One of the more interesting things about living a reasonably long life is to have met all sorts of people along the way. Having worked in the private sector as well as academia in the US and then having done that in Pakistan, in my opinion, doctors, professors, administrators and regular staff were about the same in both places.
Over the years, I also met many politicians from the local, state and federal levels in the US. While in Pakistan I also had a chance to meet politicians at all levels up to senators and federal ministers. I must admit that, from an intellectual point of view, they are not very different. Even though there might not be much difference in terms of intelligence or even education, there are significant differences between members of the US Congress (Senate and the House of Representatives) and members of the National Assembly and the Senate in Pakistan.
The US members of Congress are much better informed about issues and are much more involved directly in lawmaking and budgetary issues. Perhaps this is a consequence of living and working in a mature democratic system or perhaps the democratic system is more mature because the people’s representatives take their responsibilities more seriously. Either way, whenever I met US Senators or members of the House of Representatives, I found most of them well informed about international affairs as well as local issues. That does not mean that all members of Congress are equally informed about everything. And, yes, there are ‘backbenchers’ that probably go through an entire session without ever giving a speech or co-sponsoring any legislation.
Let me enumerate some of the major differences I noted between US politicians and those in Pakistan, and some of the reasons behind these differences. The first important fact is that all members of the US Congress receive a regular salary that averages a little less than $ 200,000 every year. Also, the representatives are limited as far as outside employment is concerned and have to pay their own election expenses.
Besides personal salaries, the representatives are provided a ‘generous’ allowance for hiring personal staff. Most senators and representatives are also reimbursed for offices in their own states as well as in Washington DC. Other than personal staff, all congressional committees have their own staff allotted to members of both the majority and the minority party. Besides this, the representatives also receive benefits for postage, travelling, subsidised health insurance and retirement benefits.
In short, most members of congress can live on their official salaries and run an effective office in their states as well as in DC from federal funds. Of course, there are many members of congress that are independently wealthy and the US Senate has often been called a ‘millionaires' club’.
The other important difference is about election finances. There are no limits on election expenses in the US and rich candidates often use their personal fortunes to finance their elections. However, all election expenses are closely monitored and all sources of direct donations have to be disclosed. Most politicians running for election raise most of their money from individual donors that are restricted in terms of the amount of money they can donate to a particular election campaign. On the other hand, Pakistan has supposed restrictions on election expenditures but I have yet to see if any candidate has ever reported actual election expenses or followed these restrictions.
In the US, candidates raise money from thousands if not hundreds of thousands of donors. This, out of necessity, forces candidates to meet and convince a lot of people. Fundraising has a bad reputation but it does force politicians to go out and listen to constituents and other people sympathetic to their points of view. Being forced to interact with so many people does make it difficult for US politicians to relish the ‘protocol’ so dear to most Pakistani politicians. The downside is that, as a US Senator once said, “I often spend more time attending fundraisers than I spend in legislative work.”
During their tenure, the most important difference between US and Pakistani ‘representatives’ is their staff. Pakistani senators and members of parliament do not have a full time staff. This, in my opinion, is the most glaring weakness in the Pakistani parliamentary system. Even if US senators or members of the house are not fully ‘up to snuff’ on important issues, their staff takes up this responsibility and keeps them informed or perhaps ‘educated’ about them.
The other important difference is that the ‘committees’ of the House and the Senate play an extremely important part in developing and passing legislation. As far as the Senate is concerned, it also has the very important function of ‘advice and consent’ when it comes to appointments that include cabinet members, senior positions in the armed forces, federal judiciary and ambassadorships. Just imagine if every federal secretary, Supreme Court judge, every general and every ambassador had to be approved by a majority of the senate in Pakistan.
The US has a presidential system and the president, vice president and cabinet members are not members of parliament. However, other than the president and the vice president who are directly elected, all members of the cabinet have to be approved by the senate. Indeed, the US is a mature representative democracy where all three branches of government are powerful, especially the legislative branch, unlike Pakistan. However, democracy is not enough to prevent the US from making wrong decisions as it has done over the last couple of decades.
Much noise is made in Pakistan about the three branches of government, the executive branch, parliament and the judiciary. In Pakistan, we have only two branches of government: the executive, which is headed by the leader of the house (parliament), and the judiciary. Of course, the functioning third branch of government is the Pakistan army. Some democracy!
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