Collapse of Congress (Part three – fixing the problem)

Just as banking is too important to be left to bankers, democracy is too important to be left to politicians . . .

For an interesting example, let’s look at New Zealand. From their official government website:

In 1993 New Zealanders voted in a referendum to change their voting system from the traditional first-past-the-post (FPP) method to Mixed Member Proportional representation (MMP). How, and why, did this dramatic change come about?

The origins of electoral reform lay in the gradual breakdown of public trust and confidence in politicians, Parliament, and the simple certainties of the old two-party system. This process began in the 1950s and 1960s and gathered momentum in the 1970s and 1980s, decades marked by economic uncertainty and the emergence of new social and political movements.
Criticism of the voting system intensified after the 1978 and 1981 elections. On each occasion the Labour opposition actually secured more votes overall than National, but the latter won more seats in Parliament and remained in government.
Proportional representation – in particular the ‘Hare’ system or Single Transferable Vote (STV) – had been discussed in New Zealand since at least 1878. Support for alternative voting systems was especially high in the 1900s and 1910s. In fact, in 1914 Parliament passed a law to elect New Zealand’s upper house, the Legislative Council, by STV. This was never implemented, however, and the Council remained an appointed body until its abolition in 1950.
Disillusioned with both National and Labour, more and more voters began to look to alternative parties. But the FPP system did them no favours. Social Credit, the leading ‘third’ party since 1954, won 16% of the overall vote in 1978 but only one seat out of the 92 in Parliament. Three years later nearly 21% of electors voted for Social Credit, but the party gained just two seats. In the 1984 election the New Zealand Party won 12% but no seats.
As critics pointed out, the FPP system tended to create Parliaments quite different in composition to those that the voters appeared to want. The answer, some people argued, was a system of proportional representation – in which each party’s share of the seats in Parliament would be close to its share of the overall vote.

New Zealanders have implemented MMP successfully – creating a system in which voters cast two votes – one for a specific member of parliament and one for a party. Then using, the Saint-Lague formula, they allocate seats in the parliament so that their unicameral parliament has two types of members – “electorate” and “party” members. The MMP system devised in New Zealand was based on the one used in Germany that was in fact created under the watchful eye of the US Military. To carry out such reforms, the NZ parliament was very intentional – they held a national referendum asking voters to determine if they would like to change the national voting system and to choose from five different options for a different voting system. New Zealanders voted overwhelmingly that it was time for a change. They were more ambivalent about MMP but a majority chose it. Since 1996, New Zealanders have been experimenting with Mixed Member Proportional representation, with mixed results at first:

The next three years, before the first MMP election in 1996, was a period of transition and uncertainty. The main parties tried to re-position themselves for the new environment and a number of new parties emerged.
Electoral rules and procedures were overhauled and in 1995 the boundaries of the 60 general and five Maori electorates were finalised. Electoral officials (especially the newly established Electoral Commission) also initiated a massive publicity campaign to inform voters about the new system.
The 1996 election produced a close and indecisive result. After two months of negotiations a coalition government was formed (to the surprise of many) between the previously hostile National and New Zealand First parties. Subsequent events – in particular a spate of defections (or ‘party-hopping’) by MPs and the messy collapse of the coalition – sapped public confidence in the new voting system, but support for MMP has rallied in more recent years.
As the Royal Commission and pro-MMP campaigners had predicted, Parliament has become much more diverse and representative of modern New Zealand society – in 2006 39 women, 21 Maori, four Pacific Islanders, and two Asian MPs are among the 121 MPs.

The outcome – a more diverse representative body – is certainly a good idea.

It’s easy to argue that a nation like New Zealand can experiment; there are fewer than 4.5 million people living in New Zealand, they aren’t a world power with a massive military-industrial complex. That argument misses the point – democracy in principle requires flexibility and our form of government is an experiment, one in which constitutional principles are being undermined by our current constitutional practice.

In Parliamentary democracies, the people who make the laws are also responsible for implementing them – creating instant and easily understood accountability. If you don’t like the outcomes, you vote against the party in power and you get a new government. The US is unique among modern democracies in having a rigid, difficult to amend constitution and strict separation of powers. This provides protections against runaway popular will, but it also results in a system that by design resists even wildly popular changes. While I instinctively resist the political and electoral uncertainties that seem to arise from parliamentary systems, I also look at the eminently more rational policies adopted by parliamentary democracies in recent years and wonder if we’ve not missed something in the US. Also, democracy, as both principle and practice, is too important to be allowed to degrade in the name of Constitutional orthodoxy. I’d rather reform the system and make it work better than live under the authority of a bunch of people who have been dead for 200 years and who were not perfect or wiser than we are. We face problems and circumstances and founders could never have imagined and while we certainly can look to them for insight, we also have the right to make adjustments as necessary to meet the demands of our time. If you read the Constitution, the first words are memorable “We the people . . .” Throughout the document, at least in its original, only the House of Representatives was directly, popularly elected. The logic, to me, is obvious – We the people formed the government and we the people, who are the source of power in the US, invest our power in the House, which means the House should be the pre-eminent part of government. The President should carry out the will of the governed, not set the agenda. The Senate serves only as a brake on popular will. The Courts exist to guarantee that the rights of minorities are protected. Everything else is noise.

Having said that, I am wildly unoptimistic that the US is ready to engage in the kind of serious public debate necessary for the kinds of far reaching electoral changes our New Zealand cousins implemented a little more than a decade ago. We as a nation our out of practice at the art of public policy debate. You gotta walk before you run.

To that end, restoring Congress as a strong, coequal branch of the government requires we take several steps now.

First, we have to restore public trust in Congress, and that means tackling the permanent campaign and the corruption it has created.

We need an absolute ban on gifts and donations to sitting members. Literally, members of Congress cannot solicit or accept gifts of any kind or amount. Not a dime, not a cup of coffee, not a coffee cup or t-shirt. Nada, zip, zilch, zero. No flights on airplanes, no trips on private yachts, no weekends golfing in Scotland (I’d make an exception for things readily available to the general public, i.e. frequent flier miles).

We need to match that reform with real, meaningful campaign finance reform by adopting a national policy creating clean elections; in this system, challengers can opt for public or private financing, but elected officials are barred from soliciting or accepting donations. I like the idea of creating a national 501c3 to which citizens can make tax deductible donations and which distributes funds to all candidates on a nonpartisan basis – such funding could help third parties gain viability. I also like the idea of creating a national funding system in which parties can receive operating funds from the government on the basis of votes received in the last election (in Canada, the amount is small, $1.95 per vote, but enough to help parties maintain their infrastructure). In a democracy, clean elections, citizen participation and viable political parties are all a common, public good and using tax dollars to fund them is way of nurturing effective and thorough public debate. If we get politicians and parties out of the dialing for dollars business, we can free up resources to actually, you know, study issues and formulate policy responses.

Congress needs to expand its membership and encourage greater diversity among its members. If each House member represented 500,000 people, the House would grow to approximately 611 members (that’s 176 additional members). That may sound unmanageable, but the British House of Commons has 646 members and they function pretty effectively. In addition to adding more members, the House needs to institute some operational reforms.

The House currently has a host of standing committees, with seats granted largely on a seniority basis. I’d do away with seniority as a way of assigning leadership roles in Congress – it rewards entirely the wrong skill set. While we’re doing that, we can eliminate most or all of the standing committees in Congress (the possible exception is Ways and Means which is budgetary).

Once you’ve done away with the seniority system, I’d eliminate all or almost all the standing House committees and subcommittees. In their place, I’d greatly expand the CBO and insulate it from the political forces so the CBO could become the most trustworthy source of information on the federal budget. An expanded CBO would report to the members with budget analysis and prepare the actual budget the House creates and votes on. The House, not the President, should be proposing the initial federal budget.

Congress needs to get serious about using the power of the purse. In government, the most important powers are the power to tax and the power to spend. Everything else is ancillary. Robert Byrd tells a story of Tom Ridge refusing to testify before a Senate committee during the creation of the Dept. of Homeland Security. The Bush administration invoked executive privilege in refusing to allow him to testify – as they’ve done countless times since then. As far as I’m concerned, right then and there Congress should have pulled any and all funding for Ridge’s job – and any other position whose occupant refuses to testify when asked by Congress. Any Cabinet secretary who gives Congress grief should find his/her job defunded and his/her department transferred to Congressional control. Congress has the power of the purse and if they aren’t getting straight answers from the executive, they need to play immediate hardball – rock the executive back so hard and so fast no president or his staff or his appointees ever again think stonewalling Congress is an option. Like papal creeping infallibility, presidents have expanded the scope of what is understood as executive privilege. They aren’t popes and they aren’t imperial and it’s high time to remind the executive that its job is to implement the laws passed by the people’s representatives in Congress. Rather than shut down government, Congress can and should take control of it.

With an aggressive Congress managing the budget and eliminating the seniority system, I’d also create a Congressional cabinet – in which each member of the President’s cabinet has a congressional counterpart who is a member of Congress who puts together a committee of members who have expertise and interest in the functional area covered by the Cabinet department. I’d change the laws to require Cabinet members to meet with their Congressional counterpart weekly as part of their function. I’d also make funding dependent on it. If the law needs to be changed to allow this, change it. At the end of each term, the Congressional cabinet dissolves to be reformed after the next swearing in. Under such a system, members would be encouraged to gain mastery of particular topics and functional areas and could gain leadership without first serving for decades if they have the skill. In the cabinet, I’d make the speaker equal to the President and the majority leader the Vice President’s equal. The Cabinet system would be designed to make Congress function more like a Parliament with the minority party forming its own cabinet and offering policy alternatives. Such a system would leave a majority of members free to spend more time in their districts and in the nation at large, talking to people and staying in touch with the American public. Where our current system treats having a committee seat as a sign of power and forces members to fight for the right seats, creating a cabinet would take pressure off and allow members to focus on staying in touch with their constituents. Some members of Congress need to be generalists, others specialists. Groups within Congress could operate as actual caucuses – thus a populist caucus might develop strong leaders on economic questions and provide leadership in that area, using the caucus system to groom members for leadership while another caucus might focus on foreign affairs and so forth.

Congress needs to be more assertive in confronting the Imperial Presidency. Reading the Federalist Papers, a consistent worry at the founding was the fear that the president would grow too powerful, too monarchical (George Washington, for instance, rejected the title “His Majesty the President” in favor of the more modest Mr. President). The President may take leadership on questions of foreign affairs, but they are too important to be left to the executive branch. The day President Bush asked for the Iraq authorization – not a declaration of war, mind you, but authorization to do what he felt necessary – Congress should have stopped him in his tracks and started hearings. It would be better to have held six months of complete public hearings – replete with CIA officials and military officers, with intelligence reports and lots of public debate – and still have gone to war than giving Bush full authorization to do whatever he wanted. A full and fair debate, with an airing of all the issues and all the concerns, with lots and lots of information and open questioning, with Congress taking the lead, may still have resulted in the Iraq war. But it may have derailed it, it would have required Bush and his supporters actually give answers to the people, dissenting voices should have been heard. Democrats in the Senate should have shut down government before they let their weak kneed lily livered response be to parse the politics and hope they managed to come out on top. A Congress out of practice asserting its Constitutional role was unable to stop a war-mongering, lying president from engaging in what is arguably the single worst policy decision in American history. Confronting the President will be tough. The White House is an effective and easily used bully pulpit and Congress is oddly anonymous. The Speaker needs to have a well staffed communications office and a coherent media strategy. Members need to work together to craft a coherent message and ways to deliver it.

The Speaker of the House, not the President, should be the most powerful person in the US government. Since Gingrich imploded, subsequent speakers have been weak, afraid of being too adversarial with the White House. The problem wasn’t that Gingrich fought the White House, the problem was the pettiness of the fights – to borrow a phrase, he fought the wrong fights for the wrong reasons. Americans don’t mind full-throated partisanship as long as the issues are substantive, but most partisanship in the US is about little things and the wrong things. I think Americans would welcome and reward a real partisan battle over war and peace, over creating national educational standards, over crafting a coherent tax policy and energy policies and universal health care. In the past, such debates have devolved into pettiness and sniping with charges that liberals aren’t patriots or hate America, that conservatives are racists and sexists and homophobes. Americans expect more of our elected officials but lawmaking is so arcane we don’t know how to hold them accountable. Getting rid of permanent Congressional committees would force law-making to become more transparent. With committees gone, lawmaking has to take place in the full view of the public. Do away with the backrooms and back room deals are much harder to make. In the Senate, you could create new rules governing things like filibusters and holds – make them time-limited so that a Senator can place a hold on a nominee but must then hold a hearing about the nominee during normal business within say ten business days or that a senator can place a motion to filibuster against a bill for a certain amount of time but then he/she must either filibuster the bill or have proposed changes ready to be debated by the body at large. I would also create a system by which the House can override the Senate – say the Senate is filibustering a popular reform like ending the Iraq war, the House can vote to shut down the filibuster if the Senate is unable to produce a counter proposal within 21 days.

Congress needs to implement a national, nonpartisan redistricting commission whose job is to draw Congressional boundaries. Make the process of creating districts as non-political as possible, get state legislatures out of the business of gerrymandering. As part of this, Congress needs to reform voter registration laws. Under our current system, we have a patchwork of laws that differ from state to state on how to register, when to register and where to vote. In recent elections, some states (Hello Ohio!) have done a piss poor job of making voting access work for all citizens; minority communities have had fewer and older voting machines than predominantly white communities. Congress should enact a law that any citizen 18 or over is automatically registered to vote – tie such registration to social security or driver’s licenses, something an overwhelming majority of Americans possess. Provide for those who don’t driver’s licenses to register by getting a government issued photo ID. Create national standards concerning how many voting machines must be present based exclusively on population density and how votes are to be counted (FWIW, rather than setting hard numbers, set minimums and maximums and provide funding as necessary to allow local authorities to buy the machines).

Notice the reforms I’ve proposed are almost exclusively operation – questions of “how” Congress does its job. As time goes on, it seems the US needs to begin a national discussion about how we choose our representatives and whether or not the current structure of government is working for us and is meeting our needs. We could consider a variety of reforms – everything from instant runoff to Single Transferrable voting to MMP like New Zealand. We could go to a multi-member, proportional districts. We could consider changing the process by which we amend the Constitution and debate the role of the federal government. Maybe it is time to reform our system from top to bottom. Maybe we need to do to the Senate what England has done to the House of Lords and greatly reduce its power. Maybe the powers of the executive need to be divided between Congress and the President. Maybe we need to separate the roles of Head of State from Head of Government – making the Vice President head of state and the President Head of government is an option; the head of government is a far more important job than head of state.

The changes I’ve proposed are almost all tactical as well. The broad strategy I believe such reforms work toward is, first and foremost, restoring Congressional power and influence, but also of creating a more representative government. The House should be the most powerful part of our government and Congress the pre-eminent of the three branches.

A final proposal concerns the public. Congress should immediately create an ongoing campaign whose sole purpose is to inform voters about their government – when and where to vote, how to vote, who represents them and what issues are being debated, as well as the means by which to make their voices heard in the process.

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  1. #1 by Richard Warnick on December 12, 2008 - 11:37 am

    Gingrich famously shut down the government after President Clinton made him sit in the back of Air Force One. You call that pettiness? Well, maybe it was, a little.

    What if the Democrats had shut down the government to stop Bush from “surging” in Iraq instead of withdrawing?

    We can only dream of a Congress that makes sense.

  2. #2 by Shane Smith on December 12, 2008 - 10:58 pm

    In reference to to the final paragraph, someone, I believe Jefferson, argued that the members of the house were not so much representatives as political experts that would inform the public of the goings on of government and then listen to the ideas of the public, not to follow them necessarily, but to be aware of their concerns.

    I always thought of it like a teacher who takes a vote on what subjects the class wants to study, vetoes some as bad ideas, teaches the rest, and then adds what is necessary.

    You go to a doctor because, presumably, they know something about health and medicine. You go to a mechanic because they should, in theory, be trained to fix your car.

    Shouldn’t we elect people because they actually know something about the public good and to because they seem like good people to have a beer with?

    The trouble is, we have hidden so much of the workings of government that we have nothing substantive to vote on.

    What is the saying? “Lare like sausages, it is better not to see them being made”? I submit that maybe we shouldn’t eat sausages, or follow laws, made in such a manner….

  3. #3 by Becky on December 12, 2008 - 11:08 pm

    Shouldn’t we elect people because they actually know something about the public good

    I’d take it a step further. I think maybe they should pass a test. An IQ test. It should be illegal for stupid people to run for public office (probably the wine talking).

  4. #4 by Moribund Republic on December 13, 2008 - 8:48 am

    Would be nice Becky, but think of the margins around here that would be disqualified.

    Many who rule have a form of intelligence that is beneath the radar of those that assume acting upon the public good, and high intellect would benefit the herd (the general populace)

    As in the state of nature, many a politico resembles the crocodile. A creature of so low an IQ as to be easily dismissed, but blessed with the born in skills of any rapacious predator, its equipment and its cunning are the means by which it feeds upon, and puts the terror in the herd.

    It is a predator, and stealth, cunning, and camo, are its ways.

  5. #5 by Becky on December 13, 2008 - 8:53 am

    A good analogy, I must admit.

  6. #6 by Moribund Republic on December 13, 2008 - 10:08 am

    In order for the herd to prosper in a world of such dangers…the herd must be vigilant. (The actively applied rule of law, equally, upon all animals).

    A rope and a gun doesn’t hurt either.

    Don’t stand too close to the river.

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