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Opinion: House Members Should Take Civics Tests

… and avoid ‘let them eat cake’ moments

Oklahoma Rep. Markwayne Mullin recently told his constituents that the idea that he works for the voters of his district is “bullcrap.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Oklahoma Rep. Markwayne Mullin recently told his constituents that the idea that he works for the voters of his district is “bullcrap.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Members of Congress should have to take a civics test. 

As you may have heard by now, Rep. Markwayne Mullin has a unique take on his relationship to his constituents. At a town hall meeting recently, the three-term Republican from Oklahoma, said the idea that he works for the voters of his district is “bullcrap.”

“I pay for myself,” an annoyed Mullin said when one of the attendees suggested that he worked for the folks in the district. “I paid enough taxes before I got there [to Congress] and continue to, through my company, to pay my own salary. This is a service. No one here pays me to go.”

Marie Antoinette couldn’t have put it better.

His buffoonish and politically tone-deaf assertion that he’s doing constituents a favor by working for them is actually one of two recent examples of lawmakers failing to understand the nature of their jobs. It follows on the equally absurd claim by Florida GOP Rep. Ted Yoho that House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes works for President Donald Trump.

First, let me assure you, Mr. Mullin, your salary is, in fact, paid by the American people through their taxes. So, while you not only work for your district, you also work for all of us.

Mullin was stimulated

During his first election run, The Associated Press reported that Mullin, an opponent of the 2009 stimulus law, had actually gotten $370,000 in federal funds from that program. So, some of the taxes he paid were on income from federal appropriations — meaning his constituents even paid for some of the money he sent to Washington.

It must be pretty galling for voters whose median household income is just north of $40,000 a year to elect someone to a $174,000-a-year-job and hear him say he pays his own salary.

Second, Mr. Yoho, you should know that members of Congress don’t work for the president. They may work with him at times, but a big part of their job is to conduct oversight of the president and his agencies. How Yoho graduated from the University of Florida without understanding that is beyond me, but certainly, he should have picked up on that truth at some point between his school days and the day he took his oath of office.

What’s most baffling about these declarations is that these members of Congress get an education in how to do their jobs when they go through freshman orientation, right after they are elected to the House. The Administration Committee has a pretty strong program that goes through the ins and outs of how their offices are set up — including where the money comes from — and the Congressional Research Service teaches classes on how Congress interacts with the other branches of government.

There is no excuse for these lawmakers, other than an exceptional lack of interest in how government works, to believe that they work for themselves or for the president. Maybe they simply forgot what they learned at orientation before their freshman terms.

Clueless and uninterested?

But it points to a larger problem that has plagued the House in a period of tremendous turnover: Many of the people charged with making sure the government functions for the people have no idea how it is supposed to work — and have little or no interest in finding out.

The ignorance was barely masked for a time during the Obama administration because opposition to basic acts of governance — annual appropriations and once-rote debt-limit increases — could be written off, at least to some degree, as partisan warfare against the Democratic president.

But the utter failure of this Congress to get moving on substantial legislation is part and parcel of the election of too many House members who simply don’t know how to do their jobs — or for whom they work. That’s the real bullcrap.

The House should conduct regular classes on the basic functions of the federal government for its members. Perquisites such as plum offices and parking spaces — heck, even committee assignments — should be doled out on the basis of performance on a civics test. If a congressman doesn’t like being on lesser committees or having to walk a little farther to get to votes, then maybe he or she will work a little harder to grasp the fundamentals of the job.

Congress likes to impose standards in all walks of federal policymaking. Some lawmakers want welfare recipients to submit to drug tests, which is a pernicious idea. But it shouldn’t be too much to ask for members of the House to take a test to prove they know how to do their jobs.

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