Feature:Opinion

Putting pols to the test

Henry Miller Senior Fellow, Pacific Research Institute.

According to the latest Gallup 2010 Confidence in Institutions poll, the U.S. Congress ranks dead last out of the 16 institutions rated.  Only 11% percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in those who populate the institution, down from 17% in 2009 and a percentage point lower than the previous low (2008).

It’s no wonder that the intelligence of members of Congress has so often been spoofed.  “Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress.  But I repeat myself,” quipped Mark Twain.  Humorist Will Rogers addressed the consequences of these deficiencies: “When Congress makes a joke it’s a law, and when they make a law, it’s a joke.”

There are innumerable examples of the joke being on us.  A friend of mine was seated at a banquet table with the family of then-Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kansas), who was later to become secretary of agriculture in the Clinton cabinet.  The family expressed relief at his having entered politics because none of them thought Dan was smart enough to enter the family business: auto shredding and scrap metal.  I attended a symposium that Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Virginia), then chairman of the powerful House Commerce Committee, addressed via teleconference.  As he recited from a prepared statement, he included the “stage instructions” — such as “Pause for emphasis” — that had been inserted by his speechwriter.  And where one line inadvertently had been duplicated, Bliley read it a second time.

Congressman John Salazar (D-CO) recently related this anecdote: “You know when I was debating what became the 2008 Farm Bill, I had a member of the Ag Committee actually ask me if chocolate milk really comes from brown cows.  I asked if he was joking and he assured me he wasn’t.”  A member of the Agriculture Committee?

Politicians constantly suffer from foot-in-mouth disease.  Consider these recent gaffes:

– Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) proclaimed on the House floor on July 15 that “victory had been achieved” by the United States in the Vietnam war and that, “[t]oday, we have two Vietnams; side-by-side, North and South, exchanging and working.  We may not agree with all that North Vietnam is doing, but they are living in peace.”  The truth is, of course, that since the withdrawal of the United States in 1975 — three years after Lee graduated from college — what used to be North and South Vietnam have been united under a single communist government.

Rep. Lee is a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

It was also Rep. Lee who during a visit to the Jet Propulsion Lab in 2005 asked a NASA scientist whether the Mars Pathfinder probe had photographed the flag that astronaut Neil Armstrong had left behind in 1969.  Armstrong had, of course, left the flag on the moon, not Mars.  No manned spacecraft has visited Mars.

– Alvin Greene, the Democratic candidate for the Senate in South Carolina, is like something from a Monty Python skit.  He is unemployed; has raised only “about $1,000″ for his campaign — compared to his incumbent opponent’s $3.5 million; is facing a felony charge of showing pornographic Internet photos to a female University of South Carolina student; and suggested in July that launching a line of action figures modeled after him could provide needed jobs for South Carolinians.

– Sharron Angle, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Nevada, continues to refuse to answer questions from the media at “press conferences,” once spoke out against water fluoridation (a significant public health advance that has been proven to be safe and to markedly reduce dental caries), and once hinted that she might support making consumption of alcoholic beverages illegal.

Are these aberrations stupidity, dementia or personality disorders?  To find out, shouldn’t there be some vetting or testing of people in critical governmental positions?  After all, we require that bus drivers and hairdressers demonstrate their competence before they are permitted to ply their trades, and applicants to most police forces undergo psychological testing.  I suspect that Representative Lee and candidates Greene and Angle would fare poorly.

Maybe we should treat dissatisfaction with our representation as a medical, rather than a solely political, issue by asking candidates and incumbents to volunteer for periodic intelligence and mental status testing.  After all, we often demand to know whether a candidate has recovered from open-heart surgery, cancer or a stroke, and many states require elderly drivers to be re-licensed.  Isn’t control over the nation’s coffers and the responsibility for declaring war as important as the ability to drive a car?

A mental status exam by an expert offers an assessment of cognitive abilities, memory and quality of thought processes.  It includes assessments of alertness; speech; behavior; awareness of environment; mood; affect; rationality of thought processes; appropriateness of thought content (presence of delusions, hallucinations, or phobias); memory; ability to perform simple calculations; judgment (“If you found a letter on the ground in front of a mailbox, what would you do with it?”); and abstract reasoning.

An intelligence test measures various parameters that are thought to correlate with academic or financial achievement.  Every legislator need not be a genius, but I’d like mine to be smarter than the average janitor.

The journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken observed, “Congress consists of one third, more or less, scoundrels; two thirds, more or less, idiots; and three thirds, more or less, poltroons.”  Testing might help us to weed out a few idiots.  Getting rid of the scoundrels and poltroons will be more difficult.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, was an official at the NIH and FDA from 1977 to 1994.  His most recent book is “The Frankenfood Myth.”