Returning the House (and the President) to the People

In my recently concluded interview with Publius from ObsidianWings on the role of the administrative state, a central question was how citizens can better hold the executive and legislative branches accountable and prevent regulatory capture.  It seems clear to me (although Publius may disagree) that these issues are closely related to the issue of growth of executive power in recent years, as Congress increasingly abdicates responsibility for the quality of government to the regulatory state and we increasingly view the President as something of an omnipotent legislator-in-chief. 

I. The Problem

The result of this abdication is largely an inability for citizens to hold government accountable for its actions or inactions.  Congress winds up blaming the Executive Branch for just about everything as a means of justifying its own inaction to remedy past mistakes.  The President blames Congress for failing to pass his legislative agenda while largely ignoring the way in which the regulatory state that he oversees gets captured by narrow interests. 

Meanwhile, the President winds up being the sole person we are willing or able to hold accountable….if the economy is good, we credit the President; if the economy is bad, we blame the President.  We dislike Congress, to be sure, but high incumbent re-election rates show that we are unwilling to actually place blame on our own members of Congress.  At best, we vote out a couple members of Congress in swing districts as a proxy for the President’s popularity (which is in turn a proxy for the state of the economy and the perception of our geopolitical status). 

The Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority leader are hardly immune from criticism and are certainly higher profile than just about any other member of Congress, but even there, we have little ability to hold them accountable for how well they are doing their jobs as long as they remain reasonably popular in their home districts and states. 

II.  The Solution: Turn On The Speakers

There is a simple, if perhaps only partial, solution to this twin problem of abdication of responsibility by Congress and lack of accountability for the administration of the regulatory state: nationalize the election of the Speaker of the House. 

This would, of course, require a Constitutional Amendment, but it would have the advantage of requiring very few, if any, structural changes to the organization of the House or the Constitution itself, unlike moving to a more purely Parliamentary system.  As I will show, it would also likely turn the House into something closer to a true Lower House, from which just about all legislation would originate. Most importantly, it would force a clear division of responsibilities allowing voters to be more able to hold the President responsible for the actions of the administrative state and the Congress responsible for legislative affairs.  It would, as such, also reverse the growth of Executive Power that reached its zenith in the Bush Administration but is certain to continue growing in the future. 

These are bold claims, but they also have a strong basis in common sense.  The most obvious reason why this proposal would greatly reduce regulatory capture and the growth of Executive Power is that it would give voters someone to hold accountable specifically for the passage of legislation.  Under our current system, narrow local interests are able to turn national legislation into little more than a giant rent-seeking operation, while the scope of the legislation becomes severely watered down.  There is no one to hold accountable for this – if your district gets none of the rent-seeking, you have to be content with “well, it’s better than nothing,” or “well, at least my Congresslizard voted against it.”

On the other hand, if we start electing the Speaker of the House by national popular vote, we have someone very specific to hold accountable for captured legislation or for failed attempts at legislation or for ill-conceived legislation.  Simply passing the buck for the bad effects of legislation or inaction by blaming them on the Executive Branch will not fly unless the Speaker can convince the voters that the blame does, in fact, rest with the Executive Branch.  This will also create an adversarial relationship between the Speaker and the Executive Branch even when they share the same party such that the Speaker will have every incentive to keep close tabs on how the Executive is functioning, and vice versa. 

In addition to the tighter oversight of the Executive Branch by Congress that this would create, it would also put an end to the Cult of the Presidency that has enabled the Executive Branch to so drastically expand its power while also ensuring that voters will be better able to assess the quality of a President.  With an alternate national elected official, no longer will voters need to place all their hopes and fears in one person such that this one person is the only person they can hold directly responsible for all the woe in their lives or, in the alternative, for all that is good in their lives.  Instead, when legislation passes that they don’t like, they can hold the Speaker responsible; when federal law enforcement or an administrative agency crosses the line, they can hold the President responsible. 

Finally, this amendment would alleviate many of the problems that exist with the Senate by placing the greater moral authority with the House, giving the Speaker a bully pulpit to strong arm the Senate into passing legislation more or less as it has been written by the Speaker herself.  Senators from small states will still wield votes with greater proportional power than the size of their constituencies, but they will be less able to wring rent-seeking concessions from a Speaker who can expect to be judged harshly for passing heavily corrupted legislation.  In short, they will need to vote on legislation based solely on its overall effects as they may or may not affect their own state rather than using negative aspects of those effects to wring concessions that not only weaken the bill, but may also even make the bill worse from the perspective of bill opponents. 

III.  Locking the Speaker Up

I don’t mean to make this idea sound like a panacea: politicians are still going to be corrupt, narrow interests are still going to weasel their way into the process, the President will still enjoy nearly unfettered control over the conduct of wars and foreign policy, and it’s still going to be difficult to pin down what is and is not part of a Speaker or a President’s “mandate.”  But at the very least, many of these problems will become less significant.  Presidents will be elected more for their perceived competence in administration than for their ability to promise people everything under the moon; Speakers will be elected for their legislative agenda and their ability to work across party lines to enact that agenda in as pure a form as possible rather than their ability to work within their own party.  Voters will have a stronger incentive to keep close tabs on bureaucratic and legislative efficiency and a stronger ability to hold the appropriate branch of government responsible, rather than viewing the President as government personified.

There are, of course, some potential weaknesses with this idea, especially depending on your perspective.  The most obvious issue is gridlock, particularly in a circumstance where the Speaker is of a different party than the majority of the House itself.  For me, this is probably a feature more than a bug.  However, I’m not at all certain that severe gridlock would actually result in such a circumstance.  In part this is because in most elections, the most valuable skill is going to be the ability to win over votes from the other party while maintaining a coherent agenda.  Beyond that, though, there may actually be more incentive for a speaker and a House majority from the opposing party to work together than currently exists when the House and the Presidency are under the control of different parties.  This is because the election cycle will be the same, so there’s a substantial risk of both sides getting overtaken by a “throw the bums out” movement at the same time.  Even if only one side gets blamed for gridlock, the result is that the other side will within two years get its majority in the House and control of the Speakership.  Finally, by ensuring that the Speaker’s interests and the interests of her national party are not necessarily the same, we will likely get the kind of gridlock that results in better, but less, legislation.

One of the key features of electing the Speaker would be that citizens would be better able to hold the President accountable for the regulatory state.  To the extent gridlock reigns on Capitol Hill, he would have that much more of an incentive to attempt to do by regulatory changes and changes in enforcement priorities that which Congress refuses to do.  Obviously, there are limits to how far he could go with this, but the fact is that the modern regulatory state is so large and complex that simple decisions about enforcement priorities and rulemaking can often have widespread effects.  Simply put, an Executive Branch can do quite a bit to alleviate the problems of gridlock (such as they are, in fact, problems) merely by acting competently in the first place rather than seeking to place the onus on Congress to act.

Conclusion

In sum, making the Speaker of the House a nationally-elected position will not magically create an idyllic democracy where politicians are honest, regulatory capture is non-existent, and everyone gets a free ride on the Magical Unity Pony.  It will, however, make government more responsive, democratic, and accountable than decades of campaign finance reform have achieved.

PS- Many thanks to Jamelle and E.D., who provided invaluable feedback on the original draft of this post.

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71 thoughts on “Returning the House (and the President) to the People

  1. Ideas.

    1. Term Limits. Athenian Democracy, in my opinion the most intellectually and culturally productive society the planet ever saw, had them. Many of the Founding Fathers thought the constitution’s lack of them was a fatal flaw. This is especially apparent now – people are career politicians, dieing in office. I don’t have the statistic on my me but I know this was not the case with the early Republic.

    2. Repeal the 17th amendment, popular election of senators removed a crucial check on Federal Power , totally destroying the original purpose of the chamber. (We went from “These United States” to “The United States” in vernacular not longer after this)
    (Note: this is part of the unholy trinity of 1913: The other two are the IRS and of course the Federal Reserve.)

    3. There has to be a better way to assign committee chairmanships than seniority. This would be less of a problem if term limits existed, but right now it’s a huge problem, as committee chairman are extremely powerful.

    4. Put more parts of government under the direct control of congress. Partisanship is good for some things, weeding out waste and corruption are some of them. The GAO and CBO are very good at what they do, congress needs them to be more powerful, more organizations like them, and possibly begin to even put entire agencies under the control of congress.

    As an aside, the CIA and NSA are extremely anti-democratic; The anecdote about Karzai’s brother should show once again that they are incapable of change, it is highly unlikely the days of MK-ULTRA and Cointelpro are really over . Left unchecked these organizations will complete the transformation of this country into a National Security, or I daresay, militarized police state. Here, it is presidents who harbor much blame, as starting wars always justifies further expansion of their powers.

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  2. I wonder about the big money nature of national elections. For the pres candidates to compete they end up needing 100’s of millions of $$. to a big degree i think that is one of the factors that leads to the corporate / big money nature of our politics. and with rep’s having a two year term, they would inevitably need to start raising money almost as soon as they were elected and be plunged into fighting for re-election halfway through their term.

    The senate has become sclerotic mostly due to the “rules” that require a super majority (60 votes) to pass anything other then declarations that puppies and kittens are cute.

    On the other hand i support severe punishments for spammers.

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    • Oh, boy….the campaign finance minefield. There will probably be more on that topic in coming days, but for now I’ll just have to say that I think the collective effect of hundreds of millions getting divvied up among 535 individual members of Congress in $2000 increments is far worse than the effect of one individual politician getting hundreds of millions for a competitive campaign.

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      • Gregniak raised the first issue I had which is that the only comparable election for a national office already is a two year long election, so without a longer term (if you’re amending the constitution, easy enough done) the new Speaker would almost constantly be running for re-election, though without the electoral college that certainly changes how they’ll run for national office.

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  3. > There has to be a better way to assign committee chairmanships than
    > seniority. This would be less of a problem if term limits existed, but right
    > now it’s a huge problem, as committee chairman are extremely powerful.

    Amen to that, brother.

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    • In part, this idea attempts to address that exact problem. By making the Speaker directly accountable to the electorate for her decisions and ability to push through good legislation, rather than to other members of Congress, you pretty much ensure that the seniority system goes to pasture – as I envision it, committee chairmanship assignments would be one of the key duties of a popularly elected Speaker.

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  4. Questions.

    1. You say that “the election cycle would be the same,” but that is not clear: the same as what, the President’s or the other House members’? What is the election cycle of the new Speaker? If it is to be the same as the rest of the House, we should be clear about how much having a national election every two years would radically alter our politics.

    2.What would be the powers of the new Speaker over and above those that currently exist to entice not only (a) quality individuals to seek the position (would the Speaker be both a representative of a single Congressional district and elected by the U.S. public at large?) and (b) entice two-thirds of the current or a future Congress to pass the Amendment necessary to make this change?

    3. No election has ever taken place in the United States that was based on national popular vote. National elections are administered by the individuals where each state is responsible only for declaring a winner, after which an automatic process takes over. There is no federal mechanism that recognizes the popular vote totals in national elections; individual popular votes through to the present are essentially not fungible across state lines in national elections. You propose the Speaker being elected based on national popular vote; that necessitates a proposal for the national tabulation of popular votes. Do you have such a proposal? What is yuor position on the continued election of the President in the Electoral College? Would you embrace election of the new Speaker in a similar college? If you stand by the proposal to elect the Speaker by national popular vote, would you propose simultaneously that the President be elected by the same federal tabulation mechanism used for election of the Speaker?

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  5. Michael, what mark is doing is moving the sclerotic american system, somewhat closer to a parliamentary system. I actually approve. But I would go further and try to pave the way for a full transition to parliamentary systems. When the executive is drawn from the majority party in the legislature, it seems that you have even more accountability. (No president-congress split that allows shifting the blame back and forth)

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    • I’ve definitely warmed to the merits of a parliamentary system, both for accountability reasons and for more pragmatic reasons, in recent months. One thing I should say is that going all-out to a parliamentary system, beyond being politically impossible for the foreseeable future, would require radical structural changes to the government in a very short period of time that would have some fairly major (and potentially nasty) unintended consequences. This is an attempt to adapt some of the features of a parliamentary government to the existing American system. In other words, I think you’ve got a pretty good idea of what I’m trying to do.

      Besides, with enough funding, I’m pretty sure this idea could get enough popular support to become an Amendment – the thing about democracy is that a majority of people are usually in favor of giving themselves more voting power.

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      • I’ve definitely warmed to the merits of a parliamentary system, both for accountability reasons and for more pragmatic reasons, in recent months.

        But your suggestion would move away from a parlimentary system! Direct election of another power centre disconected from the parlimentary majority? That’s as far from parlimentary as you can get.

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  6. Why would we want to mess up our great system to make it look more European? The real problem is the 17th amendment which totally gutted the state’s role in the federal government. Right now senators aren’t beholden to their state in any relevant way.

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      • Yes but the real question is why is Congress dysfunctional. Why change the whole system when we can easily fix what is wrong by going back to the original intended form? Even with our current dysfunctional system I would argue that that is what the founders wanted to a certain extent, they didn’t want the gov’t running around with its hand in every pie. Our gov’t is supposed to be a limited gov’t with certain roles. Maybe if the gov’t stuck to its limited role there wouldn’t be so much bureaucracy.

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        • The trouble with this is that, whatever my thoughts about the proper role of government and of the original intent of the Constitution, there is simply no way of going backwards at this point. Undo New Deal-era jurisprudence and you wind up creating mass chaos overnight because at this point much of our country and economy and political stability relies upon their continued existence.

          Importantly, what I’m proposing here does not change the whole system. Instead, it recognizes what our system is and makes one very simple change that will result in a much stronger and clearer separation of powers (which, of course, was the original intent of the Constitution) that allows voters to hold their government accountable in a way they have not been able to do in a very long time.

          I’m thinking of doing a second and maybe third part to this post, but if I don’t, one important distinction between the US and some of the European countries is that many of the European countries have the ability to fix past mistakes in a way that the US seems unable to do. So, whatever one’s thoughts about the propriety of certain types of government actions, it seems undeniable that European governments perform those actions significantly better than does ours.

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    • I go back and forth on the 17th Amendment, but I tend to think of repeal of that amendment as an even bigger pipe dream than this regardless of whether repeal would be worthwhile. Politically, you’d have to convince a super-majority of Americans to relinquish their right to vote for office….this is an extraordinarily hard sell. Convincing a super-majority of Americans that they should be allowed to vote for the Speaker is a much, much easier sell.

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      • You do realise that italy’s “parliamentary system” is a lot closer to what you have in the US than the parliamentary system of UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or even Singapore for that matter. Be that as it may, even if Italy is a Westminster-ian parliament that would seem to be the worst outcome vis-a-vis governance possible. On the other hand, show me one respectable congressional system.

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  7. I’m not getting how this would actually work? After all, the Speaker of the House doesn’t have lots of power in the House because of the office or the Constitution or who votes for her. Her power comes from a long-term evolving agreement about the speaker’s role in the house, specifically that, since she’s the chosen representative of the majority party, and the majority party is the one who controls the agenda, she sets the agenda for the majority. If we nationally elect the Speaker, it seems to me that the speaker would become a figurehead like the (also nationally elected) President of the Senate, and the agenda-setting would just transfer over to the House Majority Leader.

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    • I probably should have addressed this more directly in the post, but a key feature here would be that the amendment would also have to formalize that long-term evolving agreement and probably give some additional authority above and beyond that.

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      • Mark:

        Why create another post when voter turnout is so low already? How do you propose to get people to vote for this new post in greater number than they currently vote? I’m one of those that believes that if you don’t vote, you get the gov’t you deserve.

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        • I think a high-profile national election every two years would significantly increase voter turnout. While voter turnout is still not very good in Presidential years, it is undeniably far higher than in non-Presidential years, presumably because nationwide office is perceived as significantly more important than one Congressional seat. This would place a nationwide office before the voters every Congressional election.

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  8. I dont think it matters how the Senators get there, the rules and make up of the Senate will end up with the same results IMHO.

    As to your main point, you are on the right track. One of the biggest structural problems with our government is the nearly king like role played by the POTUS, especially in foreign policy. In the long run our system would benefit if Congress played more of the adversarial role as seen by the writers of the Constitution. Rather than create another power broker in Congress, might it not work better to limit the POTUS? Maybe do away with signing statements or limit what legislation can be written by the executive branch?

    Steve

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    • I disagree steve. Having the Senator appointed by and accountable to a state legislature adds a nice new dynamic. A voter can complain to the Senator’s office and be merrily ignored. If the head of your state legislature calls up and is spitting mad you’d better at least have a good explanation or you could be out of a job right quick. Plus devolving elections back to the states will diffuse lobbying dollars.

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      • Agreed. The biggest change is that it would incline the federal government towards fewer strings, fewer mandates, and the like.

        Senators protect their state’s business interests pretty well but the interests of the state government itself is much less consistently considered.

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  9. I’m just going to chime in on the subject of gridlock, because I have a few thoughts on this subject but they’re not quite mature enough to share yet.

    The concern about cohabitation is a real one that I think needs to be addressed given the fact that even now Congress only handles a very small handful of legislative priorities it’s given each year. Empirically we have few examples of quasi-presidential systems, but those that we do see seem to suggest that cohabitation simply kills the legislative process and makes action impossible. The best example we’ve seen to date of a hybrid system is the Fifth French Republic, and they actually had to amend their constitution to reduce the possibility of cohabitation between legislature and executive.

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  10. I actually like this idea, although there are parts that would have to be fleshed out a little, but let me propose one tweak: two years is too short a term for a national office. Why not give the speaker a 4 year term, to make it more symmetrical with the President, and have the speaker be elected in what are currently the off-year elections (2010, 2014, etc)? This would have a salutary effect on turnout in those elections, and enhance the prestige of the new office.

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  11. North- As I see it, party affiliation dominates everything right now. Having the state legislature vote in the Senator will not remove that dynamic. On most very state specific policies, Senators already vote for their state’s interests. The part you ignore here is the unintended consequence of putting the power of selecting a Senator into the hands of a couple of hundred people. I would predict that those state officials would then receive record amounts of lobbyist money.

    Steve

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    • Party affiliation will always dominate in an election. Besides, it is easier for me to have an effect on the election of my local legislator than it is for me to have any effect on the election of my state’s senator. And as a bonus I’d rather have the Senator’s election in the hands of hundreds of people not millions.

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    • Yes Steve. So consider the equation.
      Current system: 100% of lobbying money goes to 1 person. The Senator concerned.
      New System: Lobbying money must be spread around the 100 or so legislators who appoint the senator and the Senator him/herself (who, stripped of the need to campaign for election has become much more resistant to this form of lobbying).

      So either lobbying will become less effective or else it will take more money to achieve the same amount of oomph as current lobbying does. Either way this is an improvement even without factoring in the fact that as soon as you involve more people in the process than just the lobbyist and the senator you have greater potential for exposure.

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      • Good point.

        Additionally, there really isn’t much of a way for me to lobby either of my senators in Warshington. I can go up to Denver, however. It’s relatively uncomplicated for me to talk to my state rep (Mike Merrifield! I’ve shook the guy’s hand). I can sit down with him and talk about what I’m looking for in representation. I have.

        That ain’t never going to happen when it comes to Udall.

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      • The second order issue becomes important because it’s doubtful many people are going to vote for state representatives based on who they’ll send to the United States Senate, particularly when those very same people will have even more legislative authority over their lives than the national congress.

        I mean, intra-state business interests already lobby state legislators so I’m not sure that calculus would change significantly, the only big variable is the role of private and out of state backers, for whom it’s a lot harder to lobby the right people in small local districts than fork over cash to one guy.

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  12. Scott-That is what yo would have. A few hundred state legislators and a few of the state’s richest people. Seeing as that was the intention of the original writers of the Constitution, it would be a return to older values. I do not se how it would address the original issue, ie, how do you get the legislature to reclaim its role from the executive branch.

    Steve

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    • Maybe we need some sort of new legislator training about what their role is. Considering the state of civics education in this country, most probably don’t know what their role is. Other than that everyone needs to vote. But even then I think party ties make sometimes be strong to overcome.

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  13. Wow, I guess more people than just me aren’t exactly thrilled with the 17th Amendment.

    I think the big effect here is that it divorces from the Presidency the dual role of head of state and head of government. The new Speaker, though not a head of government in a parliamentary sense would almost certainly be the American version.

    It’s probably a lot healthier for the country and would return the Presidency to a pre-Jackson like focus on administrative and foreign issues.

    It also uses power and ambition to check power and ambition rather than idealistic legislation or the power of public condemnation. Which, I think is more stable from a systemic level.

    I would favor Dan’s suggestion of four year terms, though not off-Presidential year elections, term limits (or a repeal of the 22nd amendment) to develop some electoral parity with the office of the President.

    Where I’m the most skeptical is on what kind of people will be elected.

    You say, “the most valuable skill is going to be the ability to win over votes from the other party while maintaining a coherent agenda,” which would be easily recognizable for legislators but not necessarily the voting public, especially a voting public in which the national vote is almost certain to favor urban voters and organizational interests that can marshal huge numbers of votes.

    In theory, the most valuable skill for a President is to be an effective administrator. Yet routinely, people demand advocates and/or demagogues in their national candidates.

    I would imagine that instead of getting effective legislators, we’ll end up getting partisan advocates who behave much like today’s politicians when in the majority, are stymied by a majority opposition and left incredibly vulnerable to minority members in the Senate and Presidential vetoes.

    In essence, I like the idea of a legislative leader who is nationally accountable via a means other than majority/minority party status decided by a few swing districts. However, this new position would have a lot of checks on their power, an electoral position that would require a fund-raising apparatus larger and more successful than anything we’ve ever seen, and has little in the way of systemic support for getting office-holders who are actually good at legislating and managing coalition politics.

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  14. Interesting idea. This’ IMHO a better suggestion than parliamentarism. The UK Parliament’s even worse than our Congress – it’s takenr away far more rights than Congress, because it’s only weakly checked, and, well, it can because there’s no Bill of Rights.

    The Roman Republic, one of the more successful states, at least at conquering the rest of the world, bwahaha, also had probably the most checks and balances ever. Jivatman, you’re thinking of the Roman Republic. Another check they had that I think might be worth considering is the Plebeian Tribunes.

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  15. I just stumbled on this website which impresses me powerfully as very serious and thoughtful,
    but I believe all you guys are trying to be too clever. Why not let the 100 million voters out there
    solve all these electoral problems by creating an environment that destroys the professional careerist
    political class, and allows the native common sense of the American people to take over?
    I believe the bulk of the people have an inherent common sense and integrity to do the right thing
    if only they were put in the position where they had to make real choices (like voting for citizens instead of
    professional politicians). And I believe a lot more citizens would run for office if they did not have to
    run against professionals backed by special interests.

    The idea is fundamentally very simple, but practically very laborious to achieve:
    NEVER REELECT ANYONE IN CONGRESS, AND DO IT EVERY ELECTION.

    Voters must IMPOSE term limits by never reelecting incumbents , and do it every election! Don’t let anyone serve more than one term. Some of the reasons to do this:

    • It gives us a one-term, term limited Congress without using amendments
    • It encourages widespread participation to run for Congress by ordinary citizens
    • It would be supported by 70% of the country who want term limits for Congress
    • It is completely non-partisan
    • If repeated, it ends career politicians dominating Congress
    • It opens the way to a “citizen Congress”
    • It ends the seniority system that keeps freshmen powerless
    • It would provide a torrent of fresh ideas to improve our government
    • It doesn’t cost you any money. But you MUST vote! Just don’t vote for an incumbent
    • It is the only guaranteed, infallible, unstoppable way to “Throw ALL the Bums Out”
    • It takes effect immediately the day after Election Day
    • If it doesn’t work, do it again and again! It will work eventually, I promise.

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    • Meh. Always voting for not the current guy seems likely to result in just as many, if not more, problems than keeping incumbents in for generations at a time.

      As for term limits, cultural or legal, I’m with Bartlet,

      “I get nervous around laws that fundamentally assume that Americans can’t be trusted. We better have mandatory sentencing, because judges can’t be trusted to disperse even-handed justice…. We better have term limits, ’cause voters can’t be trusted to recognize corruption. Oh, and by the way… when the playing field is level and the process is fair and open, it turns out we have term limits: They’re called elections.”

      I also oppose term limits because the effect tends to bolster the power of lobbyists rather than reduce them because they get to stick around making their expertise (though not money) and institutional knowledge more valuable to newcomers.

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      • Jaybird and Kyle

        The most obvious responses to the idea of “NEVER REELECTING…” seem to be based on the idea that we cannot trust a Congress full of freshmen. On the other hand, what seems far more obvious (and proven) to me is that we cannot trust a Congress full of experienced career politicians whose ONLY objective is reelection at any price.

        Doesn’t the appeal of really new ideas from a citizen Congress work anymore?

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  16. I had the same thought as Bo, that without substantial changes the Speaker would become a figurehead. I also see a problem with an off-cycle four year term. Based on our experience of off-cycle elections, we can assume that the Speakership would go to the President’s opposition party at least 90% of the time. This would set up a strange dynamic, with the president being a lame duck after two years.

    I would support a repeal of the 17th Amendment without a moment’s hesitation.

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    • I’m going to go out on a limb and say with what Mark is saying about popular views of the presidency the tendency to go divided government becomes a wild card. If people place less emphasis/focus on the President at the center of national government, dissatisfaction with the president resulting in congressional losses might become a thing of the past.

      At the very least it will be more of a wild card, as the speakership would become the pre-eminent domestic agenda leader in the national government.

      My opposition to the off year cycles is that a national election on “the direction of the nation” every two years would throw America into constant campaign mode, which I think makes gridlock and avoidance of challenges more likely, rather than less.

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        • Yeah…my understanding of the gridlock Mark was talking about was with divided government in which the costs of doing nothing are shared by both parties rather than the party in charge of both branches, so it changes the incentive structure to get something done.

          Electoral gridlock is a different beast, it creates incentives for fiscally unsound political bribes and forcing divisive issues over legislative accomplishment. Could we ever reforming Social Security if every two years someone was running for national office and couldn’t afford to piss off seniors?

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        • No, it’s a bug. If nothing gets done, more power is delegated to the executive branch, errors are never corrected, bureaucracies never trimed, taxes never cut, regulatory capture never undone. Only if you feel the current situation is somewhat ideal is there any sense arguing that gridlock is a feature.

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  17. “Current system: 100% of lobbying money goes to 1 person. The Senator concerned.
    New System: Lobbying money must be spread around the 100 or so legislators who appoint the senator and the Senator him/herself (who, stripped of the need to campaign for election has become much more resistant to this form of lobbying).’

    Said Senator becomes the biggest lobbyist. This effectively limits the position to the wealthy in the state, which was the original intention.

    How much do you know about your state legislators? How much do you think your fellow voters know? What do you think will happen when you dump millions more into their elections? If you have not already, I would suggest you go meet some of your state legislators. I go to Harrisburg every year now. Most of the legislators just follow the lead of a few people. You would only be lobbying a few key people. The bigger difference is that you would be more likely to have direct negotiation for the position like was going on in Illinois when Obama left.

    Steve

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    • No one is saying that returning the power to the state legislatures would be a panacea. The assertion is merely that it would make it significantly better than it is done now and that is a point I don’t believe you’ve refuted. Yes more money would go to state legislative politics. This is money that currently goes to one professional politician in Washington. I believe that would be considered an improvement.

      When you consider the reasons why the 17th was instituted I think they fall into two categories. A) The arguments that it would make the senate more responsive to their constituents needs. I’m of the opinion these have been proven wrong.
      B) The arguments concerning process. I believe that modern communications and transportation eliminate these concerns.

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  18. I have to admit, this strikes me as a very bad idea. The main reason for the unhealthy relationship between the executive and legislative is precisely the legislative gridlock; the only way to actually get anything done (especially for anything that requires fine tuning) is to delegate regulatory authority to the presidency. That’s why it’s so often done.

    Your proposal would add to gridlock, by adding yet another potential veto point. You now have to get the agreement of 60 senators, the president (or 67 senators), the house AND the speaker. Currently, those last two go pretty much together, but under your proposal they would march to a different tune, with different incentives and objectives. Result: more gridlock, more delegation of power to the executive branch.

    Finally, this amendment would alleviate many of the problems that exist with the Senate by placing the greater moral authority with the House, giving the Speaker a bully pulpit to strong arm the Senate into passing legislation more or less as it has been written by the Speaker herself.

    This strikes me as wildly implausible. Moral authority? Bully bulpits? Senators are not going to change their behaviour unless their incentives change. And these haven’t moved at all.

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  19. Stuart, the key here is that if the legislators cannot individually amend laws, but can only vote on them, then there are fewer mouths at the trough.

    However, he doesnt have to be federally elected. Let him simply be whoever the majority party picks. We should note, however, that parties in general would have to declare in advance who their candidate is.

    Since the supply of special interests is never ending, making them all fight to influence 1 man first of all weeds out the most frivolous of all of them. Secondly, when you have to influence one man, it becomes very obvious if the influence is very large. If only 1 person is writing legislation and he consistently capitulates to some special interest e.g big oil, or teacher’s unions, then the party may choose to forward a motion of no-confidence. Otherwise, the party will lose face. Politicians are corrupt only in so far as they can get away with it and that the other party has something to gain.

    Restricting congress to only voting on legislation instead of amending it as well reduces the payoff to interest groups. Making sure that only 1 person can write and amend legislation, means that the relative anonymity of congressmen making amendments in exchange for kickbacks or money in the next election is replaced by looking clearly at the legislation he tends to write.

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    • That indeed sounds much better – but it wasn’t in the post as described.

      It would seem dangerous to allow no amendments at all (think of what a speaker could do with a “must pass” bill, such as the big budget items). Maybe a supermajority requirement for amendments?

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