“This Is No Joke,” from the State Journal as reprinted in the Monroe Journal, August 15, 1916, Monroe, N.C.
Fred C. Kelly, writing in Every Week, tells the following as a Congressman’s explanation of why he can never be defeated. It is no joke:
When I entered Congress just a few years ago, I believe I was just as full of patriotic impulses as anybody. I was ambitious to get ahead by honest effort and to serve my district and my country in a manner that should be characterized by sincerity and freedom from so-called “bunk.”
At the end of my first term I did not receive as large a majority as I had hoped for, and one member from another State whom I knew to be one of the most patriotic and hardest working men in the House was defeated. His defeat set me thinking. If a man of his caliber, who had served so well, could not hold his seat, what hope was thee for the rest of us? I mentioned the matter to an older member.
“Sometimes,” he told me, “it is necessary to decide whether to be a useful public servant or to hold your job in Congress.”
From that conversation I date the change in my character as a Congressman. I am ashamed of the change. I am today a long way adrift from the ideals that I had when I came to Washington. But—I am perfectly sure that I shall stay in Congress just as long as I choose to stay.
And, while there are few men among my associates who would openly make such a confession as this, there are scores in both parties whose story is just like mine. “Congressman,” said the late Mr. Littlefield of Maine, “are the most cowardly human beings on earth.” He was pretty nearly right. Take us as a group, we have only one sincere emotion—that fear that we shall fail to be reelected.
One reason why I have come to feel reasonably sure of keeping my job is because I am one of the most useless members of Congress. I have little time for the real legislative part of congressional work, because I am taken up with the little chores which, while of scant consequence to anybody, are of value ingratiating myself with the voters at home. While other members are busy trying to shape legislation in committees or on the floor, I am usually in my office sending out letters or seeds or helpful little bulletins.
I have found by experience that the average voter is flattered to receive a personal letter from his Congressman. Many a day I send out from my office an entire mail-sack full of letters. As a rule, these letters have scant bearing on legislation or national questions or on anything beyond making me solid with various individuals at home. I find that it doesn’t matter what I write to a man about; the main thing is to write to him.
I arranged some years ago with the deputy probate officers in each county of my district to send me a list every week or two of all marriages and births recorded in that county, along with the addresses of the principals. I send a letter of congratulation to the new husband or the new mother, as the case may be. The scheme of writing to a young mother has proved especially good. A man may forget about a letter I have written him, but he never gets a chance to forget that I have written to his wife. She speaks of it and shames him if he ever threatens to vote against me.
I distribute all the seeds and bulletins furnished for me by the Department of Agriculture, and usually write a letter calling attention to the fact that I have mailed these things, aiming to give the impression in each letter that the name of the particular person to whom I am writing suddenly occurred to me as one of especial importance in the community.
When I’m at home I studiously avoid doing anything that could give the impression that I am not one of the so-called common people. I encourage the humblest folk in my district to address me by my first name. Never, when I can avoid it, do I let any of the home people see me in evening clothes.
It was a long time before I felt that I dared drive an automobile. When motor cars became so common that many mechanics were driving to work in their own machines, I finally bought one of the cheaper makes. I make it a point to happen by a factory occasionally just at the time the whistle blows for the men to quit work, and I invite as many horny-handed laborers as the car will hold to ride with me.
While I naturally would not care to say so over my own signature, the truth is that myi whole work in Congress is done, in the way that will best serve to insure my reelection. When a bill comes up for consideration, I almost unconsciously look at it from the angle of how it will affect me politically, rather than whether it is a good or a bad measure for the people. I have been in Congress so long now that I really haven’t the nerve to tackle any other line of endeavor, and so I am determined to remain in this job until I die. I’ll do it, too; I’m sure of that.
About the most vicious feature of my system is that I must work for the so-called pork barrel measures, that is, more or less useless expenditure of public money, so long as my district gets a share of these wasted funds. If I can contrive in any way to get a government building for a town in my district, where no such building is needed, but where the populace will point to it as something accomplished by their member of Congress—thus reminding themselves to vote for me when election day comes—the town finds itself with that building.
“What if it is expensive,” they say, “so long as we are getting it? The whole country has to pay for it.”
What they over look is the fact that in order to obtain that building appropriation I was obliged to vote, perhaps, for several score more buildings in other parts of the country which were equally needless and extravagant and wasteful. In order to get a $50,000 building in his own town, Mr. Taxpayer must help provide the money for a few dozen other buildings, costing perhaps a million each, in other towns. Instead of voting for a Congressman who gets an expensive building for his district on that basis, the people should rise up against him in righteous wrath. But no body of taxpayers has ever yet viewed the proposition in that way, and I believe it will be a long time before they do.
The one element of danger to a Congressman who makes it a point to curry favor in the various ways that I do, is the necessity of making occasional appointments, particularly postmasterships. I have been getting around this lately by having the people hole preferential elections, and thus relieving myself of the responsibility and the danger of making enemies. A candidate for the post office may be vexed somewhat with me if I don’t appoint him; but he can’t say much if I am able to point out that the people in his town voted against him.
A few measures come up in the House on which public sentiment is so divided that it is extremely dangerous to vote at all. For example, in a district which is fairly close, a vote on either side of the national prohibition question might defeat a man. Whatever side you vote against will work for your opponent at the polls—even though your opponent may feel the same about it as you do. You opponent has the advantage that he is not on record and you are.
I am free to say that I never have allowed my attitude on the prohibition question to be recorded, and I never will. Sentiment in my district is too evenly divided. On the day the thing comes to a vote, I shall e called away, or taken ill, or something.
I would prefer to be a highly efficient Congressman, voting always on the side of right and justice, rather than to follow always, as I do, the line of political expediency. But I haven’t enough money to take a chance on being turned out of office. And so I shall continue to be simply a useless congressman. It is the only way I know to safeguard myself.