Thursday, November 20, 2014

FIXING CONGRESS


Now that the Republicans have won the Congress, perhaps the mainstream media will allow itself to focus on needed constitutional reforms.

There are three main proposals that are usually advanced to reform our national legislature.

1)   Do something about campaign financing. This usually takes the form of: a) prohibiting all private campaign funding and requiring the government to finance campaigns; b) prohibiting certain kinds or amounts of campaign expenditures; or c) specifying who can or cannot finance campaigns.
2)   Enact term limits by constitutional amendment.
3) Increase the size of the House, shrink the districts, prohibit gerrymandering and decrease the expenses and emoluments of Congress persons.

Personally, I favor the third  approach. Public financing of political campaigns is a frightfully bad idea. Public funding is controlled by the government and the government is controlled by the incumbents. It follows that public funding of elections, controlled by incumbents will absolutely favor incumbents. Giving that kind of an advantage to career politicians is hardly the way to discourage career politicians.

I am, at best; ambivalent with respect to term limits. We have them for some offices and the evaluations are mixed. The main argument against term limits is that they deny the people the right to elect the representatives they want. My concern, frankly, is that term limits don’t address the real problems. You will still have career politicians, albeit ladder climbers rather than lifelong incumbents. You will still have interminable fund raising, expensive campaigns, cozy lobbyists, and all the shenanigans that besmirch our system today.

Moreover, term limits tend to exacerbate the career path of legislator-to-lobbyist that already makes our Congress seem like a post graduate course in representing supplicants at the public teat. 

The third approach appeals to me as the soundest. The Founders intended the House of representatives to be reapportioned every ten years to reflect the increase in the nation’s population. Because the ratio of representatives to constituents was not specifically written into the constitution, Congress was able to freeze the number of representatives, thus increasing the power of their offices every ten years.

Today, Congressmen represent an average of 710,000 people. Campaigns are expensive. That is why so many incumbents are reelected. Gerrymandered districts assure that one or the other of the two major political parties has a “safe” district.

Most importantly, Representatives do not reflect the sense of local communities. Districts which are not community-based foster appeals to the lowest common denominator of voter sentiment, typically evidenced by partisan affiliation, ethnicity or economic bias.

Large districts lead to full time legislators, large professional staffs, and centralized operations. The part time legislator who lives in his or her district and personally reads and studies Bills does not exist in  expansive and expensive constituencies.

At a minimum, we ought to eliminate gerrymandering and require Congresspersons to live in their districts. As now written, the Constitution only requires members of the House to be residents of their State. In truth, most do not actually live in their ‘home’ state, since their principal place of residence is Washington D.C. A vacation home or a campaign headquarters should not satisfy the requirement of residence.

There is much more to be said and written on this subject, to be sure. That’s why we need a convention.

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