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
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1842 GMT (0242 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 0035 GMT (0835 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT