Why you should care
Because our representatives should understand our government.
Each year, the hundreds of men who aspire to play in the National Football League sit down with a pencil and a 12-minute, 50-question general knowledge test called the Wonderlic. Their scores are placed alongside the 40-yard-dash and 225-pound bench-press repetitions as teams evaluate their potential picks. Why are our quarterbacks better evaluated than our elected leaders?
Consider this: How sure are you, really, that your president, senator or U.S. House member knows what “separation of powers” means and how a bill becomes a law? We know candidates for office spend most of their time chasing campaign donations and TV coverage, so surely they can spare an hour for a civics test. They won’t have to hit a minimum score, but the results would be made public, along with their other credentials for office.
The more they know about how the machine works, the more effective they can be.
Such scores should not determine the winner on their own. But in the age of canned sound bites and tightly controlled interactions with the people and the press, each election cycle seems to bring less of a chance for the public to gauge the smarts of its aspiring leaders — and how fluent they are with the mechanics of the government they want to run.
The federal government has become outrageously complex. And Washington has a permanent class of bureaucrats, congressional staff and lobbyists who know the system inside and out. They’re often working in the service of the status quo or for profit. Say what you will about members of Congress and the varying brightness of their bulbs, they are answerable to voters. The more they know about how the machine works, the more effective they can be. So let’s force them to study up.
Sure, the questions and answers will become more politicized than the Advanced Placement U.S. history exam — thanks, Oklahoma — and the pols will spin their scores with abandon. Maybe a Harvard egghead who wants to appear more relatable will even tank a few questions. The easiest way might be to employ an existing exam: The U.S. citizenship test. If new Americans have to pass it, why not those who seek to govern them?
“We get the government we deserve,” says Scott Warren, CEO of Generation Citizen, a nonprofit working to improve civics education. “How do we ensure citizens are more informed so we make sure they’re holding their representatives accountable? Having members from both sides of the aisle interested in how the process actually works is important, but I’d argue our problem right now is unfortunately much broader and wider than that.”
Warren is right. A quiz is no cure-all, but perhaps it can refocus our elected officials a little more on the things that matter and empower them to tangle with the swamp. Or at the very least, we can find out if they have the mental capacity to read a zone blitz.
Here are a few sample questions for OZY’s Government Wonderlic. Add your own in the comments below:
1. Does the First Amendment guarantee freedom of the press from body slams?
2. How much does a screwdriver cost? Follow-up: How much does a Pentagon screwdriver cost?
3. What’s the difference between a judge and a so-called judge?
4. Define the debt ceiling in two sentences or less. Or, just vote against it.
5. What is your definition of “is”?
6. Is it a good idea to launch a land war in Asia?
7. Which of the following is the most inane Senate custom? The secret hold, the blue slip, the filibuster or Seersucker Thursday.