Did Lawyers Kill Lawmaking?

For them, compromise is a sign of weakness

Illustration by peter noonan

It’s really no surprise that lawyers are way over-represented in elected office. They care about laws. They argue for a living. They are highly educated and connected. Often, lawyers are community leaders that prosecute bad guys, help businesses comply with the law and help big deals get done.

When you look at New Hampshire’s five major offices (governor, two US senators and two US representatives), three of the current office-holders are lawyers (and, famously, all women). Often our only choices are lawyers. Last year, both Republican and Democratic nominees for governor were lawyers. In 2010, the Democratic primary in the second Congressional district featured two lawyers, and the general election for governor and US Senate were between lawyers.

Earlier this year Bloomberg Businessweek magazine tallied the professions of all members of Congress. There are 128 lawyers in the House and another 45 in the Senate. On the other hand, there are only 55 career politicians in the House and another nine in the Senate. (And, for those wondering, there are only seven accountants in the entire Congress.)

Is it any wonder that our politics have become so dysfunctional? I mean this as no disrespect to the profession (I am married to an attorney), but a lawyer’s job is to take a position, stick with it and argue it until the end. Compromise can happen, but it is a sign of weakness.

Analyzing data or asking questions to solve problems only matters if they help an argument. Remember, criminal defense attorneys don’t even want to know if their client happens to be guilty.

"A lawyer’s job is to take a position, stick with it and argue it until the end."

Lawyers-turned-politicians have also changed the language used in politics. Once political rhetoric was designed to grab attention and even controversy. Now saying nothing, being bland, conceding nothing is the rule of the day. (Sure, “bad politician moments” on YouTube have changed this also.)

Lawyers do vital work in a nation of laws, but when we need creative solutions, compromise and surprising data-driven conclusions, the training of an entrepreneur, an educator, a business manager, an emergency room doctor would bring different skills and a different sense of purpose.

Yes, 27 of our 44 presidents were lawyers, including the current one and a guy named Abe Lincoln (and a guy named Richard Nixon).

The country has questions that need deep problem-solving. Nearly 70 percent of our annual deficit comes from just defense spending, entitlements and interest on this debt. All that the recent bickering and gridlock about reforms got us was a first-time lowering of the nation’s once-AAA credit rating.

Talking heads on cable like to reminisce about the bipartisan compromises that were hashed out by Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill. They would duke it out politically during the day. O’Neill even called Reagan the most ignorant man who had ever occupied the White House. Yet, as Reagan noted in his memoir, they were friends after 6 p.m. They would forge compromises on tax policy, immigration and budgets.

A former actor and a career politician.

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