Just Wondering

I’m not clever enough to add to the hilarity already surrounding Rep. Patrick Kennedy’s traffic mishap last night. (“I’m a Congressman! I’m late to a vote!” Yeah, like 14 hours.) Perversely, perhaps, I want to make a serious comment. Which begins with a quote from a dentist who lived in my home town in South Dakota: “Voting for Democrats is like picking your nose. You like to do it, but you’re not proud of it.”

Crude, but apt. Why on earth is a lost, pathetic nonentity like Patrick Kennedy a member of Congress? What possesses people in his Rhode Island district–does he have some connection with Rhode Island?–to vote for him? Can the people of Rhode Island possibly be proud of being represented by a slow-witted, uninformed young man with admitted psychiatric and drug problems? I assume not.

So why is Patrick Kennedy a Congressman? And why on earth can’t the presumably-sane people who live in his district vote him out?

Obviously, Kennedy is a Congressman because of his last name. But the question is not an idle one. We live in an era in which most people are puzzled by the actions of Congress: Why are there earmarks? Why can’t the majority rule on issues like immigration? Why is it impossible to talk rationally about issues like Social Security and energy costs? Why can’t spending be cut? Ever, for anything?

I wouldn’t push this theory too far, since, obviously, the Kennedys are close to unique in American politics. But still: maybe the dysfunction that is so obvious in Patrick Kennedy’s case is a window onto a more pervasive problem. Maybe the same weird, but real, forces that result in a nonentity like Kennedy being an entrenched member of Congress help to explain why the institution as a whole is so unresponsive to Americans’ needs and preferences.


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