TCS Daily

Putting Congress to the Test

By Henry I. Miller - December 29, 2008 12:00 AM

It's hardly a secret that the U.S. congress performs miserably: The Gallup annual poll on confidence in institutions, released several months ago, found "just 12% of Americans expressing confidence in Congress, the lowest of the 16 institutions tested this year, and the worst rating Gallup has measured for any institution in the 35-year history of this question." That fraction is down sharply from an already dismal 30% as recently as 2004.

And yet we continue to elect and reelect scoundrels, liars, hypocrites and the intellectually challenged. The elusive quality of "electability" seems not to correlate with truthfulness, integrity, courage or intelligence, but only with a certain affability -- and with the ability to raise funds for campaigns.

It's no coincidence that the intelligence of members of Congress has so often been spoofed. "Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself," quipped Mark Twain. Will Rogers addressed the consequences of these deficiencies: "When Congress makes a joke it's a law, and when they make a law, it's a joke."

There are innumerable examples of the joke being on us. A friend of mine was seated at a banquet table with the family of then-Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kansas). The family expressed relief at his having entered politics because none of them thought Dan was smart enough to enter the family business: auto and appliance shredding and scrap metal.

I was at a symposium that Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Virginia), then chairman of the powerful House Commerce Committee, attended by teleconference. As he recited from a prepared statement, he included the "stage instructions" ? such as "Pause for emphasis" ? that had been inserted by his speechwriter. And where one line had been inadvertently duplicated, Bliley read it a second time. Carelessness? Stupidity? Senility? Don't voters have a right to know?

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico) was sufficiently forthright to reveal last year that he had been diagnosed with an inexorably progressive, incurable disease characterized by wasting away of the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. Because of the behavioral changes and dementia that accompany this condition, Domenici announced that he would not seek reelection in 2008. I have great sympathy for Mr. Domenici, who is in the twilight of both career and life. But did the people of New Mexico deserve to be represented for another year by a senator who admitted to suffering from progressive dementia? I believe he should have resigned at the time his illness was diagnosed.

And then there is nonagenarian Sen. Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia), the longest serving senator in American history. In his 51st year in the senate, the 90-year old's public utterances and maunderings speak for themselves, though few can be repeated in print. Curious readers can find one such example here.

As a voter and taxpayer, but also as a physician, I worry about whether such people are fit to serve. Mental missteps abound, such as when Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif), who is 75, dismissed an issue as "water over the bridge." Note to "DiFi": except in extremely unusual circumstances, water flows under a bridge.

Even more worrisome was this observation of Senator Joe Biden (D-Del) during the presidential campaign: "When the stock market crashed, Franklin Roosevelt got on television" and explained to the American people what had happened. In fact, Roosevelt did not become president until 1933 and his first appearance on TV was in 1939. Since that gaffe, Biden has regularly bumbled and fumbled in his public remarks. Many people his age have "senior moments," but Mr. Biden seems to be experiencing senior months.

Perhaps we should treat dissatisfaction with our representation as a medical, rather than a solely political, issue. How? By asking candidates and incumbents to volunteer for periodic intelligence and mental status testing. After all, we often demand to know whether a candidate has recovered from open-heart surgery, cancer or a stroke, and many states require elderly drivers to be re-licensed. If driving a car is important enough to merit periodic screening, certainly the same is true for the body that profoundly affects every aspect of Americans' lives.

A mental status exam by an expert offers an assessment of cognitive abilities, memory and quality of thought processes. It includes assessments of alertness; speech; behavior; awareness of environment; mood; affect; rationality of thought processes; appropriateness of thought content (presence of delusions, hallucinations, or phobias); memory; ability to perform simple calculations; judgment ("If you found a letter on the ground in front of a mailbox, what would you do with it?"); and higher reasoning, such as the ability to interpret proverbs abstractly ("A stitch in time saves nine.").

An intelligence test measures various parameters that are thought to correlate with academic or financial achievement. Every legislator need not be a genius, but I'd like mine to be smarter than the average person in the supermarket or laundromat.

The journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken observed, "Congress consists of one third, more or less, scoundrels; two thirds, more or less, idiots; and three thirds, more or less, poltroons." Testing might help us to weed out a few idiots. Getting rid of the scoundrels and poltroons will have to wait.



Hear, Hear
>"Every legislator need not be a genius, but I'd like mine to be smarter than the average person in the supermarket or laundromat."

That's certainly putting it straight. Or as a local commentator once noted, "Congress isn't an abstraction, it's made up of 435 people in the U.S. House of Representatives and 100 people in the United States Senate -- and not every single one of those members of the House and Senate is a rocket scientist. Not every one is brilliant, not every one is reasonable. Over the years I've sat in on dozens and dozens of Congressional hearings, and while there are some stars in those legislative bodies, I have to tell you that on balance I was never impressed with the intellectual caliber of the average member of the United States Congress. There are some first class dummies and fools in Congress representing congressional districts or even states. There are some demagogues. And some hypocrites. And some firebrands. And some idiots. And if there were a contest for maybe the biggest idiot in the United States House, I think that Maxine Waters would be clearly one of the finalists."

As for Mencken, there are certain things that crusty old cynic was definitely dead-on about -- the evalutation of the brain power of our elected representatives being one of them.

Every politician has a mental disorder: narcissism
"For those who grow up to become corrupt politicians their narcissism is marked by their insistent belief in their fundamental worthiness to "receive" bountifully and an overweening belief in the correctness of their own frames of reference. A person like William Jefferson Clinton, whose well-publicized appetites are essentially narcissistic, is trapped in a developmental cul-de-sac from which escape is thwarted by the unavailability of the personalities who played (or should have played) the necessary roles to help Bill work this out "normally" on his own. Clinton has patched together a reasonable facsimile of successful personality development (as do most of us), but as the world knows, the Clinton result leans heavily toward narcissism which is tempered (and sometimes deluded) by a formidable intellect.

A person like Tom DeLay on the other hand uses a strong will in the place of a strong intellect and is, in any case, a different sort of narcissist. DeLay is a second level pathological narcissist, whose personality's ego centrism has reached the point where starkly binary relationships exist for him: those who fawn over him and kiss his ring are favored, those who don't (and everyone in their party) are not even worthy of being called human beings. The rejection of a person's humanity provides a multitude of excuses, of course, but fundamentally a person like DeLay has no friends, only courtiers who, like DeLay, see a feeding/suckling frenzy for what it is and latch on for their own narcissistic ride."

A return to the democracy of Athens, a lottery, would result in better qualified leaders than we have now.

What the 'smart' ones do.
Schumer is supposed to be smart earing perfect SAT scores.

He aggressively supported Wall Street into bankruptcy.

Is Schumer smart for playing the game of re-election or dumb for selling out the citizens of the USA?

I would trust people like Palin any day.

Those venal idiots always get an F-. And these are the clowns that guys like Roy say we simply must have rule us and protect us from crooks. If only we could be protected from them.

Hahahaha, the only proof we need is Barney Frank
One only need to see and listen to Barney Frank to see how vapid politicians are. He is a blithering idiot. Add to that Maxine Waters and you might reach a IQ of 100.

Were doomed folks. The standard for our leaders is so low that my dog could do a better job.

Right Roy?

Don't forget 'live shot' Kerry.

How can so many 'smart' people elect so many idiots?
Cambridge is the home of MIT and Harvard and they elect Kerry and so many other fools.

We are who we are
The mental qualities and characters of Congressmen accurately reflect those of the people who elect them. For example, Rep. Murtha called his own constituents redneck racists, but they reelected him anyway. They did so because Rep. Murtha is a prince of pork, which voters love while not loving federal deficits or the sorrowful state of Social Security - an obvious instance of severe cognitive dissonance.

See the picture clearly, now? "We are who we are", says Rep. Murtha's constituents, "and we want what we want, and we don't care whether we're right or wrong, sane or crazy." As the voters go, so goes Congress.

Don't forget BHO's visit to the 57 states...and "Family Ties"
So much for youth and purported IQ.

In general, I agree with the article, but the focus on age
missed another important factor.. familial ties.

The Bushes, Caseys, Cuomos, Daleys, Kennedys & Molinaris have all had members of their family trade on family name. It was scary to read that in a prior electoral bid to his 2006 Senate race, PA voters thought they were voting for Bob Casey Sr, not Casey Jr., despite the fact that the father had been dead for years. The Bushes actually really go back-Barbara Pierce Bush was related to Franklin Pierce.

Although I think Jeb govern better than his father or brother, I would likely oppose his candidacy in the primary on the grounds that this is not a monarchy, should he decide to pursue the presidency in the future.

Decision by Physician?
I'm sorry but you are dead wrong here. The doctor, with concurring opinions should INFORM the decision, but should not make it. There's no constitutional provision for removal from office by physician. The doctor has a primary duty to his PATIENT, not to the electorate. What if the doctor makes a diagnosis but the politician decides not to reveal it-the doctor might know somebody is going to become unfit quickly and be unable to act because of HIPAA.

He should have stepped down immediately for several reasons. First, being diseases rarely adhere to timetables, secondly, its not like the progression is going to cross some magic threshold. Third, in that position, go home and spend time w/ the family-you get that diagnosis its time to make hay while the sun shines.

Staying on is noble, its foolhardy and narcissistic.

Democracy is Infallible, Right?
Thats how it produced Hitler.

Living their life
I have no desire to dictate how a person lives out their time after receiving the news of a progressive, impairing disease. I do not want them at the cockpit, the wheel or the helm of the ship of state. With power comes responsibility-including the duty to step down, if need be.

Lets assume for a minute that Ronald Reagan would've been in 1984, what he was told in 1994 and had experienced in office the forgetful episodes and occasional stumbles at the podium that he experienced after his presidency. No Mr. President, its more than just the dimming fires of youth. How would the meetings with Gorbachev have gone if Reagan had one of those temporary lapses when he was pressing him on the matters of great importance? Dementias can be cruelly slow in their progression, but there's always the spikes.

You simply don't know the course of some of these diseases and once diagnosed, the officeholder has a duty to hand over the reigns of office to somebody whose judgment isn't even potentially impaired by disease. Revealing the condition compromises the officeholder (even somebody in Congress, politics is a bloodsport) and withholding it is dereliction of duty.

Eastern Europe was lost to USSR because FDR was ill.
and/or drunk.

Class action lawsuit
Given that Congress and the Executive branches are turning the USA into a socialist state, in direct violation of the constitution, why can't the people file a class action lawsuit to stop such action?

The "Smart" Politician and Weasle Space
People of too widely different ability or life experience have a hard time communicating. This is true even if one person has exactly the same background knowledge as part of a knowledge superset. As an amusing approach to this problem in information theory, the weasel unit of measurement has been proposed.

A weasel has an IQ of about 20 and people who have IQs differing by more than 20 points (one weasel) also have trouble communicating. A weasel lifetime is also a good unit of measurement. A "weasel" of life experience in a given subject places a person outside of the weasel space of a person who has not studied that subject.

I propose that all politicians and media personnel be raked in "Weasels"(W). With vectors of time/experience (up), Technical knowledge/Depth (front to back) and political positions (left to right). Engineers and Medical Doctors in congress can then be recognized as being deeper men than comedy writers.

Of course in keeping with standard mathematical representation of Cartesian coordinates to the right will be positive and stands to the left negative, more open and visible technical subjects like Engineering and Medicine (open or forward) will be positive knowledge to confuses or obscures like the law negative. This will allow energetic but mistaken media figures to be recognized by their scalar value over their zero value empty suit colleges.

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