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John E. Sununu

A Hill crawling with lawyers

Ted Kaufman was the lone senator with an engineering background when he retired last year. Ted Kaufman was the lone senator with an engineering background when he retired last year. (Bloomberg)
By John E. Sununu
August 29, 2011

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WHEN SHAKESPEARE’S character Dick the Butcher uttered his most famous line, it’s unlikely that he had Washington in mind. But with 40 percent of Congress holding law degrees, “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers’’ hits close to home. Granted, it’s not an acceptable solution to government dysfunction - Shakespeare would never have gone far in today’s politically correct world. But concern for the overabundance of attorneys on Capitol Hill has a long and storied history.

The numbers have actually come down in recent years. Twenty years ago, it was closer to 50 percent. On the other side of the ledger, I was one of just seven House members with an engineering degree, and an army of one while in the Senate. When Ted Kaufman of Delaware retired last year - like me, he was trained as a mechanical engineer - the number of engineers in the Senate returned to zero.

The lack of engineers is more striking given that so much legislation today deals with technology-intensive industries and economic activity. Energy and environmental regulation, transportation, and broadband policy all benefit when legislators have a basic grounding in the technical concepts behind business models, products, and innovation.

At the most basic level, developing good public policy is an exercise in problem solving; and engineers, first and foremost, are taught how to solve problems. Regardless of the particular discipline, the process always involves breaking the problem down to its simplest elements, separating out valuable data from background noise, and then considering different approaches for their efficacy and repeatability.

Most important, perhaps, engineers learn - often the hard way - to pursue solutions that don’t create new problems. Understanding the potential for unintended consequences and learning how to avoid them are enormously valuable whether designing a bridge (just Google “Tacoma Narrows’’) or a housing finance system. Consider Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: No one intended the moral hazard associated with subsidized profits and socialized losses to cost taxpayers $180 billion. It was a deeply flawed design, and one that could easily have been avoided from the start.

Lawyers, by contrast, are encouraged to take any available facts and use them to build a case. They argue a position. They have been trained to argue either position. (Think about that!) Whether before a jury or a judge, their job is to persuade, not to deduce; their goal is to convince, not to solve.

To their great advantage, the persuasive skills of lawyers are eminently attuned to winning elections. “I’m on your side’’ “I cast the right vote.’’ “I’ll do the best job.’’ Yes, substance should matter, and often it does. But no candidate is going to go very far without the power to persuade.

Unfortunately, good “getting elected’’ skills aren’t the same as strong problem-solving skills. And most engineers fall very short when it comes to the persuasiveness and oratory so important to a modern campaign.

The point here is not to suggest that we would be well served by a Congress full of engineers. I’ve known more than a few people with technical backgrounds that I wouldn’t trust to run a lemonade stand. But having a Congress with a more diverse educational and professional background would serve the country well. And given the budget challenges facing America today, we might benefit from a few more cold, calculating problem solvers, and a fewer courtroom impresarios.

In its own way, New Hampshire has addressed the problem by paying state legislators $100 a year, making both House and Senate essentially volunteer positions - and discouraging lawyers who might otherwise see legislating as an alternative to a full-time practice. Our legislature is comprised largely of retirees, small business owners, and the self-employed, but relatively few lawyers. As of 2008, New Hampshire had the fifth-lowest state and local tax burden in the country.

Another approach would be simply to goad more people with technical backgrounds into running for office. Office holders are a self-selected group; you don’t get elected if you don’t put your name on the ballot. There are many people who would do a great job, but who would never think to run. Find them. Badger them. Get them elected. They might not thank you for it, but a lot of other people will.

John E. Sununu, a regular Globe contributor, is a former US senator from New Hampshire.