Sunday, September 9, 2012

a Congress of ombudsmen

The New York Times has a strange article by Fred A. Bernstein, described as a lawyer and journalist, criticizing Congress for spending time on constituent services, also known as casework.

He says:
For the country, what government workers call “constituent services” — really the meddling of representatives in the business of executive agencies — is a sign of federal dysfunction, and one with consequences. Congress, arguably the most powerful branch of government, seems to have given up on the main thing the Constitution authorizes it to do: pass laws.
Mr. Bernstein misreads the Constitution and misunderstands U.S. history. I agree with him on only one point -- that the current Congress has done too little passing laws. I see no proof that it has done too much to help individual citizens and their problems with the government.

The United States has never had the Nordic system of ombudsmen because it has the Congress. Elected Representatives from the earliest days of the Republic contacted Executive Branch officials on behalf of their constituents, often to get them jobs and sometimes to resolve disputes.

As for passing laws, prior to the 1950s, the bulk of actual laws passed by Congress each year were Private Bills that granted named individuals pensions or immigration status or the like. Before deciding to sponsor such bills, members often spent hours in the offices of Executive Branch officials seeking to understand the circumstances of the decisions in that case before offering legislative relief.

Even today, a significant part of every member's staff is devoted to answering constituent complaints and requests, such as getting a missed Social Security check or obtaining  compassionate leave for a soldier or unsnarling an agency decision that has caused objectionable local consequences. This does not prevent lawmakers from working on legislation; it gives them direct evidence from the voters as to how well the government is working.

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