One of the perils of serving in Congress is that members lose touch with their constituents. They get arrogant. They forget–pardon me for being trite and idealistic; I know it’s unworthy of a member of the media–that they work for the people. Take the four congressmen who represent the Austin metropolitan area, one of the few places in the state that actually cares about politics. All four refuse to debate their opponents. Their names are John Carter, Michael McCaul, Lamar Smith, and Lloyd Doggett, the only Democratic in the group. Their “reasons” vary. Carter had the effrontery to say that his Democratic opponent, Mary Beth Harrell, hadn’t earned the right to debate him. Doggett was quoted in the Austin American Statesman as pontificating, “[S]ince I haven’t seen my opponents as I crisscross the new parts of this district, from Flatonia to Kyle, from Wimberley to Halletsville, nor have I met anyone else who has, I’ve made no final scheduling decision.” Smith’s spokesman at least was honest: “When the congressman’s opponents are so far behind, there is no reason to give their campaigns any help.” (If Smith is such a shoo-in for reelection, why not throw a bone to the public and debate?) And McCaul’s campaign allows that it is still looking for an opportunity to debate, even while rejecting several proposed opportunities. Let me guess. The search for opportunities will uncover none. McCaul and Carter are particularly to be congratulated for developing their arrogance in such a short time: McCaul is in his first term in Congress, Carter in his second.

Give some credit for tone-deafness to the UT government professor–a scholar on polarization in Congress, no less–who told the Statesman, “There’s nothing good that can happen as a result of debating your opponent when you’re an incumbent. The only thing you do is give your challenger a chance to appear on the same stage as you, which equalizes the playing field.” Shouldn’t a government professor at least have something to say about the importance of debates in a democracy? About accountability? About an informed electorate?

As for equalizing the playing field, all four incumbents have such safe districts that they could call for restoring Saddam Hussein to power in Iraq and still win reelection. All that matters is the R or D that appears on the ballot in conjunction with their name. McCaul, for example, got 79% of the vote in 2004. Bush carried his district, in which 70% of the voters are white, against John Kerry by 61-38. Carter won with 65% of the vote. Bush got 66%. They are unbeatable. (Smith and Doggett are running in districts that were redrawn by a three-judge federal panel and have many thousands of new constituents. Every Web site that predicts the outcome of congressional races rates their districts as safe for their party.)

The Texas Legislature should pass a law requiring candidates filing for statewide or national office to sign a statement agreeing to participate in at least one debate against an opponent from the opposition party during the general election campaign.