Words of wisdom for the politically inclined

To keep up with the ever-changing world of medicine — a world in which constant medical discoveries force doctors to rethink the ways in which they treat patients, to reconsider how the mind and body work, to contemplate ethical questions — many states require doctors to continue their medical education before being re-licensed. In order to maximize their effectiveness as medical practitioners, doctors have to complete anywhere from 12 to 50 hours per year of continuing education.

Lawyers are subject to similar requirements. Forty states require lawyers to take mandatory continuing education courses so that they can keep practicing in their jurisdiction. Such requirements are necessary to enable lawyers to have complete knowledge of new legal ethics, new legislation and new legal theory. As our societal values change, so do the application of the laws that govern our society. Therefore, continuing education helps lawyers to be more effective in their field by making them aware of these changes and debates.

Even teachers and cosmetologists must complete courses of continuing education. Although some states require it and others make it optional, there is an undeniable recognition that the quality of these professions depends upon up-to-date knowledge of new techniques, as well as ensuring that they haven’t forgotten the most basic aspects of their profession.

So why should we not hold elected officials to similar standards? After all, we are only entrusting them to represent us at local, state, national and international levels. We trust them to make decisions that affect our welfare and safety. Thus, it seems acceptable to create continuing education programs for our elected officials — programs that re-emphasize our national traditions, that examine various constitutional interpretations and congressional legislation, that discuss the oft-mentioned “pulse of the nation” and that offer quick lessons about separation of powers as well as checks and balances. Better yet, since there is a great emphasis in our society on national testing in education, perhaps before elected officials can hold office, they should be made to pass an exam that tests their knowledge of the Constitution, separation of powers, checks and balances and other democratic principles upon which our country was founded.

Such a proposal does not seem out of the question in light of the recent actions by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, other Republicans and even Democrats for that matter. After DeLay’s and other Republicans’ threats to wage a war on the federal judges who decided against the reinsertion of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube, it seems evident that these leaders lack some understanding about the role of judges as interpreters of laws. Even Gov. Bush deserves better marks than most of his Republican colleagues when he — though sympathetic to Schiavo’s family’s cause — remained on the sidelines after exhausting all legal options and ignored calls to throw out the Florida Constitution.

Moreover, Democrats appeared weak by failing to counter Republicans and assert that the judges had done simply what was asked of them: uphold the law and ignore partisan politics, something in which we should take pride. Since most Americans felt that Congress and the president should not have interfered in the first place, though, Democrats’ silence could be taken as representative of the need for politicians to stay out of the matter.

However, there is one political tradition Democrats seem to understand better than their Republican counterparts: the filibuster. After threatening the judiciary, Republicans are now trying to help judges by banning the filibuster in order to let Bush’s judicial nominations go through. But as the nonpartisan organization People for the American Way asserts in its “Save the Filibuster” campaign — which makes use of the filibuster scene from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” which any classic film fan can sympathize with — the filibuster has been “one of the country’s most critical checks and balances” with its 200-year history in the Senate.

Republican threats to federal judges and attempts to ban the filibuster indicate that a requirement for the continuing education of our elected officials may prove beneficial. Since they seem to have forgotten the reasoning behind important aspects and traditions of our federal government, a quick lesson once in a while certainly would not hurt.

In the coming weeks, the members of the Class of 2005 will prepare for graduation and for their futures, and many will leave to continue a life in politics that began on Yale’s campus. Campus Democrats and Republicans have engaged in important debates and campaigned on behalf of various causes, learning along the way that politics can be ugly, dirty and extremely partisan. Yet, it is these lessons and experiences that I hope those of us who pursue political careers never forget.

More importantly, I hope that as we embark on journeys that may lead us to the halls of the Capitol, the war rooms of think tanks, or even the offices of the White House, we never forget that our efforts should not be to subvert our political traditions, but to respect and uphold them. We should strive, as best we can, to avoid putting political ideologies above the principles and laws which make this nation so great. Ultimately, it is my wish that those of us who have the opportunity to work in public service continue to educate ourselves in civics because we want to, not because we have lost our way. Early congratulations to the Class of 2005; may you be successful in all you do.



Alicia Washington is a senior in Trumbull College. This is her last regular column.

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