An Idea Whose Time May Never Come: Education & Training Requirements for Candidates for Public Office

I enjoy going back over the many insightful, often humorous responses to my essays. For example, in response to my essay on “A Trillion Here, A Trillion There…”a friend wrote, “We have more qualifications for people applying to McDonalds than for our national leaders.” That comment got me thinking, and I wrote what follows several weeks ago but just had not had time to publish it. However, in skimming USA Today this morning, on the front page there appeared a small table with the results of an “Ipsos poll” from May 4 – 5, which reminded me it was time to publish this piece. Here’s why. The survey question was “How many Americans say these professions are trustworthy?”

Firefighters                                                                     80%

Paramedics/EMS                                                           76

Health Care Workers                                                     75

Teachers                                                                           62

Police                                                                                 49

Local Business Leaders                                                   35

Local Government Workers                                           31

Business Leaders                                                              25

National Elected Officials                                                19

I highlighted these survey results simply to suggest one of the reasons why National Elected Officials may not be viewed as trustworthy. That is, because among professions with enormous power over others, the group that might have the least amount of training and relevant education requirements for the positions they hold is comprised of nationally elected officials.

Having invested five years of my life at the University of Michigan earning a PhD degree (after four years earning an undergraduate degree and two more earning an MBA), it made me think about job qualifications at the professional level.  After their undergraduate degrees, for example, lawyers face three years of law school, bar exams, and a lifetime of continuing education programs.  For doctors, after undergrad work they face med school, training in specialized fields, professional exams and opportunities for refreshing their skills and knowledge throughout their careers.

These prerequisites for employment at the professional level are time-consuming, rigorous and expensive, but they go a long way to assuring society that those practicing in the field are well-qualified.  Professors, lawyers and doctors are in “helping” professions.  They have the power for good or for harm over those they serve, and those they serve are generally individuals or relatively small groups of people.  In contrast, politicians holding elective office have no formal education, training or post-election continuing- education requirements for their positions even though they exercise enormous power—for better and for worse– over huge groups of people. The budget authority can be in the millions (city level), billions (counties and states) or trillions of dollars (nation). At the national level in particular, they also write the laws of the land.

One can argue there are unwritten and informal expectations of candidates for election, things like attractive personalities and families, friends in strategic places, fund-raising abilities, intelligence and a platform or statement of beliefs or principles. But these pale in comparison with legal, medical and university-based professional qualifications. Moreover, the legal, medical and university-based academic qualifications are established by small committees of highly qualified professionals with extensive relevant experience. And those same people generally play important roles in the recruiting and hiring of lawyers, doctors and PhD holders. In contrast, candidates for office are not tested by highly qualified peers, and are “hired” (elected) by committees of thousands of (self-interested) voters without the benefit of having been approved as candidates qualified to hold office.

 I also looked to see whether the U.S. Constitution had minimum requirements for election to the House and Senate. For the House, the member must be at least 25, a U.S. citizen for seven or more years, and live in the state of candidacy but not necessarily in the District to be represented. Senators must be at least 30, have nine years of U.S. citizenship and be an inhabitant of the state to be represented at the time of the election. These criteria speak for themselves.

My conclusions are twofold: First, I am glad my internist, ophthalmologist, dermatologist, cardiologist, oncologist and former professors at the University of Michigan hold their positions not because they are good public speakers or good fund-raisers or have friends in high places. To the contrary, what is reassuring are the rigorous education and experience requirements, professional exams, and other strict standards qualifying them for employment in their chosen professions.  Second, my guess is that it would be easier to count back from one trillion to zero by threes than to get duly elected politicians voluntarily to create a statement of expectations, qualifications and professional standards required of those seeking to become candidates for public office.

Maybe I am delusional, but there ought to be a way to establish (academic, experiential and moral, among others) standards to become candidates for public office.  Not political standards, which are for the voter to decide, but other standards suggesting a candidate is qualified to hold a powerful office responsibly and knowledgeably. 

You can find more of Dr. Mark Riedy‘s (’64) essays at his blog, Dr. Riedy’s Random Thoughts.

About Loras College
Founded in 1839, Loras College leverages its historic roots as Iowa’s first college, the second oldest Catholic college west of the Mississippi River and one of the nation’s 10 diocesan colleges to deliver challenging, life-changing experiences as part of its residential, Catholic setting. In 2020, Loras was ranked the 16th Best Regional College in the Midwest by U.S. News & World Report and one of America’s Top 200 Most Loved Colleges/Universities by Forbes Magazine for the fourth consecutive year. Loras students ranked No. 2 in the world as part of the global Peeptrade Investment Challenge while a second group ranked No. 4. For the 12th consecutive year, Loras Media Studies student-led television station (LCTV) was named the TV Station of the Year by the Iowa College Media Association (ICMA).