we don't have to justify it do we? All this is our little secret. After all, the average American doesn't know these things any more than he or she knows who sits in this body representing them. They're too busy trying to scrape by. So, looking at wages and vacation time alone, it seems the public is serving us and not the other way around. And just look around this room. Over half the representatives here are millionaires many times over. They don't need the $174,000. And if they truly wanted to serve the people, why they'd do the job for an annual salary of $1."
"Now if I did my arithmetic right, salaries alone for this body are around seventy-eight million dollars. Add in costs for staff, office supplies, equipment, redecorating offices, postage, travel expenses, and other things, the figure is… well, it's downright huge. You see, my dad taught me the value of a dollar and from what I hear, the people think what they're getting for all those dollars ain't worth a plug nickel."
"And yes. There's been a lot of talk about fixing what ails us. But that's all there's been for years, talk. And while saying talk is cheap is a cliché, it's also true. It's like how we talk about our service men and women. We're real big on saying how much we value them and showering them with the words, thank you for your service. That's nice and it's right. But you know what would really show them our appreciation? Decent pay so none of them need food stamps to feed their families. Fixing the leaking roofs and other structural problems in the schools their children attend on bases throughout our country. Wouldn't that be wonderful? Dad always said a person is defined by their actions or deeds, not what he or she says. Well, here we're long on talk and darn short on meaningful action."
"Mr. Smith, is there a point somewhere in all this, or do you just plan to castigate this body with a list of what you see as its transgressions?"
"Yes, sir. Here's my point. Since we're broken, what should we do? Well, I don't claim to be as smart as many of you here, but after rolling the problem around in my mind, the answer seems obvious. The U.S. House of Representatives should be dissolved, disbanded, abolished, done away with - pick whatever words you like."
The gallery exploded in a storm. News reporters whipped out their cell phones, camera flashes fired, some representatives jumped to their feet shouting while others sat in stunned disbelief.
"You can't be serious!"
"Are you insane?"
"Mr. Speaker! Mr. Speaker!"
"That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard!"
On the podium, the Speaker grabbed his gavel and hammered it, yelling "Order! Order!" Unable to halt the riotous chaos, he jumped to his feet and screamed, "Quiet! Quiet Goddammit! And you visitors in the galleries. Quiet down or you'll all be asked to leave."
In the eye of the storm, Mr. Smith shuffled his papers and waited.
"Mr. Smith," said the Speaker, "is there more or are you prepared to yield the floor."
"Yes, sir, Mr. Speaker, there's more," he said to a cascade of groans. "I can appreciate that the members of this body find this an unpopular idea. But I promised to bring it up for discussion. That's why I got 90% of the votes cast in my district."
"And what a bunch of idiots they are," said someone.
"Well, one person's idiot may be another person's patriot," said Mr. Smith. "The American people love this country as does everyone here. Contrary to the opinion of some, the American people are not stupid. Our name calling, failure to engage in civil discussions about serious matters, not voting our conscience or what we know in our hearts is right and in the best interest of our country are why they've grown tired of waiting for us to do right by them. Can't you all see how our pandering to special interests, clinging to party lines come hell or high water has led to them being plain fed up with us?
"Will Mr. Smith, yield the floor?"
"No, sir. I won't yield the floor until I've completed saying my piece on behalf of the American people."
He cleared his throat. "Some will say, The House can't be dissolved, The Constitution established the three branches of government. They'll also say that document has guided our Democracy for over two hundred years. That is true. But as every one of you know, we've amended that document. I'm not proposing that we do away with the entire legislative branch of government, just The House. The Senate would continue to exist. We all know our founding fathers never envisioned a world with electric light, automobiles, airline flight, nuclear energy, the internet. But God bless them. They had the wisdom to know that for our Democracy to survive until the end of time, the best gift they could give us was a document with a flexible framework. The Constitution is not something cast in stone like the tablets The Almighty gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. It's a living document. They had the foresight to provide us with something we could modify to address whatever might arise in an ever-changing world. That's what ensures the future of our Democracy."
"Traditions? Honestly? We stopped caring about traditions long ago. Today, a Supreme Court nominee can wait forever just for a hearing. Simple decency and respect for another human being says he or she deserves to receive prompt consideration just as others have for the past two hundred years."
"So what about lost jobs, you say? Mergers, consolidations, reductions happen all the time in the private sector. Companies change to save money, run more efficiently, or increase the value of their stock. When that occurs, people don't lose their jobs because they're bad workers or failed to do their jobs. And despite that, according to the unemployment rates, they find new ones. Our unemployment rate is at an all-time low. In government we do the same thing. We combine agencies if we believe it will result in greater efficiency. Why shouldn't we make legislating more efficient? Like any consolidation, not everyone would end up unemployed. With more on Senators' plates, small additions to their existing staff levels would be needed. Who other than current House staff members would be the best candidates for those positions? Everyone else could return to the private sector or if they're earnest in their commitment to public service, run for office at the state or local level."
"I know it would be foolish to think dissolving The House will solve all our problems, but let's look at the benefits. A bill that's passed in one body wouldn't ping pong back and forth between The House and The Senate with amendments and changes being made to it like today. Therefore, there'd be no need for members of both bodies to conference and try to hammer out a compromise. Why that alone would get rid of some gridlock. Since each state would only have two representatives in The Senate as they do today, district gerrymandering would end. There'd be a disincentive for Senators to ignore a pressing issue, assuming someone else will take care of it or blaming someone else if it's not addressed. Government transparency would improve. Gosh, wouldn't that be something? People would not only know who represents them but how they're voting and whether they're doing their job. This would make it harder for special interests and lobbyists to wield the influential power they've had. Can anyone in good conscience say those aren't goals worth achieving? Won't having the people more aware make them better citizens?"
"Friends, we've been in session five days now. At least fifty members have yet to occupy their seats in this chamber. Absenteeism has become an all too common occurrence here. Where are our colleagues? Other than a life threatening illness to them or a member of their immediate family, what possible reason could they have for not being here attending the people's business? By running for office, didn't they declare this was a job they wanted? No one forced them to seek public office. They exercised their own free will and said they wanted the sacred fiduciary duty of working for the people? So, I ask again, where are they? Campaigning? The next election is at least two years away. Off on expensive junkets or fact-finding visits to other nations? When you fail to do your job or are chronically absent in the private sector without having a legitimate excuse or explanation, your employer fires you."
"Seventy-eight million dollars. Let me repeat that. Seventy-eight million dollars. That's sure a lot of money. The people say they want smaller or less government. I say, let's give it to them. Think about the ways some of that money could be used if it weren't supporting the U.S. House of Representatives? How about a down payment on reducing the national debt? Our young people are drowning in student loan debt. Wouldn't providing them some relief be nice? We might spend a few more dollars to ensure our veterans get the support they deserve. Heck, there might even be a few dollars left over to begin repairing some of our crumbling infrastructure. Wouldn't that be good for our country? Wouldn't that be good for our citizenry?"
"Of course, there's the argument, if the people want to keep paying us, why shouldn't we take their money. After all, what sane person votes to put themselves out of work? Well, I'll tell you why we shouldn't take their money. My dad instilled in me a sense of right and wrong. He'd say taking the people's money under that pretense is just plain wrong. You know it and I know it. For what the people are getting in return for their seventy-eight million dollars, why it's stealing. Stealing, getting short changed, let's not split hairs. No matter what words you use to dress it up, it's stealing."
"Every day, people in this country are struggling to survive. They're worried about making the ends meet - paying the mortgage, putting their kids through college, etc… Is it fair? Is it right that while our kids attend private schools, theirs attend public schools we sit here failing to help improve? We go to sleep feeling safe and secure at night in our mansion-like homes, while there are homeless families and others afraid of the violence occurring in their neighborhoods. I tell you, this is wrong!"
"Does what I'm proposing sound drastic? Yes. It does, but when the patient's been sick for many many years and nothing tried has worked, well, you've got to consider something completely different and unique. In the private sector, that's called thinking outside the box or developing creative solutions. So I ask you, why shouldn't we think outside the box? Just because an idea hasn't come up before doesn't mean it's not a good idea. It's just one that's never been proposed before."
"Now some would say the people are getting what they deserve. Are they? Can anyone honestly say the people are getting what they're paying for? Well, can you? I think not. And anyone who feels the American people are getting what they deserve isn't a fit human being to sit here. They should get up and leave the building permanently since they hold the American people in such contempt."
"If you look up the word representative in the dictionary, it's definition is someone chosen or elected by a person or group to vote, give opinions, or make decisions for them. How about the word, ruler? Its definition is someone who controls a country or commands. Have we all forgotten why our forefathers fought to establish these United States in the first place? This body's name is The House of Representatives and not The House of Rulers for a reason. We're the people's surrogates. Our job is to represent, not command. How does enacting laws and exempting members of Congress from being subject to them serve the public's interest? How does taking hard working people's money and choosing not to discuss or take action on our problems serve the public's interest? Don't you all realize the people living outside this building are our neighbors, our fellow citizens? We're here to represent them, not rule over them and behave as if it's our divine God given right. I tell you, the way we've been handling their trust is morally and ethically wrong, if not just downright irresponsible. And while it's definitely out of fashion, I truly believe everyone here should be ashamed of themselves."
"Do we really have to listen to these insults?"
"Will the representative yield the floor?"
"No, sir. I will not. We are failing the people. Failing them miserably and we've been doing it by choice. Yes, we do plenty of fiddling, diddling, and yapping at each other, but little else. It's time this stopped. These things are wrong and they don't serve the interests of anyone except the members of this House. We don't deserve to travel in executive first class and assign the people to sit in coach. We're not more than and them less than, especially not when they're paying the bill. They're not second-class citizens. We're all citizens of the same country. But here, in The House, we seem to have lost sight of that."
"Right now the people are getting it both ways, coming and going. The deck is stacked against them. Why shouldn't they be given the opportunity to vote on whether this body should continue to exist? I say, put it to the vote. Put the question, put the idea before the people. Let them speak. Let them decide if they're getting their seventy-eight million dollars worth. If they say there should only be one legislative body going forth, The Senate, then so be it."
"Mr. Smith," interrupted the Speaker. "We've all been patiently indulging you. Are you about done or nearing being done?"
"Yes, Mr. Speaker… and just a few more things..."
"And I'm sure you're going to tell us what they are," groaned a representative out loud.
"These hallowed halls. What do we do with these buildings? Well, we should do what we do with anything of deep historical value and significance. Turn them into a museum. Invite the people to come and see where two hundred plus years of American history took place. A small, nominal preservation fee could even be instituted."
"If the change I'm proposing were adopted, there are a few other things that I believe should also take effect at that same time. All elected Senators should be required to reside in the greater Washington D.C. area unless he or she feels it is reasonable for them to live elsewhere and commute to their job here at their own expense. Many cities and towns now require police officers, firemen, etc… to live in the communities they serve. Companies move locations and when they do, their workers must decide whether to accept a different commute, move their family or change jobs. Making these decisions is involuntarily forced upon the average American ever day. Whereas if anyone seeking a U.S. Senate seat knows up front that residing in the great Washington D. C. area is a job requirement, that doesn't sound like a sacrifice to me. In fact, I believe residency is critical. Why? Because it's hard to demonize your neighbor when your wives or husbands are friends and serve on the PTA together. It's difficult to denigrate your neighbor when your kids go to school with theirs and play on the same after school soccer teams. You may not love your neighbors. You may not even like them or hold the same political viewpoints or opinions they do. But since you know you all have to live together, you work to achieve some harmony and get along with each other in a respectful manner. That is sorely missing today."
"So, in closing, I say once again, let the people decide whether this body should continue to exist. Put the question to them. They should determine if the benefits of dissolving it outweigh the drawbacks."
"Are you finally done, Mr. Smith?" asked the Speaker.
"Yes sir, Mr. Speaker. I believe I am. Maybe somebody somewhere will listen to me. Y'know, it's not too late. Thank you and God bless America."
J L Higgs' short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. He has been published in various magazines such as Indiana Voice Journal, Black Elephant, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, and Literally Stories.