What Norm Coleman & Al Franken Have Taught America

The Senate is carrying more dead weight than an Uruguayan rugby team


You know, in today's America, we focus too much on the negative news: How Tom Brady has not yet contributed another future taxpayer for Social Security, how Terminator Salvation sucks across all entertainment platforms (even cell-phone ringtones), about how even Swine Flu ain't really what it's cracked up to be.

So before we hit the weekend and get trapped in nasty, La Brea Tar Pit–like arguments about whether high-jump legend Javier Sotomayor (no relation to Sonia, though he is a communist!) was a coke user, whether Sonia Sotomayor is an empath or just a reverse racist, and whether Newt Gingrich could in fact pass that apparently super-tough fireman-promotion test in New Haven, let's take a moment to thank two great patriots for teaching us an invaluable lesson in U.S. civics.

I speak, of course, of Norm Coleman and Al Franken, who are duking it out over the privilege to be Amy Klobuchar's (yes, that Amy Klobuchar) senatorial date from the great state of Minnesota. Even as it vanishes from Google News due to lack of interest, the Franken-Coleman procedural slugfest may well be the most clarifying clash of titans since the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Here we are, what, like a year since the election last November and the great recount battle of 2008-2009 limps on like an extended SNL skit. There's a Minnesota Supreme Court case scheduled to be heard on June 1 which should…extend the discussion by at least another week or two. As it stands, Franken won a recount by a tad over 300 votes, although that was before this tape of Franken's early '80s impersonation of Mick Jagger came to light, which surely would have altered last fall's election (and quite possibly The Rolling Stones' recent tour receipts).

[Article continues below godawful video]

So what's the great civics lesson that Coleman, last seen limping around D.C.'s Reagan-National Airport begging for change for arthroscopic surgery, and Franken are teaching us?

It has nothing to do with the intricacies of the recount mechanism (we learned that during the 2000 presidential election), or the great goddamn glory of the American system by which power is transferred peacefully from one party to another (thanks, John Adams, because otherwise you pretty much sucked as president, though you really did make 1776 a toe-tapping musical), or even that a dicey showbiz background full of more bombs than an Afghan playground can be overcome if you're good enough, smart enough, and dog-gone it, if people like you enough (a long line of rehashed celebs from George Murphy to Ronald Reagan to Fred "Gopher" Grandy had already poured that knowledge into us like a pina colada mixed on the Love Boat's lido deck).

No, the lesson is simply this: We've gotten by fine these past few months with just one senator from Minnesota. So fine, in fact, that in this century of constant cost-cutting and rising unemployment, the federal government should do its share by immediately downsizing the World's Greatest Deliberative Body by 50 percent.

Think about it, is any near-bankrupt work unit in America this side of a shovel-ready stimulus project more clogged with redundant and/or phantom employees? Does Massachusetts really need John Kerry and Ted Kennedy? Does Arkansas really need Blanche Lincoln and somebody whose last name is Pryor? I'm betting dollars to donuts that Idaho can get by with either Mike Crapo or Jim Risch. If Idahoans are like regular Americans, then more of them know that Jar Jar Binks was senator from the Chomell Sector than have any idea of who these guys are.

Even in the 11 states where the senatorial team is split between Coms and Yangs Republicans and Democrats, you'd need an electron microscope to fully grok the value of paying a salary to, say, both George Voinovich and Sherrod Brown. Put plainly, the U.S. Senate is carrying more dead weight than an Uruguayan rugby squad.

Cutting the Senate workforce in half will immediately save $8.7 million per year in direct salary costs, plus millions more in pension plans, entourage costs, inevitable sexual-harassment lawsuits, and skyrocketing bean soup expenditures. If the folks who believe that government spending has a multiplier effect can be trusted (and they can't), then cutting government spending at the highest level should send more fiscally responsible ripples through the system than slapping Sen. Robert Byrd's stomach while he's playing Hooverball.

For the past decade or more, those of us in the non-public sectors have been told to do more with less. And, by and large, we have, thanks to a mix of technological innovations and good old-fashioned managerial lashes with wet noodles. I really hate to break it to the Reason staff, but you all are doing at least 50 percent more work now than when I showed up here in 1993. (And, I hasten to add, I haven't seen so many goldbrickers since Beetle Bailey slept through the My Lai massacre.)

Yet the public sector simply increases spending and staff, generally with flat results or worse. A quick example: Since 1970, per-pupil spending in public K-12 schools has more than doubled in real dollars while reading outcomes for 17-year-olds are flat. And as Matt Welch and Reason.tv have documented, the all-too-representative state of California has simply added more workers and more spending in a desperate, though by-all-counts-successful, bid to provide lower-quality services even to illegal immigrants. So it is at the federal level, where the spending-and-hiring explosion of the past decade has been like Arnold Schwarzenegger on steroids. And, as President Obama has told us via his own budget, we ain't seen nothing yet.

To be sure, cutting the Senate in half won't do anything to cut structural deficits; stave off the coming collapse of Social Security, Medicare, and the Cleveland Cavaliers; or shorten useless security checkpoint lines at the nation's airports. Indeed, if the past few months are any indication, it won't even stop the government from setting all kinds of spending records and making more power grabs than Bob Packwood in a crowded elevator.

But if it keeps both Al Franken and Norm Coleman off the public teat at a job that pays $174,000 a year and forces them onto unemployment at even half that much, well, it'll practically pay for itself in no time.

Nick Gillespie is editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv.