Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Eight easy ways to save American politics

The House Financial Services committee meets. ...Image via Wikipedia
Despite a rather unremarked history of very close contests, the process of selecting a U.S. President is not all that broken. (Yes, Gore loyalists, the system works more often than not.) The same, however, cannot be said of U.S. Congressional elections, due in large part to so-called "congressional stagnation"--namely, 90 percent or more of all Congressional incumbents are typically reelected, leading to a less responsive legislative body manned by career politicians whose main aptitude for their positions seems to be winning at the polls, rather than effectively executing the office.

This is not to say that Presidential elections couldn't use some improvements, or that all Congressmen are electioneering savants that secretly and exclusively want to fleece the American public -- but the entire system could stand some serious revision. Below are eight basic suggestions for improving all federal elections in the United States, with the overall goal of getting better, more effective leadership in both the Executive and Legislative Branches.
  1. Instant Runoff Balloting, which would aid primary contests more than final elections, given the dominance of the two-party system, but could nonetheless help third-party candidates become more of a legitimate part of the electoral process, rather than simply serve as protest votes or, worse, spoilers. Instead of simply voting for one candidate in a election -- a zero-sum game -- voters would rank their top three choices. Higher rankings earn more "points" and the candidate with the most points wins. This solves the problem of two relatively popular candidates splitting the mainstream vote, and the least popular third choice winning. (Academy Awards fans will remember that this sort of voting anomaly allowed Marisa Tomei to win an Oscar in 1992 because Vanessa Redgrave, Miranda Richardson and Joan Plowright split the voter base. Tomei, though a fine actress, is no Redgrave or Richardson. Range voting would have denied her an Oscar, but it probably should have.) Party Primaries would be much more competitive and representative under this system, and would undo the skewed "momentum" advantage that winner-take-all voting systems bestow on early primary victors. Speaking of which...
  2. Balanced Presidential Primaries would unshackle our Presidential election process from the undue advantage of "traditional" first primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. (If you wonder how corn subsidies stay in the Farm Bill despite rampant evidence of their detriment, at least some of the blame goes to the undue influence of the Iowa Caucases.) Instead, the country would be divided into primary groups such that an equal percentage of electoral votes is awarded every week or so between January and May, with the order of primaries shifting with the population and demographics to ensure representative diversity. Imagine, a contest that is decided progressively, rather than by who Iowa farmers and New Hampshire libertarians like best.
  3. Anonymous Campaign Donations, which is the primary facet of the so-called Ayres-Ackermann plan, AKA Voting With Dollars. The basic conceit here is that any campaign finance law based on funding limits or disclosures is just another loophole for creative accountants and lawyers to skirt. The simpler, easier, more effective solution is to anonymize donations, such that candidates don't know who is funding them, or by how much. You can't buy nights in the Lincoln Bedroom if a candidate doesn't know whether you've written them a check, and more importantly, a candidate can't owe a donor who has no proof he gave a massive donation to a campaign. Limit enforcement to the anonymization process, and quid-pro-quo influence peddling becomes almost impossible. Suddenly, campaigning will again be about garnering votes, not dollars.
  4. Computer-Generated Districting, wherein voting districts are determined by computer algorithm (there are several candidates), ignoring party affiliations of the population. This removes the notion of human bias and prevents incumbents from indulging in gerrymandering. Imagine that: Candidates running to represent a cohesive geographic and demographic group, rather than the boondoggled collection of neighborhoods most likely to reelect them.
  5. Universal Federal Term Limits, which has been tried more than once--notably by the famous Republican Contract With America in 1994 -- but getting Congress to limit itself is a tough proposition. Put simply, under this system, a House member would be limited to three terms, and a Senator to one. Gone are the notions of a career politician, unless that pol has done so well in one office as to merit running for another one. This would also have the beneficial side effect of removing the meaningless President Pro Tempore of the Senate from the Presidential Line of Succession. The Pro Tem is not an elected position, it's just someone who has gotten really good at winning his or her home district and is thus the longest serving Senator. At least Speaker of the House has some legitimate leadership duties, and creating a commensurate Senate position (or a better title for Senate Majority Leader) who would go into the Succession lineup is a net good. Moreover, Congressmen and Senators would have to seek office for the purpose of accomplishing something besides reelection.
  6. Ban Congressional Earmarks, which is to say Congress can only direct the amount of funding given to federal agencies, rather specify in which ways the money is spent. This cedes a great deal of power to the Executive Branch, because the Executive staffs the heads of these agencies (though most Executive jobs are held by non-partisan "lifers" that want to see the work done right and well; politically appointed agency heads set policy and priorities). Still, any agency head that would be spending this money would have to pass Senate confirmation -- so few ideologues would get through -- but the nationally responsive office of the President would have due influence on national spending, without the pork barrel requirements of bridges to nowhere or namesake libraries wasting our money and holding up more legitimate legislation. Ironically, this would have the effect of depressing spending not just because there would be fewer pet projects, but because Congress's sole fiduciary power would be in holding money hostage to ensure that the President and his cabinet agreed to spending guidelines. Any change that saves money is a good thing.
  7. Require Highest-Cost Reimbursement of all Lobbyist Gifts. Right now, Congressmen have to pay for any service or item given to them by lobbyists -- like, say, golf trips or airplane flights -- but they don't have to pay them back at market value. For example, a Senator can fly on a private jet but only pay for first-class commercial airfare, or might get a "member" rate an an exclusive golf course rather than an at-large rate. This can amount to thousands of dollars in "free" benefits, which is a primary advantage for lobbyists. Requiring that all gifts be paid back at the highest available market rate -- enjoy your Spring Break hotel rate, even if it isn't Spring Break -- will see such lobbyist contributions refused in record numbers. If lobbyists can't buy attention, they'll have to get by representing voting blocks. What a novel concept.
  8. Ban Fundraising During Congressional Sessions. The number of votes missed by our representatives because they were out fundraising is staggering. Moreover, Congress is only in session about 150 days a year, or less than half the time, so it's no great hardship to require that Congress limit its fundraising to that majority of time the members aren't directly tending to America's legislative business. This would also compress the available fundraising window, which would make fundraising itself more competitive, which would suss out the more viable candidates -- a net good.
All of these suggestions are designed to create a more responsive federal government, one which is hostile to career politicians or entrenched interests. No plan is perfect, no balm cures all diseases, and few if any of these are ever likely to occur. That said, if we want a better government, we'll need to create it, and that starts with a plan. Here's mine. What's yours?


  1. Great list, Jay. My only problem is with term limits. If my representative is doing the job I elected him to do, why should I be denied the ability to send him back to do that job? Besides, the computer-generated redistricting would most likely eliminate any need for term limits by also eliminating the incumbent sinecures created by current redistricting methods. (My personal preference is for the "shortest splitline" method. http://www.rangevoting.org/GerryExamples.html)

  2. I like the list and really agree with number seven. Do you think, however, that with the opposition of the President-elect Obama administration, we will soon see the copmlete elimination of lobbyist gift giving?

  3. Still, any agency head that would be spending this money would have to pass Senate confirmation--so few ideologues would get through

    HAAAA ha ha haha oh wait you're serious?

    Other than that, love the list.