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Is Congress broken?

Sep 12, 2017

Three years ago, David Trott, a lawyer and a multi-millionaire player in the mortgage business, decided to run for Congress. He spent at least three and a half million dollars of his own money to win a seat representing a group of mostly middle-class, mostly white Detroit suburbs.

To get there, he had to knock off an accidental and eccentric Republican incumbent in the primary, and then beat an underfunded state department consultant in the general election. Last year, he was reelected in a race that this time, only cost his campaign two million. Yesterday, Trott said he’d had enough, and wouldn’t run for reelection next year.

What that means is a bonanza for political consultants and TV networks, which are now bound to be deluged with both Republican and Democratic candidates spending great wads of cash to try and win first the August primary and then the general election.

This is a district that leans Republican, but not impossibly so. Given the right circumstances, a Democrat could win it. Given that Donald Trump is president, the national Democratic Party may feel these are the right circumstances, and you may see a true avalanche of money pouring into this district from both parties.

It would not surprise me if $10 million dollars were spent here in the next fourteen months, in attempts to win a job that lasts two years and has little real power.

I do not know Congressman Trott, who turns 57 next month, personally. And I have no reason to doubt his statement that he wants to “spend more time with my family and return to the private sector.” But I know people who do know him, and it was pretty clear from them and the congressman’s social media posts that he wasn’t fulfilled. Nor was he an uncritical admirer of his party’s leader, the President of the United States.

This summer, Trott posted that “announcing major policy decisions on Twitter was a dumb idea,” and that the nation “needs more unity and less decisiveness,” and suggested Donald Trump “focus more on golf.” It was pretty clear Trott wasn’t a happy warrior.

Dave Trott is a very conservative Republican. But he is being called a moderate today, because of saying generally logical things, such as that we can’t afford to wait when it comes to stopping Asian carp from getting into and destroying the Great Lakes.

But regardless of what is behind his retirement, it underscores the fact that Congress, and our way of selecting congressmen, is terribly broken. Should it really cost $5 million dollars every two years to win a job that pays $174,000 a year?

Today, we have essentially two kinds of Congressmen; multimillionaires and those who spend the lion’s share of their time begging for campaign contributions. Trott is leaving after four years, which isn’t long enough to accumulate any real power.

But also representing Michigan are John Conyers, who is 88 and has been there more than half a century, and Sandy Levin, who turned 86 last week, and was my state senator half a century ago. Somehow I don’t think that was what the founders intended either.

I don’t know how to fix this, but I do know that it is broken. And I thought I’d challenge you to think about this today.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.