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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

American Congressional Reform

As we swing into an American Congressional election year, I cannot help but wonder if perhaps there is a better way to run things. Of course, as a Canadian civilian, my political clout in this matter is absolutely non-existent, but I thought I might field some ideas for the sake of it. There are two problems I would like to address; the most pressing one is that upon election House Representatives and, to a lesser extent, Senators must immediately begin devoting considerable time and resources to the project of re-election rather than focusing on their ostensible job of legislating in the interest of the people they represent. Secondly, election campaigns themselves tend to revolve around non-issues and are primarily decided by monetary input from special-interest lobbies and large corporations.

In order to try and minimize these problems, I thought that perhaps it would make sense to expand the judicial branch of the government in the following manner: create a body of judges and constitutional lawyers (hereafter simply referred to as judges) who are randomly assigned in sets of three or five to each Congressman two months (or some other appropriate time frame) before the election cycle is set to begin. The judges will be responsible for reviewing the Congressman's job performance, specifically with regard to whether the Congressman actually participated in the legislative process and whether or not there was evidence of some sort of justification and thought put into that Congressman's contribution, as well as whether any conflicts of interest from special-interest campaign contributors compromised the Congressman's votes and proposals. If the judges deem the Congressman's to have been adequate with minimal ethical issues, then the Congressman need not run for re-election. If there is a serious lack of engagement on the part of the Congressman or ethical breaches such as voting solely on the basis of campaign contributors' wishes, then the judges can call for an election in that district.

It is important that these judges be randomly assigned, as there should be no opportunity for the Congressman to use his legislative powers to further the agendas of any of the judges (thereby corrupting their votes). Likewise, in the same manner that the judicial branch is expected to function as ethically and impartially as possible, so too must these performance evaluations be done. The enquiries should be open, and any challenges to the impartiality of the judges should be evaluated by a judicial ethics board.

The point of all of this is to make Congressmen more accountable to their actual records in office, while also easing much of the burden of campaigning (thereby leaving them more time and resources to devote to their legislative tasks). When Congressmen are called for re-election, the election campaigns themselves should likewise be more focused on their actual performances since the judges will have performed the detailed scrutiny of their records that no voter could possibly have the time to compile (unless they happen to be independently wealthy, really into politics, and very well connected). Since the evaluations will be conducted in an open manner, any reasons for calling the election will immediately be at the forefront of the campaign and open for debate.


Anonymous said...

An interesting concept. But somewhat divorced from reality. In any congressional election only about maybe ten percent of the seats have any possibility of changing representatives or senators. Americans have to first of all address the problem of the gerrymandering that goes on in each congressional district. Once they have done that properly then they must grapple with problems of lobbying and the use of money to determine elections. One of the dangers we face in Canada is the strong possibility that the present government may try to end the provision of a sum of public money to each political party based on the number of votes that party has achieved at the election. Such a move would once again bring big money into play in a strong manner. It would be lovely if your concept were capable of being achieved but I doubt it.

Robert said...

I have a couple of questions...

Would you want to maintain some sort of election cycle? Instead of it being once every 2 years for the house, maybe once every 6 years (with those congress people that the judges do not like coming up every 2 years).

I think my biggest problem is that even if the judges are randomly assigned, and even if they are constitutional experts, they will still have some bias. The judges would have to apply to both republican and democratic leaders, so they would be fairly mainstream and give deference to that position. I wonder how they would react to Kucinich, for example.

I recognize that the scope of decision making you would have for the judges would not include political favoritism, and you would want the process to be open, so if there was favoritism, we could all see it. But during the election, if that favoritism came out I think it would already be too late.

And even if the judge does detailed scrutiny of the record, that scrutiny would be biased toward a particular worldview.

My personal preference of major reform would be to get rid of the senate. Or, at the very least, get rid of the filibuster.

I might write more later...but what do you think about these initial objections?

Paul Kishimoto said...

Agreed with Robert—the American judiciary seems to be backsliding rapidly on its reputation for impartiality.

This creates problems like forum shopping and the recent, shocking Supreme Court ruling on campaign contributions from companies.

It also means these review committees would be an unreliable tool to evaluate Congressmen and -women.

When the money flowing through campaign coffers, PACs and the like increases, so too does the effort involved in spending it—the campaigning you refer to. The less money flowing, the less potential for it to be diverted to prurient self-interest and the greater the cogency of campaigns to actual issues of merit.

Mozglubov said...

I recognize this is certainly not an ideal suggestion, and that bias within the judiciary committees is likely to be a prominent issue.

Although I whole-heartedly support electoral reform with regards to limiting campaign funds and contributions, I still don't think that would completely solve the problem. Voters generally do not have the time nor access to look into the actual record of their congressional representatives. The press generally only have the access if they treat politicians deferentially and don't ask too many of 'the tough questions'. Of course, I don't know whether these problems are enough to risk putting one more layer of bureaucracy between voters and their political representatives, but I think they are worth addressing.

Robert said...

I think the problems with American democracy are systemic and need serious addressing. I do like this idea, because it is new and radical. In America, I think we have created a system of government that is responsive to the people in only a very narrow way. For example: The people of America want the war in Afghanistan to end. What we got instead is an escalation of that war. We want nationalized health care. If we get health care reform, it will be a privatized, free market version of it. We want more money spent on social services, and we are instead getting a 3 year spending freeze. The politicians can be responsive to the American public...but only in a very narrow way, and not in a way that falls outside of that narrow window.

I think the primary problem is with the news media. The mainstream media contently reinforces that narrow range of debate and choices that our political elites want. Despite the fact that an overwhelming of majority of Americans think that taxes should be raised on the rich, the issue is posed in the media as a position that is political suicide.

I would prefer our second reform (the first being the elimination of the Senate and adding some proportional representation seats to the House) would be media reform. Our media is not independent, but all of it is beholden to one particular ideological worldview. Obviously, within that worldview there is a range of opinion...but that range is really small, and rarely do we see opinion break outside of that worldview. What I mean is, it is a worldview that first asks the question "What does government need to cut to balance the budget" instead of first asking "Who does the government need to tax more to balance the budget." It is a media that first explores the question of "What can government do to incentivize people to work harder" instead of first asking "What can the government do to incentivize corporations to provide more interesting jobs?"

My primary concern with your suggestion is that it would add another layer of the same bureaucracy on top of what we currently have. IE, because those judges would be chosen by the same system we currently have, we would not see the paradigm shift that America desperately needs out of its elected officials. The judges appointed to those positions would have the same outlook and worldview as the people currently in office, thus I think we would be stuck in the same situation that we are now.

I do not know how to reform the media. I think a start would be to have a funding system much like the BBC, in which every household pays 200 dollars a year, every year, to fund the station. This way, the station has an independent and guaranteed source of funding. NPR is the best America has on a mass scale, but it still needs to be supported by large charitable funds and corporations (about 23% of its funds come from corporations, which means they are still responsive to those interests). Having a news organization that has to play by some equal time rules, but can do its job completely independently of funding concerns may be the best real reform we can make to improve our national political conversation.