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October 11, 2006

Pillars of Government Week: Part II, Congress

Part I of Pillars of Government week was devoted to looking at whether the military, as an institution, is in need of reform. The post generated some interesting discussion thanks to Grim (who was kind enough to link it at Winds of Change, Blackfive, and Milblogs) and the comments were informative and insightful. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

Today we take on Congress. Grim began with a disturbing incident which happened to involve the Democrats. But things have reached such a pass in Congress that it doesn't take much imagination to imagine that kind of grandstanding happening on the other side of the aisle:

...when the Democrats invited former Generals to the Hill to talk about how much more the military needs in resources -- well, they thanked them, shook hands, and said 'See, that proves Bush is screwing up.' Where is the Democrat who proposed a bill to do what the Generals said was needed?

What will the Democrats do about Iraq if they win control of Congress? I've heard that it's time for a change, and indeed it is -- but "change" in and of itself is not a plan. It is better to do the wrong thing, consistently, than to be unable to make any decision at all. Murtha says one thing and Kerry another, Pelosi a third and a fourth.

What makes Grim's criticism all the more valid is that he is a Democrat. It is this unflinching honesty that has made me a loyal reader. Sadly, the fecklessness in Congress is hardly limited to the minority party. Last month, David Broder commented:

In an interview last week, one of the Republican leaders of the House told me that in the 21 districts he visited during the August recess, including those in his own Midwestern state, immigration vies with Iraq as a matter of major concern to the voters. Does that mean, I asked, that you're likely to try to complete a final version of the immigration reform bill, endorsed by President Bush and passed in different forms by the House and Senate?

"No," said the GOP leader, who spoke without attribution in the interest of candor. "The voters would rather we get it done right than done fast. I don't look for any action in September."

A more honest response might have been, "Don't look for any action at all." The 109th Congress met for fewer days and got less done than any congress on record in recent years:

It is difficult to remember, but the president's first priority after his re-election in 2004 was changing the Social Security system to include privately owned accounts. For the better part of six months, he spoke everywhere about his plan -- but he never got around to introducing a specific piece of legislation. And every time he tried to drum up support for some version of the scheme, the word came back from the Capitol that Republicans were not prepared to vote for any such idea. In the end, Social Security reform never came to a vote in any committee of the House or Senate, let alone reached the floor. The Republicans simply chickened out.

The record on immigration was not much better. The House passed a punitive bill that would have closed the border and clamped down on illegal immigrants already living here. The Senate followed the president's wishes and approved a more generous and comprehensive approach, including a guest worker program and a difficult but manageable path to citizenship for those residing here illegally.

But House and Senate leaders never ordered the negotiations that might have led to agreement on a final bill, so in the end, there was little accomplished.

Gridlock is an old term, but increasingly Congress seems strangled by hyperpartisanship. Broder references a work that claims any effectiveness Congress once possessed has been eroded by

... institutional damage -- from runaway budgets to the lobbying scandals to the near abandonment of effective oversight of executive agencies.

What has gone wrong, and how do we fix it? In order to deal with Grim's thoughts - as well as adding a few of my own - I propose to break this post into sections: the Senate, the House, and partisanship in general.

THE SENATE

Grim comments:

Meant to be the voice of the states in the Federal government, the 17th Amendment made it instead an office filled by popular statewide elections. The House was meant to be responsive to the people, and has become a fortress of cemented partisanship.

The Senate, meant to speak for the states, was also meant to speak to long interests. Senators were meant to be less responsive to popular will, being insulated both by their longer terms and by the fact that state legislators would appoint them instead of direct elections. Instead, the Senate -- entrusted with powers that the Founders expected to be used by officials thus insulated from the momentary passions of the public -- has become the chamber most likely to change hands.

Grim is right. In many ways, the Senate has been effectively converted into a second House of Representatives. Meant to temper the whims of the electorate and represent the interests of the states, instead the Senate has succumbed to obstructionism and partisan politics. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the practice of filibustering, which I have railed against here, here, and here:

The madness started with the Democrats in the Senate. Outraged over the notion that 4 or 5 Senators from the minority party do not have the right to block the entire body from voting on candidates who would sail through if allowed to go to a full vote, they righteously intoned that if the so-called 'nuclear option' were invoked, it would be 'anti-democratic' and 'anti-Constitutional', (as though it were democratic for the will of the minority to overrule the majority and Constitutional for an extra-Constitutional Senate rule to override the highest law of the Land). They went on to opine that 41 Senators really represent "the will of the people" anyway, since the Blue states are more populous than the Red states; thus managing in a Herculean feat of blithering ignorance to wilfully ignore the intent of the Framers in allotting 2 Senators per state to counterbalance the more representative (hence the name) House. An odd argument for the Party which introduced a bill requiring a mandatory day of study on the US Constitution in all US public schools. Perhaps the good Senators should take their own refresher course?

No wonder nothing gets done. There is no incentive for either party to move things along and no penalty for failure. On the other hand, there are considerable penalties for sticking one's head above the skyline at the wrong moment or for deviating from the party line.

Grim's suggestion for fixing the problems with the Senate?

The 17th Amendment should be repealed. The Senate should be returned to the function intended for it by the Founders. It was never intended to be so sharply partisan, which it is because it has become the house of Congress most subject to electoral pressures.

I agree, so long as sufficient attention is paid to why the 17th Amendment was modified in the first place. There is a good discussion of the issues involved here. An excellent argument can be made that changing the way Senators are elected is the single strongest step towards restoring some vestige of federalism and true bicameralism to a government that has strayed too far from its original structure.

But I believe these reforms will be meaningless without also addressing the problem of allowing a minority to prevent debate from taking place or nominations from going forward, and that means looking at the problem of filibustering. This most likely would be accomplished through pressure from constituents who are tired of Congressional delay and inaction. There is no excuse for taxpayer dollars to be wasted by a handful of public servants determined to force their will on the majority by obstructionist tactics. Let debate be heard by the entire body, let them vote, and let matters be disposed of efficiently and with a miniumum of obstruction from either party behind closed doors.

THE HOUSE

Grim illustrates the problems with the House in the context of the Democrats, but the example works for the Republican party as well:

What will the Democrats do about Iraq if they win control of Congress? I've heard that it's time for a change, and indeed it is -- but "change" in and of itself is not a plan. It is better to do the wrong thing, consistently, than to be unable to make any decision at all. Murtha says one thing and Kerry another, Pelosi a third and a fourth.

This isn't a problem with their leadership. It's structural. The coalition they depend upon to almost-win national elections can't take a stand on Iraq. If they win, what will they do? They don't know themselves. The only thing that we can be sure they will do is hold endless hearings on what we should have done in 2002 and 2003 and 2004 -- which will take up time that needs to be devoted to doing what we need to do in 2007 and 2008.

This coalition is written in stone. More correctly, it is encoded into the gerrymandered lines of drawn, "safe" districts.The House, intended by the Framers to be subject to the pressures of electoral change, has become a fortress. With 435 seats up for election, we're looking at how many seats that are likely to change -- in this, most competitive of years? Fifteen?

The rest of those seats are locked in by demographics. But, in turn, those demographics mean that neither party can walk away from its existing coalition. 'Outreach' efforts can't endanger existing alliances, because those existing alliances are why the districts were drawn as they were.

Honestly, as tempting as it is to chalk up the DNC's electoral woes to ideological incoherence (reference Nancy Pelosi's recent lipstick on the pig pronouncement that the strength of the Democrat party lies in their inability to find consensus), how much better have we Republicans done with our majority status? We know what say we want to do, we have a President in office with the backbone to do it, but we have a cowardly and spineless Congress who refuse to pull together and back him when it really counts.

As this long, but very interesting article notes, serving in the House or Senate used to be considered an honor and institutional loyalty was high:

During the 1970s and 1980s, we participated regularly in orientations for newly elected members of Congress, put on by our two institutions and the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress as well as the Harvard University Institute of Politics. Successive classes of freshmen would come in and prepare to take office; their incredible pride at joining the House or Senate, being part of history as an exclusive and small group of people ever to have served, was palpable. During much of that era, Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.), a first-rate lawmaker and member of the House Ways and Means Committee, would join with his wife, Ruthie, to address the new members and their spouses. He would urge them to move their families to Washington; he believed their time in the House would be the greatest experience of their lives and was something they should share with their families.

...The reaction of new members has been matched by the growing indifference of committee and party leaders to the history and independent role of their own institutions and by a widespread acceptance by congressional leaders that the ends justify the means.



I believe the entrenchment and lack of turnover Grim cites, which is only exacerbated by gerrymandering, has fostered a sense of growing rancor that would have been somewhat dispelled had there been more new blood flowing in and out of House seats. But as it is now people dig in their heels, old grudges fester and are not forgotten, and loyalties, instead of belonging to the institution as a whole, become fractured and are transferred in tribal fashion, to the party.

What solutions does Grim propose?

Gerrymandering needs to be banned. This is hard to do conceptually, but it is necessary. The creation of these demographic districts locks parties into a script, one that now blocks the Democrats from being an effective opposition party because they cannot achieve electoral success except according to their existing script; and which keeps the Republicans from altering key policies for the same reason. The ability to come to a wrong decision is preferable to the inability to come to any decision, but neither is as good as being able to pursue the right.

This seems right to me, but I will await your feedback.

I suggest the elimination of Congressional districts, so that all representatives are elected in a single statewide election. If a state were to have ten representatives, then, a hundred people could run -- the top ten vote-getters would take office. That would restore the force of electoral pressure to the House, where it is designed to be. It would increase turnover of Representatives, and cut down on the corruption in the government.

I don't agree with eliminating congressional districts, as I see local representation as a logical extension of federalism; the idea being that local representatives are more likely to be responsive to the constituents within a more narrowly defined area. I like the idea of having a designated representative who is responsible for knowing the needs of voters in my geographic area, which may be quite different from those of the adjoining district. I want someone who is uniquely accountable to a smaller number of voters so that my voice counts more and doesn't get drowned out by the masses. To me, this is what is wrong with so much of American government, and I want more decentralization to counter the massive centralization and diffusion of power. Dude... it's all about diversity and the un-WalMartization of America. Let me have my un-plan-O-grammed local rep!

To me, this idea is little different from the idea that Senators represent the interests of the states: local representatives ought to represent the diverse interests, not only of local citizens within their districts, but of local business owners, industry, and other concerns. They cannot do so effectively over a larger area.

PARTISANSHIP

It is a sad state of affairs when the House minority leader openly brags about her ability to command obstructionist and divisive party loyalty at the cost of effective governance:

"If you take the knife off the table, it's not very frightening anymore"

The 66-year-old San Francisco lawmaker is an aggressive, hyperpartisan liberal pol who is the Democrats' version of Tom DeLay, minus the ethical and legal problems of the former Republican House leader. To condition Democrats for this fall's midterm elections, she has employed tactics straight out of DeLay's playbook: insisting other House Democrats vote the party line on everything, avoiding compromise with Republicans at all cost and mandating that members spend much of their time raising money for colleagues in close races. And she has been effective. House Democrats have been more unified in their voting than at any other time in the past quarter-century, with members on average voting the party line 88% of the time in 2005, according to Congressional Quarterly. That cohesion enabled Democrats to hasten President Bush's slide in the polls when they blocked his plan to reform Social Security by allowing retirees to eschew guaranteed benefits in favor of private accounts. Bush's approval rating remains depressed--38% in a TIME poll last week--and the Democrats are in their best position to win the House since Republicans took control of it in 1994.

Whatever happened to serving the public? To the complaints about wanting more unity in Washington? To the accusations about Republicans being mean-spirited? Though several liberal magazines have blamed the majority party for this season's Congressional inaction, the hardly-conservative Time magazine profile of Pelosi suggests there is plenty of blame to go around. The Democrat leadership is apparently so concerned with their long-term prospects for re-election that they have stifled those members within the party who were willing to work with Republicans for compromise and change, and thus nothing gets done:

Like DeLay, who was also known for bruising rivalries within his party, Pelosi has embraced hard-knuckle partisanship, even if it means standing still. When Bush announced his Social Security plan last year, Pelosi told House Democrats they could never beat him in a straight-ahead, policy-against-policy debate because he had the megaphone of the presidency and was just coming off re-election. So the Democrats would thunderously attack Bush and argue there was no Social Security crisis and therefore no need for them to put out their own proposal. Some members were leery, concerned that Pelosi would make the Democrats look like the Party of No. As the spring of 2005 wore on, some pestered her every week, asking when they were going to release a rival plan. "Never. Is never good enough for you?" Pelosi defiantly said to one member. When Florida Democrat Robert Wexler publicly suggested raising Social Security taxes as the solution, Pelosi immediately chewed him out over the phone. Only one other Democrat signed on to his plan.

And such rabid partisanship has another, unintended effect which is far more deleterious; it has caused the majority party to resist its natural oversight role over the Executive branch in fear of politically-motivated witch hunts. And as the recent warrantless wiretapping and habeus corpus brouhahas have demonstrated, these fears are not ill-grounded. The Democrats leverage these issues to stir up discontent and drive down the President's poll numbers, yet when push comes to shove they have no serious intention of introducing serious reforms for fear their stance may come back to haunt them if there is another terrorist attack.

The Brookings Institute article cited earlier gives some historical perspective on the decline in Congressional oversight, ironically tending to undercut the authors' strong imputation throughout most of the piece that these changes have occurred mostly under the present administration:

To be sure, the failure to ask tough questions of the military, or to challenge decisions made during wartime, is not new to Congress and not limited to Republicans. Richard Russell, a legend in the Senate (and a Democrat), never used the gavel of the Armed Services Committee to raise any of the tough issues about Vietnam that he did in private. Had he done so, we might have conducted that war in a much better fashion.

...UCLA political scientist Joel Aberbach reports that the number of oversight hearings - excluding the appropriations committees - dropped from 782 during the first six months of 1983 to 287 during a comparable period in 1997. The falloff in the Senate between 1983 and 1997 was just as striking: from 429 to 175.

That decline was then reinforced and exacerbated with the return of unified party government. The Republican Congress had even less incentive to oversee an executive controlled by its own party.

When you exclude the anecodatal evidence and look at the numbers, a different picture emerges, yet it is still alarming. Congress is not doing its job and this perception may partly explain the distressing number of leaks of classified information appearing in our newspapers.

What can be done about rabid partisanship?

How do we as voters reclaim our government, for this, I believe, is what is destroying the effectiveness of Congress. Is the problem, as Grim believes, structural, or are we failing as the 'bosses' of our public servants by not demanding better service from them?

How do we get to the point where Congress waltzes away after an entire session without accomplishing much of anything, and how can we
hold them accountable? Should there be sanctions for non-performance?

How do we end up with situations where, as in the last Presidential election, John Kerry simply didn't show up for an appalling number of votes in open defiance of Senate rules yet still collected a salary? Why wasn't he held accountable by the Senate? By his constituents?

Posted by Cassandra at October 11, 2006 04:59 AM

Comments

I'd like to add that absolutely everybody hated the suggestion of getting rid of Congressional districts. I'm not in any way tied to doing so; the proposal was just a means to the end of getting rid of gerrymandering. It's hard to draw districts without some gerrymandering slipping into the mix.

That said, if anyone has a better idea as to how to accomplish the real end -- stopping gerrymandering -- I'm all for it. The at-large elections are only one suggestion for doing so.

Posted by: Grim at October 11, 2006 09:24 AM

Well, I was completely impressed with your post as a whole Grim.

You didn't see ME coming up with a whole slew of solutions, did you? I just sit here and ask a bunch of dumb questions (because I don't have the answers) and poke holes! :p

As I said, I was really excited by your post, and pleased to have something substantive to write about. You really threw a lot of meat out there for discussion - that's the value. I think people have been wrestling with this stuff for 200+ years, so it's unlikely any of us are going to figure it out this week, but it's fun to try.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 11, 2006 09:30 AM

Cass (and Grim),
I am not buying the "representatives" should be responsive to the needs of their local contituents and the "senators" are responsive to the State needs. Who is responsive to the NATIONAL needs? Don't tell me the executive because while that is the executives job, the President can't get anything done if the legislative branch is constantly trying to please their constituents. The reason for the Senate is to have continuity and a longer view.

Our nation is not made up of little fiefdoms, I believe in federalism but eliminating big government and replacing it with local government isn't a solution (except for the social issues where I agree with you both) to the problem of ONE NATION being ripped apart by shortsighted idiots elected for their ability to bring home the bacon.

Posted by: Sluggo at October 11, 2006 10:45 AM

I'm enjoying these posts immensely, but they're very depressing in a way. The problem is that we don't have the means to implement any of these proposed changes, and our entrenched-for-life politicos sure aren't going to do it. The only legislation they all seem to agree on are incumbency protection laws of various forms.

Posted by: Daveg at October 11, 2006 10:45 AM

First off, there are too many rewards for being a congresscritter. The money and the power (not the official salary but the less tangible/trackable rewards) are sufficient to warrant millions spent in campaigning. This tells everyone that there is a pay-off. This payoff can be in the form of jobs for friends and family, kickbacks, campaign contributions, etc. How else do you justify the amount of money that is spent to get elected to a job that ostensibly pays only $100K/year or so?

The jobs were meant to be part-time services supplied by those who had a desire to serve their fellow men, not lifetime appointments to a protected and elite class of politicos.

Change that and you've made an impact. How it could be changed, while upholding the right of free speech (which includes the right to finance that free speech), is not nearly as clear to me...

Posted by: Beerme at October 11, 2006 10:48 AM

Sluggo:

Do you seriously contend that our current Senators represent the nation as a whole now?

I'm not really sure that case can be made. They represent the citizens of their states, if anything. But the question was really whether *how* they were meant to do that (IOW, when they elected, to whom will they be beholden?). And that, I think, is the $64K question.

And actually, I think under the C we were supposed to have a weak central government and fairly strong state governments. I think a good argument can be made that that arrangement needed to be overhauled... somewhat. But not completely scrubbed. I think the pendulum swung too far in the other direction.

There are matters the feds legitimately ought to control, but I don't think the federal gubmint needs to use the Commerce Clause to regulate marriage, for instance, or to force its way into every sphere of human activity as it is doing now. Before you know it the feds will be in your bathroom telling you how to part your hair in the morning.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 11, 2006 10:54 AM

Dave, I think a huge part of the problem is that we have ceded more and more power to the federal government and as it has grown like topsy-turvy, we feel more and more powerless at the local level, so we give up.

My last post, oddly enough, will be on whether the Constitution should be amended :)

Never say I don't have hubris... heh.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 11, 2006 10:56 AM

I'd just like to note that we don't depend on the Congress, or other Federal politicos, to amend the Constitution. There is an alternative process. It demands that we come to a national consensus on the question -- but if we do, we can proceed.

Article V:

"The Congress, whenever two thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments..."

If it comes to it, we can call a Constitutional Convention. Jefferson felt this was something we ought to do from time to time. Indeed, in his response to Marbury v. Madison, he proposed it as an alternative to letting SCOTUS serve as the sole arbiter of what the Constitution means.

I'm persuaded it may be coming time. To accomplisth that, though, we have to see if we can build agreement on what is needed to fix the Federal government. If we can, we the People, it's possible.

Posted by: Grim at October 11, 2006 11:14 AM

I think we ought to consider it, Grim. It's odd to think that as much as this country has changed we have all of a sudden stopped participating in government. The pace of change has accelerated yet we are allowing change to take place by default rather than by our own intent. This may be a function of the speed with which events are occurring, but it is regrettable. I'd like to see a stabilizing force (which the Constitution is supposed to be) in place. My sense is that it is being ignored or interpreted away because many feel it is outdated.

Perhaps if we were to come to some public consensus on updating it that would revitalize and legitimize it in the eyes of the public.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 11, 2006 11:57 AM

I think the Scifi author Arthur C. Clarke mentioned a some sort of mechanism for 'drafting' people to legislative or executive positions. For a fixed term.

However, sluggo's comment about who represents the National interest is worth some comment.

Yes, its a Federal system, and the founders envisioned a certain outcome. But comparisons with a country that had around 4 million people in 1790 and a country that has 300 million in 2006 is bound to fail.

Repeal the 17th amendment? Well, that doesn't solve the problem of Teddy Kennedy, Robert Byrd, Strom Thurmond or any of those other fossils that seem to be able to get themselves reelected every 6 years. The same thing would occurred even with the state legislature.

I seem to be (correct me if I'm wrong) the only person here who has suggested term limits as a first step at limiting the abuse of Congressional power.

The next step is stripping the perks from the offices.

Posted by: Eric Blair at October 11, 2006 12:58 PM

Several ideas occur to me.

I would propose limits on the Representatives and maybe the Senate (as long as they are elected and not appointed). 8 years for the Representatives max. Also, redraw district lines every 4-8 years where no more than 70% of the district can remain the same.

Another thought-limit terms at the state level. What if no person could serve more than 10 years as an elected official, state or local? That may drive corruption up rather than down if people are in a hurry. Now you may argue that you take experience away by doing this, well you still have the staffers around to get the details right.

Gagdad Bob over at One Cosmos has a good post on the types of personalities that seek political office, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture of politicians. We ought to look at getting some good people appointed, that will do the job, no matter how much they don’t want to do it. As a balance.

Our Federal Government has been becoming stronger. Many people discuss the Founding Fathers attempts to keep the Federal Government weak and the states stronger. However, many things have changed. We are much more homogenous now. Between the internet, TV and Wal-Mart, there are fewer differences every day between various sections of the country. People now seem to make an effort to preserve differences that used to be natural. Maybe it is time to review the idea of strong states versus weak Federal Government and get rid of the state governments. I don’t really like the idea, but the debate should be had. I don’t see the States as acting as any sort of check or balance to the Federal Government any more, so are they useful?

As for Filibusters, they ought to go. Partisanship-are we at the end of a Pendulum swing? As low as the President’s ratings are, Congress’ is even lower. However, there is nothing that I see that has sufficient impetus to cause Congress to change, unless we convene to make some changes to the Constitution. However, partisanship and inaction because of it is an argument against strong Federal Government.

Now that I have muddied the waters I will shut up again.

Posted by: Xopher at October 11, 2006 01:53 PM

If you know which post it is (Gagdad bob's) let me know. I'm so short on time but I'd love to read it.

I think we need the states. I would hate to see them go away - we'd lose the essential character of this nation. I see it as fundamentally wrong and an abuse of power that federalism has been so eroded - when central government grows so strong we lose control over it. I don't think the answer is to give up, but to reassert control over those things which make sense at the local level.

Federal govt is essentially a monopoly and monopolies aren't efficient. They have their uses and are a solution to some things like the free rider problem but for other things they are just awful and wasteful - they result in bloat and corruption and one size fits all solutions that don't address the needs of most people very well. Better to let local governments allocate resources and make local laws as they see fit and limit federal intervention to those venues (national defense, etc) where state control is clearly not going to work.


Posted by: Cassandra at October 11, 2006 03:10 PM

Let me tell you just how bad things are with the H of R and party structures and elections.

My district (3rd, Illinois) was represented by William O. Lipinski (D-IL) up until 2002. He had served for many years in that position. He pretty much ran without effective opposition in both the primary and general elections.

In 2002, he won the Democratic primary for his position with his usual commanding lead. Then what did he do? He retired! He then presented his choice for his successor: his son, Daniel Lipinski, who at the time of that announcement was a Political Science professor at an out-of-state university - Daniel at that time did not live in Illinois, never mind in the 3rd District.

The rules in Illinois for this kind of thing is that if a candidate withdraws after winning a primary, the party the candidate belongs to gets to pick who will be the candidate in the general election. To absolutely no one's surprise, Daniel Lipinski was put on the ballot. During the subsequent campaign, Daniel showed the voters that a) he was alive and breathing, b) he could find Illinois on the map, and c) he could probably get off the plane in D.C. and find the Capitol without physical aid. Questions on the issues of the day got a lot of vague answers, but the general consensus was that he probably wouldn't do anything different from his dad.

He won. My district is set up to include both suburban voters and voters in the City of Chicago (think pie slice, with the pointy end in Chicago and much more densely populated than the arced end), and Chicago voters vote straight-ticket Democratic regardless of the candidate. He'll continue to win, although without my vote (and I had consistently voted for his father).

I have to say I was shocked. That's not a word I readily use. First that William would pull this, since up to that point he seemed like a decent guy. Second, that anyone voted for him (the Republican opposition was not a wing-nut).

Alexis deToqueville was right. In a Democracy, you get the government you deserve.

Posted by: RonF at October 11, 2006 03:32 PM

A similar occurence is playing out now in local government. Namely, the Cook County Board Presidency. Cook County includes the City of Chicago and a number of the close-in suburbs. They control a lot of money collected in real-estate and sales taxes and disbursed to provide healthcare services to the indigent, maintain roads, etc. Even by Chicago standards, Cook County government is famously corrupt, with payrolls padded with do-nothing political appointees and bloated contracts granted to buddies and contributors.

The President was John Stroger. When Cook County built a new hospital for the poor in Chicago across the street for the old one, he actually put/allowed to have put his own name on it. In the recent primary, John had strong opposition from a fellow member of the Cook County Board, Forrest Claypool. Forrest said a lot of things that made a lot of sense, but he had one big drawback he couldn't overcome; he is white, and President of the Cook County Board is a "black" position. Three weeks before the primary, John Stroger had a stroke. He never issued a public statement afterwards (probably because he couldn't). Various people purported to do so for him, but there was no telling what was going on because the family absolutely forbade any health care professional from saying a word to the public. Forrest lost, although he's still on the County Board and is running for election for it from his district.

After the election, John Stroger, though his people, withdrew from the election. Guess who's on the ballot in his place. Forrest, who actually drew a lot of votes? Hell, no. Stroger's son, that's who, a person who 99.95% of Cook County residents couldn't pick out of a lineup and who demonstrably hasn't a clue on what he would do about corruption, governmental effectiveness and a budget that has been grossly overdrawn for years. But, the Republican candidate (also a member of the Cook County Board, elected from a suburban district) has the misfortune of being Caucasian, so Todd Stroger will likely be elected.

And when people argue about placing John's son on the ballot, politicians and officials seriously state that opposition to this is racist, because when white politicians did it no one objected.

Posted by: RonF at October 11, 2006 03:44 PM

Oh, yeah; I can't tell you offhand what hospital John Stroger got his health care in, but I'll give you one guess the name of one hospital he wasn't in.

Posted by: RonF at October 11, 2006 03:46 PM

When I was over on ScrappleFace, the other commenters used to bug me to run for office.

I used to say, "not in a million years...".

That is why. Can you imagine? I'm too plain-spoken.

Amazing...

Posted by: Cassandra at October 11, 2006 03:53 PM

As to the districting question...
Why not rely on county lines to help determine congressional districts. You can split the county if needed between several representatives, or elect them whole county by county (or group of counties in rural areas).
The local govt's are much much less likely to move county lines then district lines that only mean anything to incumbants and challengers. That way there is some basis to local representation, and a more fixed solution then the whims of party redistricters.

Posted by: HP at October 11, 2006 04:03 PM

If you want to get rid of gerrymandering, try this:
Each member of the state legislature can submit a plan. The length of the district borders in each one are measured. The one with the shortest total length goes into effect.

As for the 17th Amendment--I see it as the only way to keep state legislature candidates talking about local issues instead of national ones.

Posted by: Karl Gallagher at October 11, 2006 04:22 PM

Cassandra (responding to Xopher): I think we need the states. I would hate to see them go away - we'd lose the essential character of this nation. I see it as fundamentally wrong and an abuse of power that federalism has been so eroded - when central government grows so strong we lose control over it. I don't think the answer is to give up, but to reassert control over those things which make sense at the local level.



If I'm reading Xopher right, he's suggesting our nation has turned that corner already, in which case the states' functions are superfluous.



I'd take it a step further and argue that the national government - indeed, the very idea of the nation-state - is now of questionable usefulness due to the same changing times, technology, etc. Indeed, today Glenn Reynolds is having similar thoughts:



What I realized in thinking about this is the extent to which modern nation-states are all about geometry: They have an inside, and an outside, and the presumption is that if most of the dangers are kept outside everything will be fine. If some sort of practical matter transportation came about, we'd have to think about a different way of looking at things: The "virtual geography" of transport connections would mean more than the real geography of rivers, mountains, oceans, and other formerly important natural barriers. That seems pretty revolutionary.



But as with many technological prognostications, this extreme example is really just a more exaggerated version of what's already happening. Virtual communities in some ways already mean more than real ones, and physical borders are increasingly overmatched by the porosity brought about by changes in technology and culture, well short of any matter transportation devices. Immigrants travel with enormous freedom compared to just a few decades ago; the threat of smuggled nuclear weapons is real and growing; people model epidemics based on airline connections more than geography. In short, even without spooky technology, natural borders are less and less important.



The future is here already, in a way. Welcome to it!

Posted by: Joshua at October 11, 2006 04:35 PM

BTW there seems to be something wrong with Previewing (at least when using Firefox) - you have to add line-break tags or else your comment appears as one giant paragraph in the preview. Then when you add the tags and publish the comment, it comes out looking like mine does above, with extra spaces between the paragraphs. Aarrgghh...

Posted by: Joshua at October 11, 2006 04:38 PM

Oh, my, what a can of worms to explore!

We shouldn't be paying them, it's "public service", not "sucking on the public teat". The 17th has to go; let each state decide how to make its Senate appointments; worst case, they continue to elect them by popular vote.

Districts have turned out to be a bad idea. I'm not sure that even elections are a good idea. Have house seats by petition. Say that each represents n voters. Get n+5,000 people to sign your petition, and you're in. If you don't like what your representative is doing -- and they are your representative -- go and sign someone else's petition. If they go under (say) n-5,000 then they're out.

In any case, you can't run for an office while holding any office. You go in, do your term, and you're out of office. You can run again, but someone else has the chair first.

Posted by: htom at October 11, 2006 06:26 PM

Eric:

I think you were the first on the term limits thing, though one or two other commenter's at the Hall came up with it. I'm planning a follow-up post, after Cassidy's series, to pull in ideas from commenters.

On the other hand, if you don't want to wait on me... you do have posting rights at Grim's Hall. :) I would be only too glad to see you make the case for limits.

Posted by: Grim at October 11, 2006 06:40 PM

I volunteer for the post of benevolent Dictator with Cass as my second in command. We would straighten all this crud out in no time.

Posted by: unkawill at October 11, 2006 07:14 PM

That would be great Grim, because frankly after this
I think I am going to collapse :p

unkawill, I keep trying to become Dictatrix for Life around this place, but only the dog seems willing to let me be in charge.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 11, 2006 07:26 PM

"Dictatrix"

I love new words.

Posted by: unkawill at October 11, 2006 07:54 PM

I figured you'd regret promising a week's worth of posts on something. :)

All the same, go on. You're doing great.

Posted by: Grim at October 11, 2006 09:57 PM

"Gagdad Bob over at One Cosmos has a good post on the types of personalities that seek political office.."

Gaghdad Bob. Heh.

Posted by: Grim at October 11, 2006 10:30 PM

I never post to anything. However, this basic argument has irked me for quite some time. I consider myself a Federalist. Bear that in mind.

Is the problem structural, or based on human greed? I am not sure how this will sound, but I will post a "what if" scenario, and you all tell me if it could be so:

What if:

If I were super-evil-guy, and I had lots'o'cash (or something else that anyone might want) to give away as favors, I think that, in a two party system like ours, I could manage to effectively bribe both parties' candidates, and come out on top, no matter which party came to be in charge.

That way, I can effectively push my agenda - whatever it is - in the partisan environment that seems to be the current norm, since neither party seems to want to deviate from the current situation. They certainly don't want a third party contender - after all, they'd lose my money and favors if they did.

Normally, I might try to create my own party to change things, but, since it appears that the two large, established parties would band together - however temporarily - to defeat a third party, no matter if it were legitimate, I see no reason to waste that kind of resources for a not-sure-thing.

So, what's an evil, agenda-pushing guy to do? To heck with statesmanship, that's for sucks! I'm out for number one, baby: me! I'm gonna work in an extra-party fashion to push my agenda, I suppose. Bribery, of a sincerely legal fashion, sure is cheaper than starting my own party from the ground up, by a long shot.

What if our main argument centers around the money/favors/patronage action on a two party system? How do we elect those who will act like statesmen in this kind of environment?

Please tell me I'm wrong about how easy it could be to manipulate the current situation, if I were an evil guy...

Apologize in advance for the rant.

Posted by: Luke at October 12, 2006 01:45 AM

The suggestion that we eliminate states and national governments is futurist nonsense. Have online stores destroyed brick and mortars? (This is going to be a bit ranty.)

That idea is fantasy, so I would like to throw it down before it festers into something bigger. I know that's kind of nasty, but I think it is just.

We will never agree to abolish states. It just won't happen. To discuss it belongs somewhere else. What we need is actionable ideas that are practical and available. The states, God willing, will never disappate; that is until digital association becomes as deep as physical association. (Which may never happen.)

The Fed/State/Local trichotomy, is something that Paine kind of alludes to: The local handles the local and diverse and short-sighted, while the state holds the middle and the federal looks at the big picture. It is a system that has made us the best nation in the world, and talking about the 'future' is no excuse for its demise.

/rant!

I think that the states will never be what they were, but keeping them is not trying to make them that. The states had more functions than existing because people couldn't move around quickly. We need to stay on focus, which is coming up with constructive ideas that address the problems facing our nation.

Guess I sound kind of like an ombudsman here, but I think that for us to have good talk we need to focus on things we actually can do, rather than what we wish we could do.

Its not rational to consider the public of the U.S. useless sheep that will never make positive, constructive decisions on their own. You don't know those people, so you can't make that judgement either way.

I think my part in this coming era will be as a teacher... though I would not mind holding political office for a short time.

What we need to be doing is to weigh new developments according to reason and justice, and see which are good and which come up wanting. Grim's judgement (I am in agreement) is that Gerrymandering combined with the 17th create an wholly undesirable legislature.

There are other problems, but we need to agree on solutions that will do something.

Pull a Reagan-- go straight to the people and ask them. They'll answer, because they are interested in their voice, just so long as they believe it will be heard.

Posted by: RiverCocytus at October 12, 2006 03:17 PM

I have not read Grim's post(s)nor any on milblogs or Blackfive on these matters yet. What surpises me in the two of Cassandra's I have read is that there is no recognition of the fact that the economy has vastly changed since the beginning of the country. By that I mean where once there were local goods, manufactors et al we now have scale for an urban population. The needs of these interests lets them run rampant over local concerns(think Abramhoff and the Indian tribes gambling problems). It also plays out in gerrymandering which has been addressed well here.

I still believe that to achieve any meaningful change the local constituents should be able to see whom is influencing the votes of their representatives. Since everyone agrees money talks and the rest walk, if every representative senator et al is forced to publish on a daily basis the names of there financial contributors and here I mean individuals and not any of these bastardized conglomerates of interest groups and on whom they spent their campaign money, the electorate can easily deteremine if their representative is representing them. It would solve the accountablity issue, move forward the debate and allow solutions to come to the fore in the political arena.

I know this is a far better solution than relying on the idea of state's rights and a crazy quilt of local laws and to a certain extent we already hae this problem. Think what happens in a state where manufactoring issues completely rule out environmental ones. That lovely forest Grim loves to plink in would soon die from upstream/wind toxicity. Add in social and religious issues the mess would be greater than the ones we currently confront. If you put your money where your mouth is people know who you are and can act accordingly.

Posted by: Robert M at October 13, 2006 09:20 AM

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