Lawyers have to pass the bar exam in order to practice law. Medical doctors have to move through a gauntlet of education, residency programs and the Medical Licensing Examination if they want to practice medicine. Professional airline pilots need a ton of experience, plus they have to get an Air Transport Pilot License (ATPL) if they want to fly commercially. Members of the United State’s Congress have to pass …
… absolutely nothing.
In fact, the only real requirements to become a member of Congress are age and the amount of time a potential candidate has been a citizen. For the House of Representatives, you have to be at least 25-years-old and an American citizen for seven years. For the Senate, bump those numbers up to 30 years of age and a United States citizen for nine years. You also have to reside in the district or state where you’re elected.
That’s it. No aptitude or IQ tests or anything else. You can be dumb as a brick, but with enough charm and political clout, you can still hold office and help shape the destiny of a nation.
I’m of two minds when it comes to the requirements it takes to serve in the American Congress, and also in most state legislatures. On one hand, anyone with a dream of working for his or her country and the political tenacity to get elected should have the chance to do so regardless of his or her socioeconomic or educational status. (We don’t all start out of the gate with the same monetary and social advantages.)
On the other hand, when I look at how dysfunctional and dogmatic certain parts of our government have become and the incredibly stupid things pouring out of some of our politicians’ mouths, I kind of think it might be time to have some kind of standardized test for public service at the state and national level. Here are a few less-than-coherent quotes that have me sitting on the fence:
“Just because the Supreme Court rules on something doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s constitutional.” — Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), speaking about Obamacare
“We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.” — Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.), addressing the reasons behind the 2013 government shutdown
“We know Al Qaeda has camps on the Mexican border. We have people that are trained to act Hispanic when they are radical Islamists.” — Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas)
“If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” — Former Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.)
“You would be giving off more CO2 if you are riding a bike than driving in a car.” — State House Rep. Ed Orcutt (R-Wash.)
Sigh. I could go on, but why? Some basic knowledge about science, geography, history and how the government works would be a nice change. Even folks with advanced degrees, like presidential hopeful and neurosurgeon Ben Carson say unfathomable things, like comparing Obamacare to slavery. (You may not be thrilled with it, but it’s not even close to the horrors of owning another human being, even in the context of incendiary political rhetoric.)
You and I have to take a test in order to get a driver’s license. Why shouldn’t members of Congress have to take a test based upon civics, basic human biology and critical thinking in order to drive our nation forward? It doesn’t even have to be an impediment to holding office, but rather an official litmus test — open to public record — about just how crazy, racist and grossly misinformed some of our leaders happen to be.
Maybe the heavily propagandized electorate isn’t as knowledgeable as it should be, but that doesn’t mean our elected officials have to mirror our occasional (or frequent, depending on the company you keep) collective stupidity. It would be a wonderful thing if we could stop dumbing down our democracy.
Carl Pettit is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.