The Paul Findley Questionnaire
A Congressman makes his own public opinion
July 4, 1980
I no longer hold the somewhat dismissive attitude toward my then-congressman that animates this piece. As we all did in those days, I judged Paul Findley against the best that we used to have in Illinois government, not the worst that we soon would have. I was callow, and assumed that he didn’t vote the way I wanted him to because he was a “typical politician,” not because he was beinmost of us constituents
My weaknesses as a seer were exposed when I dismissed the need to register all firearms because “people don't stick up liquor stores with rifles,” having failed to foresee the extent to which Americans would come to depend on long guns as a means of self-expression.
"In general, do you feel that U.S. military strength is adequate?" I thought about that question a bit and made my mark in the box marked, "No." Then I scratched it out and replaced it with a large and, I hope, irritated-looking question mark. I was trying, good citizen that I am, to "send a message to Washington" as I had been invited to do by 20th District Congressman Paul Findley. Findley is the Pittsfield Republican who's been in Congress so long that the crew cut he wore when he made his first trip to Washington in 1961 has come back into style, and the message was his annual survey of district opinion.
Like most congressmen, Findley mails these questionnaires every year. This year's edition was especially interesting, because Findley is up for reelection. He's running scared against David Robinson of Springfield, a sort of cross between Sammy Glick and Muriel Humphrey. Findley only barely squeaked by a nobody in the primary, and the reasons usually offered for the narrow escape is that Findley has lost touch with his district. The Questionnaire, he asserted on the reverse of the form, "will arm me with the proof I need to show Congress and the Administration what the people in my district want. And," he concluded, "it will help me decide how to vote in Congress. "
It will also keep Findley's name in front of the voters (the piece is labeled, "The Paul Findley Questionnaire," in two colors; can't be bad) without his having to pay for it out of campaign funds. This is called using the incumbency, and though it is dishonest it is not illegal. It is one of the little luxuries we allow our elected officials, though in Findley's case you'd think that the chance to move out of Pittsfield would be luxury enough.
Still, one has one's duty, and I set about answering the eleven questions Mr. Findley had put to me. Each was to be answered either "Yes" or "No." The congressman admitted that "it's hard to give a simple 'yes' or 'no' answer to many of these questions," and I quickly saw how right he was, since the questions dealt with 'such quintessentially unsimple issues as national defense, welfare, and abortion. This business of settling complex questions with simple answers seems pretty risky, and nobody should know that better than a man who's spent the last twenty years in Washington. If the questions can't be answered simply, then why mark the boxes only "Yes" and "No"? I thought. Why not add a box marked "Maybe" or "I don't care" or "You figure it out"?
Better yet, why ask the question at all? Findley insists that voting "yes" or "no" is “exactly what I must do when I vote in Congress." But that's not true; a congressman can vote "present" or vote for or against amendments that subtly shade the meaning and thrust of a bill. Besides, as I soon realized, no bill put before the House is so baldly phrased, so misleading in its construction, so amenable to distortion as the questions on what I will, for economy's sake, henceforth refer to as TPFQ.
Question l, for example, asked, "Should able-bodied welfare recipients (age 18–64) be required to perform public service jobs (workfare) in order to work off the value of the benefits they receive?" I wanted to answer, "Yes, and so should state legislators and congressmen." But which able-bodied recipients? The mothers with young children who together comprise the vast bulk of the welfare case load? This muddiness of focus, I found, was typical of TPFQ. Question 3 asked, "In general, do you feel that U.S. military strength is adequate?" Adequate for what? If one takes the question to mean, "Adequate for a major conventional war with the Russkies," the answer clearly must be "no"; the last time American forces saw action it took 8 helicopters, 6 planes and 180 men to capture one busfull of Irani peasants. The strategic assumptions behind any given defense policy are what determines the adequacy of military strength, not the bellicose fantasies of frustrated patriots.
There was more of the same. Question 6 wanted to know if I thought federal non-military spending ought to be cut even if that meant service cutbacks. Aside from the fact that most such spending is not for services but for welfare, pension checks, old age benefits, and the like, I was left wondering, Which services? To say "yes" would give the good congressman carte blanche to start slicing the budgets of those few arms of the bureaucracy—the U.S. Geological Survey, national parks, the World Bank—which have actually left the globe a better place instead of merely a poorer one. To say "no" would be tantamount to an endorsement of tobacco subsidies, indexed Social Security benefits, congressional franking, and other examples of federal bloat. I left Question 6 depressed and uneasy.
By the time I'd neared the end I had become uncertain about what I thought of abortion, welfare, defense, and taxes. I was forming a very definite opinion about TPFQ, however. It was Question 7 that made me suspect that I was being had. It read, "Should the federal government require the registration of all firearms? This was obviously (excuse the expression) a loaded question. All firearms? Who wants to register all firearms? People don't stick up liquor stores with rifles. Including hunting and target weapons with small handguns prejudices the response in favor of anti-registration sentiment—a concession, I suspect, to what Findley already knows to be the views of his largely small town constituency.
What he was doing, in short, was constructing his questions so that the answers would tend to ratify his own positions so he can justify those positions as having the support of the voters in his district. For example, Question 2 asked, "Should Saturday mail delivery be eliminated to help balance the budget?" A week after TPFQ was mailed, Findley gave a speech in Springfield to the Illinois State Convention of Letter Carriers in which he told the mailmen that he had voted against a budget resolution calling for the elimination of Saturday mail. He did so, he explained, because the cost to the taxpayers in unemployment would exceed the unspecified savings of the change. He also said, "I believe there are substantial public benefits to Saturday postal service and it would be a mistake to end it."
I was tempted to answer the question "Yes," if only because a cut in Saturday mail would mean one day fewer week when I could receive q lestionnaires from my congressman The question left me with a question Df my own. If Findley had already made up his mind on the issue, why promise voters that their views will "help me to decide how to vote"? But if voters' opinions will in fact shape his views, are we to believe that he votes according to public opinion rather than principle? How much is that phrase "I believe" really worth?
These questions go to the heart of the dilemma of representative democracy. Are our elected officials voices of the people in a literal or a symbolic sense? Should we expect them to be merely empty vessels? I can't help recalling that some of Findley's predecessors, in similarly troubled times, won audiences by being articulators of public issues. They didn't ask opinions, they gave them. It's not so different today. People crave leader but seldom define leadership. I suspect they would settle for someone who can make the confusions of events intelligible; someone who, because he or she sits at some remove from the day to day, can exercise disinterested judgment on issues over which circumstances force opinions on the rest of us; someone who, because he or she represents so many people, can extract whatever wisdom there is in the selfish pleading and sheer ignorance that passes for political opinion and apply it on behalf of the people who sent him or her to tend to their affairs in their place. A good leader doesn't measure convictions by opinion polls. Only a politician does. □