Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Why do we pay politicians for no results?

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
July 1, 2012 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
 Newly elected freshman members of the 112th Congress pose for a photo on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in November 2010.
Newly elected freshman members of the 112th Congress pose for a photo on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in November 2010.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: If you hired people to fix your furnace and they couldn't agree, you'd fire them
  • He says similarly, government officials, whose salaries we pay, must show results
  • He says only in politics can people get paid for fighting among themselves
  • Greene: Citizens can be forgiven for feeling they are a pawn in politicians' game

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen." He appears on "CNN Newsroom" Sundays during the 5 p.m. ET hour.

(CNN) -- If the furnace in your basement stopped working, and you hired a company to repair it, what would you do if several of the workers came upstairs, told you they couldn't figure out how to get the furnace started, and then began pointing fingers at each other and saying:

"It's his fault."

"No, it's his fault."

"If he'd listen to me, we could get this job done."

"He tries to stop me every time I'm on the verge of fixing your furnace."

You'd probably stand there slack-jawed, hardly believing what you were witnessing. Then you'd say:

"I don't want to hear you guys blaming each other. I'm paying you to do a job. Just go back down there and do it, or if you can't, get out of my house."

Or if you had a leak in your plumbing, and the plumbers emerged from under your sink to tell you:

"I'm sorry -- I can't work with this man. He undoes everything I'm trying to do to get your pipes back in shape."

"So typical of him to put the blame on me. He's got it exactly backward. I know how to stop the leak -- he has no idea. And he never has."

You'd tell them that this is not what you hired them to do. Why are they wasting your time and money telling you that it's the other guy's fault that the water is still dripping onto your floor? You'd ask them to keep their personal animosities to themselves and figure out a way to complete the job they'd agreed to do, or else you're not going to give them a cent.

You'd be well within your rights. When work needs to be done, you hire people who promise that they know how to do it, and you expect to get what you paid for. You are the employer; you are the boss.

But in one area, this doesn't seem to be the case.

In politics and government, almost all Americans agree on the tasks that urgently need to be completed.

A few of them:

• Creating jobs so that finding meaningful employment can stop feeling like pursuing an all-but-unattainable luxury.

• A fair solution to health care, that compassionate people along every station of the right/left continuum can live with and be proud of.

• Fixing the fallout from the big-bank machinations and the mortgage crisis that have cost so many people their homes.

Addressing these problems is a task beyond any of us as individuals. So, in the same way we hire workers to repair the furnace or plug the leak under the sink, we hire workers to fix the big national problems.

They have lofty titles and work in buildings made of white marble. We hire our presidents, our members of Congress, and, indirectly, our justices of the United States Supreme Court.

And maybe it is time to remind ourselves -- and to remind them -- that they are, in fact, hired hands.

They are being paid to do a job. They are not being paid to tell their employers -- the citizens -- why they can't get the job done, or why they can't get along with the other hired hands who are supposed to be working beside them.

Only in politics and government, when the hired hands come up short, are they allowed to get away with flicking spitballs at each other as the country waits for results -- spitballs in the form of purportedly clever attack lines packaged and issued by advisers, meant to wound the other side, yet doing nothing to further the completion of the jobs at hand.

Whether, individually, we are conservatives or liberals or somewhere in the middle, we have a right to expect the people who have been hired to solve the country's problems to do just that, and to spare us the name-calling and blame-shifting. We wouldn't accept that from electricians or auto mechanics; there is no reason to accept it from men and women with federal titles.

There is a self-congratulatory phrase that political pros like to throw around: "Politics ain't beanbag." But these days, that's what it increasingly can feel like: a childish game played by people so enamored of the game itself that the playing of it pushes aside the real-world consequences.

Those real-world consequences matter -- they matter desperately. And the people who should be the demanding employers -- the citizens -- are tossed about in the heavy waves of the political storm, as if they are mere bystanders who have no standing in all of this.

There is another phrase, used as the title of a song by the young Bob Dylan in the years before his name became known all over the world. In a different context from the issues we face now, Dylan called his song "Only a Pawn in Their Game."

It would be hard to blame Americans today if they sometimes identify with that phrase.

But they shouldn't have to settle for feeling like pawns.

And this is not a game.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT