Ten Ideas for Fixing the Federal Government

In just the past year, the country has gone through a series of divisive political debates over the economy, tax cuts, unemployment, job creation, health care, bank regulation, the budget deficit, and the debt ceiling. The only thing the two major political parties can agree on is fighting wars, enforcing pernicious drug laws, kowtowing to corporate lobbyists, and abridging the rights of citizens under the Patriot Act. These are not things the majority of Americans want. Maybe it’s time to make some changes to our current system of government. Here are ten ideas that might change things for the better.

1. Bring ‘Em All Home

You elect representatives to present your views of what the country should do. They probably live nearby, maybe even in your neighborhood. You may even know them personally or worked on their campaign. But then they go off to Washington. They meet scores of new people. They eat at fine international restaurants and go to world class cultural events. They are waited on and fawned over by support staff and lobbyists. How could they not get distracted and forget why they’re in Washington and who put them there? Perhaps it would make sense to move political thought back to State capitals and away from the rarefied atmosphere inside the Beltway.
One solution to this issue would be to have Representatives telework to Washington from offices in their home States (rather than telework to their home States from Washington). Representatives already maintain offices in their home State, so this would not be unprecedented. Communications shouldn’t be an issue. Everybody from the President to Congressional pages has a Blackberry. Hearings and meetings formerly held in Washington could be conducted by video. Voting could be done electronically, as is done now.
Each State would be responsible for maintaining office spaces—working offices in the State and an embassy in Washington. The State would decide how many representatives, if any, to send to Washington to represent the State in person. A State could decide to send just one representative, rotate several representatives during a term, or send several representatives at the same time for each party or constituency. The States could decide to make their offices as lavish or humble as they choose, regardless of the seniority of their Representatives. The offices in the Capitol Building formerly used by Representatives would be assigned to Congressional support staff or be redesigned as meeting rooms equipped with telecommunications capabilities to allow hearings to be broadcast nationwide.
Having representatives telework would improve their connection to their constituents and reduce travel, but there would also be other benefits. National security would be enhanced as elements of the Federal government are moved out of Washington. Local interest groups would find it easier to lobby their representatives in their State capitals and local districts, while the 14,000 high-priced lobbyists in Washington would have to spread their presence around the country rather than bask on K Street. Companies spend over $2 billion on lobbying just in 2011. Wouldn’t it be nice to spread that money around the country?

2. Improve Representation

When the United States was created, the Founding Fathers agreed that members of the House of Representatives should serve no more than 30,000 of the four million or so citizens of the country, resulting in 105 members of the House. The number of Representatives increased with the population until Congress limited the number to 435 in 1929. By 2000, the US population had grown to about 281 million, so there was one representative for 647,000 constituents. But representation varies by state. Wyoming and Rhode Island have about 525,000 constituents per representative while Utah and Montana have over 900,000 constituents per representative.
One way to minimize this unequal and ineffective representation is to give each State one vote (rather than one Representative) in the House of Representatives for every 30,000 of population. Of course, the improved representation would come at a price. With twenty times more representatives to provide for, States would have to be creative in administering their governments. They could send just a few of their Representatives to Washington at a time, having the remaining Representatives telework instead. States could economize by combining the jobs of State and Federal Representatives. The extra workload could be accommodated by adding non-elected support staff. Furthermore, States should pay the salaries of their Representatives and their staffs, and be free to set the salaries, as well as link the salaries to performance, the State’s economy, or other relevant factors, as in the private sector. As the cost burden shifts from the Federal government to the States, Federal income taxes could be reduced, and States could implement taxation measures they deem to be more appropriate for funding government.

3. Create Unbiased Election Districts

It’s no secret that politicians stay in power, and kick opponents out of office, by redistricting. Gerrymandering is a concept known even to high school students. But the arcane art of politicians drawing district boundaries should be relegated to history books. Really! Sophisticated GIS (geographic information system) software is readily available as are mathematical algorithms for partitioning spatially dependent data. Isn’t it about time we bring elections into the 21st century?

4. Make Sure Candidates Are Qualified

When you apply for a job, you have to prove you’re qualified. You might need a degree or a certification, or have to pass a test, but you have to prove you’re qualified just to get an interview. Appointed Federal officials, like judges and agency heads, have to pass Congressional confirmation, so why shouldn’t candidates for elected Federal offices also go through some screening process?
As part of the requirements of filing to run for an office, candidate qualifications should be screened to safeguard voters from ignorance, incompetence, instability, or immorality. For example, candidates need to know the Constitution. Perhaps a candidate’s knowledge of civics could be evaluated with the tests given to immigrants seeking citizenship. Psychological tests and security checks might follow those given to FBI and other law enforcement agents. Financial audits might be similar to those required of IRS employees. Drug testing would also be prudent, at least as long as the war on drugs
continues. One exception to the screening process would be lie-detector testing. It would probably be too severe a test for any politician to pass.

5. Reduce the Influence of Money in Elections

The Supreme Court made a big deal of saying in the Citizens United case that money represents free speech and cannot be censored. But while the ruling protects the rights of corporations, foreign governments, and wealthy individuals who have the money to speak, it trounces on the rights of millions of Americans to free and fair elections. So, why don’t we make it a law that contributions to a political campaign can only be made by those who can vote in that election. No contributions would be allowed from corporations, foreign governments, PACs, unregistered voters, or residents of other voter districts. Another approach advocated by some is public financing of elections.

6. End Two Party Dominance

The U.S. Constitution doesn’t call for or even mention political parties. That’s because there were no political parties when it was written. It wasn’t until almost a decade later that the Federalist Party became active in elections. Today, there are scores of active political parties in the U.S., though you wouldn’t know it from the way Republicans and Democrats dominate the political dialogue. But the current system is stacked against these third parties. There are substantial administrative and financial requirements to even be put on an election ballot. Even then, most voters won’t support third-party candidates because the candidates are perceived as having little chance of victory, and without voter support, they in fact have little chance of victory. One way to address this self fulfilling prophecy is Instant Runoff Voting. In IRV, voters rank their choices for an office rather than just selecting one candidate. Votes can be counted in a number of ways, such as averaging the rankings or eliminating the lowest ranking candidates and reranking the rest.

7. Count Every Vote Correctly

In the 2000 Presidential election, Florida taught us about butterfly ballots, hanging chads, and counting and recounting votes. Not to be outdone, Ohio’s 2004 Presidential election taught us how electronic vote counts can be hacked. In both cases, the contested results were maintained because there wasn’t enough time for an investigation and a full recount. In contrast, the 2008 Minnesota Senatorial election took six months to investigate and recount before finally overturning the election of Norm Coleman in favor of Al Franken.
So, perhaps the solution to this problem is the simple application of transparency over time. Let voters cast their votes by paper ballot throughout the month of October and require election districts to post incremental vote tallys on a website. This would highlight any statistically improbable changes in voting trends and provide time for investigation should any improprieties come to light.

8. Drop the Electoral College

Improving citizen representation will render the biased and obsolete Electoral College less biased but even more obsolete. Already, about 70% of citizens would prefer direct election of the President. Things have changed a lot in two hundred years. Communications are instantaneous. Cross country travel takes hours instead of months. Most Americans are literate. There is a national media. It’s long past time to do away with the Electoral College and save the money for something else.

9. Blacklist Politicos for Election Crimes

Dirty tricks have been a staple of US politics for two centuries. Watergate brought many of these abuses to the attention of the media, and eventually, the courts, but the light sentences have not served as a deterrent. If anything, the tricks have become more pervasive and more successful in misleading voters and suppressing turnout. This infringes on the right if citizens to fair elections.
In cases in which a court decides some law has been violated in a political campaign, the punishment is usually relatively minor, such as a fine or a short term of incarceration. Election results, however, are virtually never overturned as a consequence. If you cheat in sports, you’re punished and your team forfeits the game. If you cheat in politics, you may avoid any punishment, especially if your team wins the election.
If someone commits a crime that infringes on the rights of the voters to a fair election, the perpetrator should be prohibited from participating in future political activities. Perhaps the first offense should carry a mandatory two-year ban, the second offense a ten-year ban, and the third offense a lifetime ban on any future electioneering. Like doctors and lawyers, politicians and political operatives who abuse their profession should lose their ability to practice.

10. Limit the Time Politicians are in Office

The idea of limiting the terms of government officials has been discussed since the early days of the country and is today more relevant than ever. The President is limited to two, four year terms by the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, but members of Congress and the Courts are not bound by term limits. Unfortunately, the people who would have to implement term limits are the same politicians who don’t want to give up the prestige and power of office. But if the President is limited to a total of eight (to ten) years in office, it might make sense to also limit Senators to two six-year terms, Representatives to four, two-year terms, and Justices to one ten-year term.

Changing the Rules

So, if we create unbiased voting districts of about 30,000 citizens, make sure the candidates are qualified, limit campaign contributions to voters, and hold elections over a month using instant runoff voting, we should be able to elect representatives, many from third parties, who will more closely reflect our views. Keep those representative local rather than sending them to Washington so that they are accessible to their constituents. Limit their lifetime terms so they don’t build political fiefdoms. And if they’re caught cheating, throw them out of public service.
A few of these ideas, like eliminating the Electoral College, are well on the road to implementation. Others won’t come about, though, until the sky over Washington D.C. had been darkened by myriad flocks of flying pigs. That’s because the politicians who would have to implement these changes are the same politicians who would be restricted
by them. So we can’t wait for our elected officials to do what’s best for most Americans. They relish the power they hold and will not give it up easily.
Most Americans are not interested in politics. They don’t pay attention to it most of the time. They rely on the rants they hear on talk radio for their information rather than informed sources. They just want the government to work, like their cars, computers, and household appliances. They feel that they don’t need to know how or why it works, just that it does. As Thomas Jefferson wrote,

… [M]ankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

A time may come, though, when the two-party rivalry goes beyond just being an irritant and becomes dysfunctional. When our cars, computers, and household appliances break down, we repair or replace them. Likewise, we must be prepared to repair our government.

… [W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new guards for their future security.

Willow Grove, PA
25 August 2011

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