When was the last time you met, or even saw in person, your Congress member? (We used to say “Congressman” but that is so 1860s if not 1960s.) For me, the last time was decades ago. I don’t expect him to come knocking on my door to chat, although that’s what he did when he first ran for office. My U.S. representative, and quite probably yours, too, is MIA. His face on the side of milk cartons. There have been sightings, but mostly of him dozing off in some House vote on herring subsidies. However, that could have been a tape — the speaker was Sam Rayburn. Wait. I do remember seeing my man in Washington. He was making a speech to a high school class and it was so bad that it was run on Comedy Central. That’s the honest truth. His official residence might be the District of Columbia, but members of Congress don’t actually live in Washington. They commute from the suburbs.
The reason we are discussing this lack of contact back in their home district is Eric Cantor. To refresh your memory, Cantor was majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives and was the heir apparent to the speakership. As such he got respect, fear, lots of campaign donations. He represented the Seventh District of Virginia, going from the leafy suburbs of Richmond to near Washington, a strong Republican part of the state, where Romney beat Obama in 2012 by15 percentage points. Cantor had been elected and re-elected seven times.
In the GOP primary he faced an unknown economics professor at Randolph-Macon College named David Brat. Cantor had a 26-to-1 cash advantage. Brat’s entire election budget was $200,000, which was only slightly more than what Cantor’s campaign spent on steak dinners. No kidding. He was so worried about the primary’s outcome that he spent election morning in a D.C. Starbucks, at what The Washington Post described as a “monthly meeting with large donors and lobbyists.”
And he lost. Actually, he got clobbered by 11 percentage points. (Cantor’s own polls showed him up by more than 30 points.) He was the first House leader to be unseated in a primary. After the election, of course, pundits explained: “Obviously it was…” Or, “As I’ve said all along…” Many pundits blame his defeat on immigration. Brat somehow managed to portray Cantor as soft on immigrants, practically pushing for amnesty. Maybe so, but mid-Virginia is hardly a hotbed of illegal immigrants. The congressional district’s Latino population is only 5 percent while 77 percent are non-Hispanic whites, 14.5 percent are black and 4 percent are Asian, according to the 2010 census. I can’t buy that immigration was a top priority for the voters. There was also the matter of a nothing voter turnout. Not 14 percent of the eligible voters cast a ballot, and they were mostly Tea Party members voting for Brat who is even more right-wing than Cantor.
No, the real reason was a matter of priorities. The Congressman had a different set of priorities than his constituents. He lost touch. He succeeded in being a power in the Capitol, but forgot why he was sent there. Cantor was all over the TV screens, holding forth in the Capitol Rotunda, on Sunday morning talk shows, or raising funds in Idaho and collecting chits. His district’s farthest point was only a two-hour car trip from Washington, but he was never around. After-election polls, showed the voters believe they didn’t have a voice in Congress when it came to jobs, the economy, education and herring subsidies.
The “representative” part of their job has been lost I Congress. Example: We are hurting in this economy, but for the first time in history most members of Congress are millionaires, according the Center for Responsive Politics. Of 534 current members of Congress, at least 268 had an average net worth of $1 million or more in 2012. The richest of all is a Texan: Rep. Michael McCaul, Republican of Austin, worth over $294 million. He married it. Many among us are worried about their jobs. Congress doesn’t have that problem. Between gerrymandering and voter apathy, 90 percent of Congress members seeking election are re-elected. Bloomberg reports that 90 percent of House members and 91 percent of senators who sought re-election in 2012 were successful. Polls show we hold Congress in lower esteem than pond scum. But we always re-elect our own member because he or she is really terrific – or runs unopposed. This is particularly true in Texas, although Ralph Hall from northeast Texas was defeated in the last GOP primary, possibly because he was seeking another term at the age of 91, the oldest person to ever serve in the House, and promised to work with his political opponents from all 13 states.
To remind me who he is, I get a Christmas card from my Congressman, which I pay for, and an occasional newsletter extolling his fight against communism. Ditto the pay. His main priorities seem to be being re-elected and sending out Christmas cards. My priorities include the economy, global cooling and getting UT and A&M to meet in football again.
It’s called Potomac Fever. Once members, appointees and most journalists get to Washington they like to stay. Many become lobbyists or just retire to Maryland’s east shore, like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about Cantor. After his defeat, he resigned as majority leader, losing more than 25 staffers (he’ll still have 20 like every other member).This extra staff included bodyguards who drove him around Washington and to his district in an SUV. And his salary of $193,400 will be cut by $20,000 to the normal $173,000. He’ll move to K Street, become a lobbyist, triple his income and buy his former colleagues coffee at Starbucks – on his expense account. As for our Texas’ pols, when the Washington Redskins become the home team, it’s time to leave.
Ashby is unelectable at email@example.com