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[Steven Landsburg, guest-blogging, April 24, 2007 at 7:01am] Trackbacks

The problem with democracy is not that politicians kowtow to financiers and lobbyists; it's that politicians kowtow to their own consituents, spending other people's money along the way. In other words, their incentives are all wrong. Effective reform should supply better incentives.

So if I could make just one change in the American political system, it would be to give each voter two votes in every congressional election. You'd get one vote to cast in your own district and another to cast in the district of your choice. When a congressman from West Virginia funnels taxpayers' money from fifty states to his home district, I want him to face the prospect that taxpayers from fifty states will share their feelings with him on election day.

I'd also redraw the boundaries of Congressional districts according to the alphabet instead of geography. Instead of congressmen from central Delaware and northern Colorado, we'd have a congressman for everyone whose name begins with AA through AE, another for everyone whose name begins with AF through AL, and so on. The point being that it's easy to devise a pork barrel project that benefits everyone in northern Colorado, but a lot harder to devise a pork barrel project that benefits everyone whose name happens to begin with Q.

Finally, I want federal income tax rates determined separately in each congressional district, as a function of how much spending your congressman has voted for. The more he votes to spend, the more you pay in taxes. That should solve the problem of voters who pay little attention to what their representatives are up to.

If you're worried about this deterring congressmen from voting for bills that are truly in the national interest, I'm willing to make an exemption for any spending bill that passes by a supermajority of, say, 70%.

Am I serious? Of course I'm serious. Of course I'm also aware that our legal system would probably render any of these reforms quite impossible, and that this of all blogs is the one where readers will jump in to tell me why. But the disconnect between congressional incentives and the welfare of the general public is real, and needs highlighting. So when I say "Let's redraw the congressional districts according to the alphabet", what I'm really saying is "Let's think hard---and creatively---about ways to sever the link between parochial interests and congressional incentives." That's an entirely serious point.

All of which is another major theme in my new book, from which this post is adapted.

David Maquera (mail) (www):
Ok???
4.24.2007 8:15am
bornyesterday (mail) (www):
I still think the easiest way to make sure congresspeople are actually in DC to get things done is to put a two-term limit on both Senators and Reps. Competition breeds productivity.
4.24.2007 8:22am
martinned (mail) (www):
L.S.,

A two-term limit surely is a bad idea. If you did that, you'd get the same problem as you already have for presidents: in their second term, they don't have to care about the voters anymore. (i.e. not at all)

My personal favourite reform is to have Irish-style multi-seat constituencies. In Ireland, each constituency elects between 2 and 4 parliamentarians. (MEPs or TDs, as the case may be.) It's not such a big change, but at least it tends to break the power of the big parties a little.
4.24.2007 8:27am
martinned (mail) (www):
P.S.,

Oh, I forgot one other important advantage: it puts a stop to any possibility of gerrymandering. (Assuming you'd make the new constituencies equal to entire states in most cases.)
4.24.2007 8:28am
Oren (mail):
While your thinking is right on the money, there are some geographical interests that need to be represented. For instance, I'm almost certain that your proposal would like to widespread neglect of the interest in the Northern Plains.

Of course, our current system highly overrepresents those interest so it's hard to be sympathetic now.
4.24.2007 8:48am
psennett (mail):

A two-term limit surely is a bad idea. If you did that, you'd get the same problem as you already have for presidents: in their second term, they don't have to care about the voters anymore. (i.e. not at all)


And that would differ from the current situation exactly how? Term limits are the best cure for what ails the system as it stands, besides Steve's first suggestion.
4.24.2007 8:54am
Tim (mail):
My wish is to return to the original thought of a representative for every 10,000-20,000 people, or at least double number of members in the House.

In this way many communities who do not have representation today would get representation. For instance, the African-American population in Cincinnati is split among the suburbs to eliminate their voice. If you make the districts the effects of gerry mandering become less.

The argument was made in the 1930's that the size of the House made it impossible to get anything done. I don't see a problem with that.
4.24.2007 8:58am
Ella (www):
I'll get started with one of the big problems. This wouldn't get rid of politicians taking care of parochial interests. It would just ensure that the parochial interests of the wealthiest arease get very well taken care of, since all congressmen would be competing for donations and votes in all the wealthy areas. The areas that have local goverment officials who are good at lobbying will also be moderately well taken care of.

Then there are the problems this would create for civic participation and the American tradition of voting for candidates, not parties. Geography provides a natural setting for political organizing around issues and candidates. Organizing a grass roots campaign for a candidate suddenly gets much more difficult when my name starts with an S, my neighbors' with a B, and my husband's with a G. Talk about the upcoming general elections at the coffee shop? The only thing to talk about would be party, since no one could keep track of everyone else's candidates. Forget about primary elections.

And, of course, there is the havoc this would wreak with America's national cohesion. No more shared sacrifice - you can avoid almost all taxation if you vote for a representative who vows to vote against spending for anything but roads and millitary. When Katrina hit, the whole country banded together and didn't mind when its congressmen voted to appropriate extra money to the Gulf region for recovery efforts. I imagine this would be different if only the people whose congressmen voted for the additional appropriation had to bear the cost in the form of increased taxes.
4.24.2007 9:09am
DWPittelli (mail) (www):
Yes. More US Representatives. Perhaps 5 times as many. How many people get to really meet their Congressman now? How in touch with voters are Congressmen now? How much power will one Congressman have to extort contributions, when he's one of 2300?

Perhaps have the same number of Districts, but with 5 Congresspeople per district. Makes gerrymandering rather less significant, if a 60-40 district is merely likely to have 3 of one party, and 2 of another.

Allow voters to vote for any number of the candidates on their local slate. No need for partisan primaries. (Of course, voting for all of them has the same effect as voting for none of them.)

Cut the count in the Senate to 50. We originally had 26, a number that allowed them (required them, really) to all know each other, to be a debating body, and to really have an incentive to at least not be openly an enemy of anyone.
4.24.2007 9:28am
atr (mail):
When Katrina hit, the whole country banded together and didn't mind when its congressmen voted to appropriate extra money to the Gulf region for recovery efforts.

I minded.
4.24.2007 9:29am
AK (mail):
The point being that it's easy to devise a pork barrel project that benefits everyone in northern Colorado, but a lot harder to devise a pork barrel project that benefits everyone whose name happens to begin with Q.

I imagine the representative for the MC's would have no trouble designing a potato-Guiness-bagpipe subsidy.
4.24.2007 9:48am
Bob Leone:
A better solution would be to dramatically reduce the size of the federal government so that you no longer have congressmen controlling the spending of hundreds of billions of dollars. If there's enough money on the table, smart people will figure out how to get hold of it

90% of what the feds currently do was not contemplated in the constitution
4.24.2007 9:51am
Gregory Conen (mail):
These all strike me as much better ideas than the patent reform one.

I'm skeptical of the alphabetical voters one, for the reasons Ella describes in the second paragraph. I'm not sure it would be needed if the other two are implemented, though.

I'm also concerned about free-riding in the proportional taxation one. The supermajority exception goes some way towards solving that problem, but I'm still somewhat concerned.
4.24.2007 9:56am
rarango (mail):
Great ideas Steve--all of them and they do get to the heart of solving problems; as you say, though, will never happen. The problem isnt the politicians--its the people that elect them and keep them there. Pogo: we have met the enemy and he is us.

Re Katrina money: I am with atr--any money sent to the state of Lousiana or the city and Parrishes of the NO money was sure to have been misused--something about endemic corruption and all of that.
4.24.2007 9:59am
bornyesterday (mail) (www):
1 rep per 10-20000 people? I like the idea of actually having the chance to know your rep, but a Congress of 3000+ people would be rather ineffective. And it would cause a lot of difficulty with every election year redefining the areas in which the 20000 people live.
4.24.2007 9:59am
rosignol (mail):

When Katrina hit, the whole country banded together and didn't mind when its congressmen voted to appropriate extra money to the Gulf region for recovery efforts.



Oh?

I know I'm not the only person who thinks spending billions of tax dollars to rebuild a city that is 1) coastal, 2) in a hurricane zone, and 3) below sea level is an idiotic waste of money.
4.24.2007 10:01am
Jake (Guest):
Is this entire series of posts designed as a sort of meta-commentary on economists' tendency to make sweeping pronouncements on fields in which they have no particular expertise?
4.24.2007 10:02am
AK (mail):
So if I could make just one change in the American political system, it would be to give each voter two votes in every congressional election. You'd get one vote to cast in your own district and another to cast in the district of your choice.

I'm interested in what game theory does to illuminate this proposal. I have a feeling that the equilibrium would look more or less the way things look today.

I imagine that conservative political groups might designate "target" representatives, like Barney Frank or Nancy Pelosi, and try to get their members to vote them out of office. Liberal political groups would vote to protect these "target" representatives. On the other hand, liberal groups could choose to leave Frank and Pelosi exposed, and instead try to pick off prominent Republicans.

Either way, the net result would be no change in the proportion of Republicans and Democrats. But perhaps it would moderate the House, as no representative would want to make himself a target of the opposition's national ire. If all representatives were equally bland, the second-votes would be spread evenly around the country, and there would be no change in relative proportions of the parties or even the actual members serving. And I don't know if being politically "moderate" (as defined in April of 2007) is necessarily a good thing that we should be promoting.
4.24.2007 10:05am
SeaDrive:
I can't see how it would be an improvement to replace a congressman responsible for a geographic district with a congressman responsible for, well, nobody. We have enough trouble with congressmen from safe districts who pay no attention to their constituents.

What we have a lack of is leadership, but judging from comments in the historical record (see Mark Twain, Will Rogers), that's nothing new.
4.24.2007 10:08am
pireader (mail):
This post, and several comments above, simply assume that today's electoral incentives lead to more government spending than the voters want. Is there any real reason to believe that?

Yes, you don't like the current level and mix of government spending. Neither do I. But it's most unlikely that the average preferences of 300 million Americans would coincide exactly with your (or my) preferences in any case.

A lot of lefties would claim that the electoral system biases spending too low; and just about as passionately as you seem to believe the opposite.

It would be nice to have some actual evidence, going beyond armchair philosophy, that the problem exists as described before getting so deeply and lovingly into the details of how to "solve" it.
4.24.2007 10:09am
Anderson (mail) (www):
Ah, AK beat me to it. Of *course* the 2d-vote system would encourage "targeting." And the moderation idea wouldn't work -- to the extremists, there will *always* be someone "extreme" to pick off. (Harry Reid, for example, is not a flaming liberal, but that scarcely matters.)

And as AK also notes, increased "moderation" has its own downside. Representatives are already too afraid to be individuals exercising sound judgment -- why create a special penalty for anyone who sticks his neck out?

Landsburg appears to have found his way into an area beyond that of his expertise. But hey, that's what blogging is for ...
4.24.2007 10:10am
SeaDrive:
Second thought: you don't mention approval voting, which might actually do a lot of good. (In approval voting, you can vote for as many candidates as you like, i.e. all the ones you approve of. It solves the problem of two favorites splitting the vote and letting the third choice sweep the field.)
4.24.2007 10:10am
Ella:
To those who minded about Katrina (really, leaving aside the rebuilding, you were bothered by the humanitarian relief?), think of another mass disaster like, I don't know, 9/11. Or an earthquake in Cincinnati. Or a fire in San Francisco or Chicago.

Also, on my way to work, I thought of two other major problems with the proposal. It overcorrects for the problem of parochial - which is really another way of saying minority - interests. With some exceptions, an alphabetically determined constituency will probably be representative of the country, geographically, ethnically, religiously, politically, etc. While African Americans or Jews might be thought to have disproportionate influence because they are over-represented in certain Congressional districts, under the proposal, most politicians would have little incentive to protect the minority interests. This goes for minority political interests as well. In certain areas of the country, liberterians have enough share of the population that they can be a powerful constituency with their representatives. Nationwide, this might be different.

Unless the proposal also eliminates the winner-take-all facet of the American system, it is a recipe for one party rule with little input from minorities.

SEcond, how are voters going to stay informed of the activities of their elected representatives? Right now, local media gives decent coverage of the ten or so representatives that serve their market, even if the coverage is concentrated around election time. What happens when the geographic area has several hundred representatives? Most likely, they will concentrate on party-based coverage or on covering the score or so representatives who have really stepped out there. A representative or Senator could get reelected just by keeping below the radar and never doing anything boldly stupid or boldly smart.

Seriously, unless we adopt a parliamentary system with proportional representation, rather than winner-takes-all elections, the changes this would create would be much radical and far reaching than even Mr. Landsburg seems to realize.
4.24.2007 10:25am
Latinist:
I think pireader identifies a major problem: the assumption that people vote primarily so as to reduce wasteful spending, or their own taxes. I live in the northeast, which means a lot of taxes on my region going to farmers in the Midwest. But if the plan of allowing us two votes, one for here, one for anywhere else, were carried out, I can think of only one person I know who might vote to get rid of some big-spending Nebraskan or something. I think a lot of people would use that extra vote to punish some Southern congressman who said nasty things about gay people, or an opponent of gun control, or a major supporter of the war in Iraq. Which I don't think is the intended effect.
4.24.2007 10:28am
Bretzky (mail):
The logistics of holding an election in which at least 435 different ballots would need to be printed and distributed to every voting booth in the country is pretty daunting.

You would also need a constitutional amendment to accomplish this reconfiguration of the electoral system. Article I, Section 2 reads in part:

The House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the several states, and the electors in each state shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislature.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but does this not specifically constitutionalize the concept that federal legislative districts are to be based upon state boundary lines at the very minimum? Once inside the state lines, the state legislature can draw the lines as it sees fit so long as they meet certain minimal constitutional safeguards of equal protection. I think it would also render an amendment necessary to allow someone from State A to vote in a federal election in State B. Neither of which amendments has a serious chance of passing any time soon.

Count me in favor though of increasing the size of the House. I would set the minimum population for a congressional district equal to the population of the least populated state (currently Wyoming). As of the 2000 census this would give roughly 568 seats in the House, give or take a few due to rounding. If the UK House of Commons can have over 600 MPs, then the US House of Representatives can have quite a few more members than 435.
4.24.2007 10:28am
Jacob T. Levy (mail) (www):
But the House of Commons is a less independent actor than the House of Representatives-- both the legislative agenda and the outcome of votes are set by the prime minister's office.

Every increase in size in the U.S. House is an increase in the authority of the speaker and leadership, the Rules Committee, and/or the chairmen of substantive committees-- and a decrease in effective representation for everyone whose rep doesn't happen to have one of those positions of authority. 600-person bodies turn into effective governance by, say, 60 or fewer persons, probably 20 or fewer.

Ever seen a committee increase in size from 5 to 10? It decreases, not increases, the number of actual decisionmakers.
4.24.2007 10:42am
Bretzky (mail):
My problem with the current congressional electoral system is not that it is too parochial, it's that it isn't parochial enough.

One of the key concepts that Madison developed (and was mostly right about) is that the size of the United States and the sheer number of interests represented within the Congress would make factionalism almost impossible. As interest groups re-combine from issue to issue, lasting faction are extremely difficult to form (I'm not referring to parties here, which are lasting).

As congressional districts have grown in size over the years there has been a homogenization of all but the most fringe areas of the country (think the CA-8 and the UT-3). By increasing the size of Congress, you would increase the number of distinct interests represented in Congress, which would make it more difficult for pork-infused factions to form on a permanent basis within any given Congress.

I would also attempt to limit both representatives and senators to six and three terms respectively. Get in, get your goals accomplished, and get out. However, this is another constitutional amendment that has no chance of passing any time soon.
4.24.2007 10:48am
Joel (mail):
"a lot harder to devise a pork barrel project that benefits everyone whose name happens to begin with Q."

Not so. People whose names begin with Q are disproportionately Chinese. What you have devised here is a scheme that will promote porkbarreling under somewhat different forces than are currently felt today.
4.24.2007 10:56am
atr (mail):
To those who minded about Katrina (really, leaving aside the rebuilding, you were bothered by the humanitarian relief?), think of another mass disaster like, I don't know, 9/11. Or an earthquake in Cincinnati. Or a fire in San Francisco or Chicago.

Ella, thank you for asking. I think your question reflects the popular expectation that the federal government will operate as a "free" insurance provider, doling out aid to victims of terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and other calamities. Indeed, after the Virginia Tech shooting, among Bush's first words was a pledge of federal aid for the investigation.

Although politicians claim the mantle of charity when they support federal aid, their claim is disingenuous at best. Charity is when you sacrifice your own resources to help others. Politicians sacrifice other peoples' resources.

There are many reasons to oppose federal aid like this. Here is a sampling (in no particular order):

1. It is unconstitutional.

2. It rewards risky behavior, (and discourages economically sound risk avoidance). People who live in flood-prone areas may get away without having insurance because the feds will bail them out.

3. It suppresses the private insurance market. Because the government provides insurance for free (or at a heavy discount), there is little demand for private insurance, which would more accurately price risks than the feds.

4. It is morally wrong. The government should not carry out direct wealth transfers from some people to other people. Federal aid is not free.

5. It destroys the moral fabric of society. By forcing people to provide to others, it denegrates the value of real voluntary charity and creates an attitude of entitlement among aid recipients. This callousness towards the property rights of others contributes to other immoral acts by individuals and governments (like wars).
4.24.2007 11:01am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I do think that there are some systemic problems with the current system. When people talk about how effective their Representatives and Senators are, they are invariably talking about how successful they are at diverting money from the whole to their constituants. And, yes, the ability to do that is one of the big things that is learned by spending a long time in Congress.

So, despite all the horribles predicted, I am frankly quite happy with the term limits that we have now in Colorado. It has gone a long way towards replacing the venal and corrupt with the incompetent. But when it comes to spending public monies, incompetence is just fine with me. There is a reason that the President Pro Tem of the Senate is also know as the King of Pork (or, last time around, Senator Pork).

So, yes, my preference would be to first address the problem with term limits. Of course, that would require a Constitutional amendment, which in turn would either require that Congress vote to cut itself off from the spigot by passing it, or a Constitutional Convention. Neither is likely.

But I would be almost as happy having a second vote that I could use any way I wanted. Those on the right could vote to remove Nancy Pelosi, and if were still in Congress, those on the left, to remove Tom DeLay. I would expect that gaming this would likely indicate that this would tend to moderate the House, as its most extreme elements would be the most vulnerable to this. And, as they also tend to be in the safest districts (which is why they can be so extreme), they are also often the most corrupt. So, Congress might get cleaned up a bit. But, again, this would require a Constitutional Amendment, and is thus no more likely than term limits.
4.24.2007 11:03am
gyu:
I thought libertarians liked federalism and local, decentralized responsibility in government. Making legislators totally unresponsive to a regional group would make sure that special needs of certain regions would never be met.
4.24.2007 11:06am
Spitzer:
Logrolling and rentseeking are natural components of any political system wherein politicians have access to national resources and are able to dole them out to favorites (whether those favorites be constituents, lobbyists, or idiot brothers-in-law). The entire point of all governments throughout history is to provide a vehicle for politicians to take stuff that isn't theirs and give it to others in order to enrich themselves (economically or politically). Governmants, at root, are not a different species from organized criminal groups - they move in, charge "protection money" to those unfortunate enough to fall within their grasp, steal everything that isn't nailed down, and kill/maim/injure/imprison those who refuse to pay up and pay homage besides. So finding fancy new ways of subdividing how politicians are chosen will have no effect on this process - democracy isn't required for rentseeking (fr. rentier, a French word) or patronage schemes (the Romans were good for that one, long before Latin American caudillos and Chicago mayors). In fact, representative democracy is designed to minimize rentseeking/logrolling as much as possible (in that politicians will have to internalize at least some of the costs they impose on society at large, whereas non-democratic regimes can safely ignore the externalities they create so long as the populace is unarmed and the army loyal). So your scheme of subdividing representation by a new arbitrary criteria will have virtually no positive effect on rentseeking. Instead, it may have a negative consequence, since there will no clear mandate or constituency for any politician and, much as in proportional rep. systems, the politicians effectively become detached from any constituency, rendering the entire process only theoretically representative (and probably better described as oligarchic).

If your concern is that politicians don't listen to their constituencies (I don't think this is your concern, since a non-territorial constituency will have only a theoretical existence at best from the politician's perspective), perhaps it would be better to increase the size of Congress (and decrease their constituencies). After all, the number of constituents per Congressman has grown substantially, from around 50,000 or less at the Founding to around 600,000 today. Might it be better to set the size of Congress not by an arbitrary sum (i.e. 435) with a variable constituency size, but instead set it by constituency size (i.e. 50,000 people) with a varying number of Congressmen? This would not be a panacea, but 5,000 Congressmen (rather than 435) would be far more responsive to their constituencies if only because there would be fewer groups within any given constituency that could be safely ignored. This would not reduce rentseeking per se, but it would reduce election costs (thereby reducing the money needs that drive some lobbying), make Congressmen far more accessible (and, hopefully, more well-known to their own constituents), and, because of a smaller district, perhaps have fewer opportunities for pork barrel spending.

5,000 Congressmen? It's a thought, and far better than a non-territorial redistricting that would establish party power and cement political detachment from real people.
4.24.2007 11:10am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I think that a lot of what people vote for is to reduce their own taxes while diverting as much of the taxes from everyone else to their district. But, of course, it has all become a big shell game, with many in Congress finding that it is far easier to cut themselves in, increasing the size of the government pie, than to actually reduce spending.
4.24.2007 11:10am
Byomtov (mail):
I'd also redraw the boundaries of Congressional districts according to the alphabet instead of geography. Instead of congressmen from central Delaware and northern Colorado, we'd have a congressman for everyone whose name begins with AA through AE, another for everyone whose name begins with AF through AL, and so on.

Not clear whether this is intended to happen within the states or across the country. In either case it's an awful idea.

If within the states it virtually guarantees that all Representatives from any state will be of the same party.

Nationwide would be even worse. You would have very close to a unanimously single-party House.

Yeah. That'll solve everything.
4.24.2007 11:16am
rarango (mail):
A bit off topic, but still relevant--I recently read although can't put my finger on it where Rep and former speaker Haster entered politics with a net worth of 200K and is now worth over six million dollars. And I doubt he is the exception. How is it possible out political manages to enrich its participants? (this is meant to be a non-partisan criticism)
4.24.2007 11:16am
rarango (mail):
Haster = Hastert
4.24.2007 11:17am
Justin (mail):
"Finally, I want federal income tax rates determined separately in each congressional district, as a function of how much spending your congressman has voted for. The more he votes to spend, the more you pay in taxes."

This seems like intentionally creating a prisoner's dilemna in order to achieve a liberterian "paradise" (more like dystopia in my view). Ignoring that its completely incompatible with some of your other reforms, it certainly is more pro-liberterian gimmickry rather than eliminating unfair incentives. Theoretically, the fact that money that went to West Virginia would be unavailable to Washington should be what deters pork barrel projects - in any event, there are far better ways of such deterrence.

The practical outcome of your position is simply requiring a 70% supermajority for spending bills. If that's what you want, you may as well just lay it out there.
4.24.2007 11:22am
Rev Snow (mail):

The "unrealistic Congressional reform" idea
that I've long liked is to ressurect the
First Article of Amendment to the Constitution.

http://www.usconstitution.net/first12.html

Articles 3-12 became the Bill of Rights.

Article 2 became Amendment 27.

Article 1 is still waiting for ratification.

It sets out guidelines for proportion of
representation in the House. The portion
that would stil be relevant today is written
as an upper limit on the size of the House;
no more than one Rep. per 50,000 people. But
reading the whole Article as a guideline, it
suggests that the proper proportion of House
representation is tens of thousands to one,
and *not* the hundreds of thousands to one
we have in place now. Embracing this reform,
I would have a House of Representatives of
about 5,000 members. Sounds like a lot, but
for a country of 300,000,000, not really.

Advantages: Smaller district means smaller
costs to credibly run for office. Voter have
greater chance to elect someone they know, at
least by community reputation, instead of
someone they see only on TV. Less concern
about campaign finance and its potential to
corrupt. Greater chances for third parties to
win seats and establish caucus in proprtion
closer to their support. Much easier to
draw boundaries of more smaller districts to
conform to whatever "majority minority" requirements
are currently in fashion. Larger number of
members mean each member holds less power.
Greater need to establish coalitions to move
legislation.

Disadvantage: Can't fit in the Capitol building.

Solution: Don't meet in Capitol building. Have
distributed House that "meets" electronically.
Has security benefits as well. Multiple small
terror targets replace one large one.

Objection: But then we lose ability for fully
engaged face to face debate on the House floor!

Response: Does any meaningful debate occur now?
(As opposed to C-SPAN preening and speechifying?)

Offered FWIW.

This reform would be for the House only. I'd
leave the Senate alone. If you forced me to
propose a Senate reform too, it would be simple;
repeal the 17th Amendment.
4.24.2007 11:23am
Justin (mail):
Also note the really perverse incentive that the proposal leaves - even if a project is great, and even if a Congressman's constitutents are willing to pay for their constitutent's shares, they are better off if the bill passes without the Congressman's support. So the game becomes how to get the bill passed while voting against the bill - making, in theory, a supermajority even for a bill that has unanimous support impossible under the pure prisoner's dilemna (in reality, Congressmen will make sure they have the 70% before voting for legislation, so as to avoid the dilemna, and then use "other" enforcement mechanisms to make sure nobody backs out of the promise to support the bill, so as to drive the number below 70%.
4.24.2007 11:25am
Helen (mail):
While the Constitution requires that Members of the House of Representatives be allocated by state, there is nothing in the Constitution that requires Congressional districts, per se. A state would be free to elect all of its allocated representatives at large right now, if it decided to. There actually is some precedent for this. During a period of time in the fifties or sixties, the State of Connecticut was allocated an additional member. Rather than re-draw the existing districts -- which divided the state into five rather logically drawn areas, based on geography and demographics, the state decided to elect an additional Congressman-at-Large. So, everyone did vote for two members: one local, one at-large. The Congressman-at-large was less beholden to parochial interests, and was free to develop real expertise in an area. He became the go-to-guy on science policy.

An alternative implementation of this would be to divide states into larger areas based, again, on geography and demographics: Northern California, Southern California, the Central Valley, the Desert, etc. Then, at each census, you would allocate all the state's representatives among these super-disticts, and everyone would vote for several members. Most districts would elect a mixture of Democrats and Republicans.

Any state that wanted to try this could implement it without any congressional action, and without a Constitutional amendment; the precedent exists. Or a state could try a mixture of districted and at-large members -- again, without having to get a buy-in from anyone outside that state.
4.24.2007 11:25am
Felix Sulla (mail):
<blockquote>
So if I could make just one change in the American political system, it would be to give each voter two votes in every congressional election. You'd get one vote to cast in your own district and another to cast in the district of your choice.
</blockquote>

This is very interesting, though it has some problems as other posters have pointed out. My main problem is that it goes too far back toward the extreme of alienating regional interests. I think in the end it would have the effect of meaning that essentially no one had any say over who their regional representative is, particularly when said representative has anything other than the lowest possible profile and non-descript location. (Of course, I do not think you necessarily have a problem with this, particularly given your "alphabetical" districting scheme, but I think that is facially a very bad idea because it goes even farther toward alienating regional representation.)

Might I suggest an alternative arrangement of allowing everyone the choice of either: (a) two votes in his or her own district; or (b) one vote in any district beside his or her own. This would restore some measure of local influence over who gets to be the regional representative (i.e., local voters have the option of casting an extra vote for local cadiidates they prefer to support at the expense of not interfereing elsewhere), while still maintaining the ability of voters in other districts to have some influence. Thoughts?
4.24.2007 11:32am
Guest44 (mail) (www):
Have you ever read or talked with Jerry Frug from HLS? He has some similar proposals in his book on local democracy.
4.24.2007 11:36am
Earnest Iconoclast (mail) (www):
I wonder if there wouldn't be some way to divide the House of Representatives? Or perhaps add another layer. I'm making this up as I go along, but maybe...

Divide the country up into five (or so) Regions. Each region elects a group of Representatives based on some ration of population to Representative (like 20,000 to 1 or whatever). Then each of those groups elects a smaller group to serve in the House. So the House members serve their Regional House who then serve the people.

Or maybe the Federal Government should just stop doing so much stuff and let the States do what they are supposed to do..?
4.24.2007 11:37am
JunkYardLawDog (mail):
I like your idea on congressional redistricting. Seems Workable and practical, unlike some other of your ideas. Your idea about taxation tied to spending is definitely interesting, but since the poor get most of the spending while the middle class and rich pay all the taxes seems difficult to implement in a practical way. Also would seem to be impossible to implement if congressional districts were *virtual* as opposed to *real/tangible/physical* as would be the case if your congressional districts by Alphabet were implemented.

I do like your originality even if I don't like or otherwise support many of your ideas.

Keep it up! Virtual congressional districts is a keeper.

Says the "Dog"
4.24.2007 11:48am
PJT:
Can someone please explain how term limits would increase competition and productivity? I would think term limits reduce competition. As a commenter mentioned, there is no competition among lame duck politicians.
4.24.2007 11:49am
Randy R. (mail):
Anyone who publishes a book based on this premise "The problem with democracy is not that politicians kowtow to financiers and lobbyists" obviously doesn't know the first thing about politics in Washington. Therefore, I would find suspect anything at all written in the book.

The lobbyists at the NRA, the auto industry, the oil and gas industry, Wall Street and so on would love a book like this because it diverts attention away from the work they actually do. Sheesh -- the influence of the coal industry alone on this administration has been well documented!

And so far, all the ideas that Steve mention might be good ones (I really wouldn't know -- they are far reaching in their effect) but area all pie on the sky. Unless we have a new constitutional convention soon, and a radical change in our ideas of voting, none of these ideas have a chance.

Instread of reading a book filled with dreamy ideas, I'd rather read one that has a notion based in reality and that gives a sense of what actually *could* be done to change the system.
4.24.2007 11:56am
The Cabbage:
Those on the right could vote to remove Nancy Pelosi, and if were still in Congress, those on the left, to remove Tom DeLay.

The opposite would happen. People would either double their votes for local representation (get that money for me!), or spend their votes to elect an extremist. Lyndon LaRouche just might get elected to some district in South Dakota.

Me? I'll give my votes to some porkbuster. Its not like my vote counts in my state.
4.24.2007 11:57am
Larry G (mail):
Jake said: "Is this entire series of posts designed as a sort of meta-commentary on economists' tendency to make sweeping pronouncements on fields in which they have no particular expertise?"

So you don't think proposing changes in incentives is within the expertise of economists? This is very clearly within the realm of economics. Are you confusing economics with accounting?
4.24.2007 12:09pm
Ella:
Junkyard -

You're entitled to your own opinion, not your own set of facts. Most of the federal budget is not, in fact, spent on the poor. Social Security takes up 21% of the budget, Defense and Security another 21%, Medicare 12%, Safety Net programs 9%, and MEdicaid 7%. See http://www.cbpp.org/4-10-07tax2.htm. Even if you add some odds and ends from "Other" spending, you get nowhere close to most of the budget being spent on the poor. If you want to argue that the poor get a disproportionate share of the budget compared to their share of tax revenues, go ahead. But don't make stuff up to support your point.
4.24.2007 12:10pm
Fub:
Steven Landsburg, guest-blogging, April 24, 2007 at 7:01am wrote:
So if I could make just one change in the American political system, it would be to give each voter two votes in every congressional election. You'd get one vote to cast in your own district and another to cast in the district of your choice. ...

I'd also redraw the boundaries of Congressional districts according to the alphabet instead of geography.
Of these two combined, my first guess is that the result would be very close to that of holding Congressional elections at large and allowing every voter two votes, ie: you can vote for any two candidates for the Congress, no matter where you live or where they live.
Finally, I want federal income tax rates determined separately in each congressional district, as a function of how much spending your congressman has voted for. The more he votes to spend, the more you pay in taxes. That should solve the problem of voters who pay little attention to what their representatives are up to.
I assume the primary tax you're intending is income tax. Consider that states can and do collect income tax currently. Why would not the result of this proposal on total state and federal income tax for any particular state not just tend to be a wash?

My assumption is that the voters in any state and any congressional district have some maximum total income tax rate that they will tolerate. Under the present system, a the voters of state which receives more federal dollars can vote for state legislators to commensurately decrease their state tax burden; and vice versa if the voters want to increase their total tax burden.

Under the proposed system they can do the same.

I think it's akin to "Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it's the other way around."

Would the intrastate geographical battle lines even be drawn different from the present system? A congressional district with a high tax rate tolerance can elect both higher taxation congressmen and higher taxation state legislators. Vice versa for the lower tax rate tolerant districts. But state gerrymandering battles might change under the proposed system, in ways that make my poor brane hurt to think about.
4.24.2007 12:17pm
Sk (mail):
If I could change one thing about the voting system, it would be to make my own personal votes count for one trillion votes, in every district in the country, and everybody else's votes count for one- one trillionth of a vote. In short, I personally would be America's dictator and personal God.

Am I serious? Of course I'm serious. Of course I'm also aware that our legal system would probably render any of these reforms quite impossible...

Sk
4.24.2007 12:19pm
abw (www):
"1 rep per 10-20000 people? I like the idea of actually having the chance to know your rep, but a Congress of 3000+ people would be rather ineffective."


Bonus!
4.24.2007 12:22pm
Andy Freeman (mail):
> The point being that it's easy to devise a pork barrel project that benefits everyone in northern Colorado

Interestingly enough, most pork projects don't benefit a large fraction of the folks in the relevant district. They benefit a small fraction - the rest of the folks in that district get to pay just like the rest of us.

I suspect that one could use that fact to wage an effective campaign against a pork-queen. ("Pork-meister talks about all the money he brought to our district, but did you get any of it? Heck no - he gave it to his friends. Do you want to send him back to congress so he can give more of your money to his friends?")

One can run similar campaigns against log-rollers. ("PM brags about bringing {project x} to our town, but voted for {project list} to get it and you're going to pay for it all.")
4.24.2007 12:35pm
Andy Freeman (mail):
One interesting twist might be to restrict campaign contributions by district. The rule would basically be "if you can't vote for/against someone, you can't contribute time/money to their campaign".
4.24.2007 12:36pm
Jake (Guest):
So you don't think proposing changes in incentives is within the expertise of economists? This is very clearly within the realm of economics. Are you confusing economics with accounting?

You've captured the economists' mindset rather well. It's bad enough when lawyers engage in multi-disciplinary work, but at least we acknowledge the existence of other disciplines.
4.24.2007 12:44pm
Kovarsky (mail):
If you're going to give two votes, why not give one vote that may be cast in favor of a candidate, and one vote that can be cast in opposition to a candidate.
4.24.2007 12:45pm
AK (mail):
If I could change one thing about the voting system, it would be to make my own personal votes count for one trillion votes, in every district in the country, and everybody else's votes count for one- one trillionth of a vote. In short, I personally would be America's dictator and personal God.

You joke around about a dictatorship but Ken Arrow, the youngest person ever to win the economics Nobel, agrees with you that dictatorship is the only way to maximize social welfare. Read up on his Impossibility Theorem:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenneth_Arrow
4.24.2007 12:48pm
Wombat:
Supermajorities have been proven to increase the amount of pork spending. The logic is simple:
Assume a body with 100 members.
With a simple majority (51) needed to pass a bill, if 50 members already agree to a proposal, then the pork cost needed to get the bill passed is the agreement cost of the cheapest of the 50 opposed.
With a supermajority (say, 71) needed, if 70 agree, the the cost is the cheapest of the remaining 30 opposed.
Since the supply of buyable members in the supermajority is less, their cost will be higher.

Now, the question then becomes whether the added pork cost outweighs the lesser regular supermajority spending (since, clearly, there will be less bills the supermajority agrees to than the majority does).

Personally, I think that the "problem" needs to be handled less on the purchasing side (Congress) and more on the payable side (taxes). Increasing the number of members of Congress just makes those in control of the administrative positions (committees, etc.) gain more power. In my opinion, our spending issues are caused by there only being the most tenuous connection between government spending and what Joe Schmoe pays in taxes.

My personal pie-in-the-sky taxation system is pretty simple:
Flat Tax with Cost of Living Deduction.

Essentially, there is only one deduction allowed in the system, a COLA deduction based on family size. A family of four gets a $40k deduction (off the top of my head), and all income beyond that is taxed at a flat rate. Under my system, all government programs will provide their benefit without regard to income (if a millionaire wants to stand in line for free cheese, I don't care), age, location, etc. Obviously, there are issues with capital spending (a bridge in Alaska does little good to the citizens of Alabama).

Where my system differs is that the tax rate is not static. Instead, it is based on the government spending of the last year. As spending goes up, the tax rate goes up, if spending goes down, the tax rate goes down.

Furthermore, I would get rid of deficit spending. In the event of a defecit from the previous year, that amount (plus interest, etc.) is simply added to the projected spending of the current year and must be paid off in that year. Depressions, surprise costs (wars, etc.) should be countered by a combination of spending reductions and tax increases, not the "lets have the Chinese pay for it" system we have going now.
4.24.2007 12:57pm
markm (mail):

This post, and several comments above, simply assume that today's electoral incentives lead to more government spending than the voters want. Is there any real reason to believe that?

If pollsters ask the question in general terms, definitely. If you start asking about spending on specific programs, the answers are considerably more mixed.

But as far as election results go, there's only one nationwide electoral office, the Presidency. The way I read the results from 1980 on, the only thing a Republican candidate needs to do to win that election is to promise "Smaller government" and convince the voters that there is a great difference on that score between him and his opponent. The only way a Democrat could win (Bill Clinton) was to greatly tone down his party's push for more spending and more regulations, while being lucky enough to run against candidates whose records belied any "smaller government" claims they made, while Ross Perot split the conservative vote. Put tax-and-spend Democrats against a spend-and-don't-tax Republican, and we got two elections so close they might as well have flipped a coin.

So I think that, overall, the majority of voters do want a smaller budget and government than we get - however, the incentives for any politician in office are to pay only lip service to that while increasing government and the budget in the pursuit of increasing their personal power and buying votes with other people's money. We don't get what we voted for because most of us aren't paying enough attention to figure out what our "representatives" are really up to, and the mainstream media contribute to the problem with incomplete and inaccurate reporting...
4.24.2007 1:07pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
I disagree that there is anything wrong with the system as it stands now.

There is a core, unquestioned assumption in Landsburg's argument:


spending other people's money


But it isn't other people's money. It belongs to the nation. If we tax Bill Gates, that isn't his money anymore. There is no requirement that money paid by Bill Gates in taxes should only or primarily benefit Bill Gates. Likewise, there is no reason for taxes paid by California to only or primarily benefit California. We are a nation. We do not conceptualize ourselves as units with fundamentally divergent interests.

We live in a nation and we all benefit from it. There is no law that says that the benefits of taxation must flow to precisely those who pay the taxes. The only real requirement is that it flows to the general interest. It should always be remembered that the economy is not only the product of individuals, but also interdependent interactions.

This is precisely the problem with Landsburg's view. It is based on a selfish outlook that denies the existence of a general or national interest. As a patriot and an American (not merely a Californian), I will have no part in his narrow-mindedness.
4.24.2007 1:12pm
Byomtov (mail):
Virtual congressional districts is a keeper.

Let me elaborate my reason for calling this a very bad idea. Let's assume it is intended to apply at the state level, rather than the federal.

We divide the population of a given state into N randomly chosen groups of equal size, where N is the number or Representatives the state is entitled to. Then each group elects a representative. For concreteness, let's look at Tennessee, where I used to live. In 2006 about 1,658,000 people voted for Democratic or Republican candidates for Congress. (There were about 55,000 other votes cast, which I am ignoring). Statewide this vote divided about 52-48 D, and, reasonably enough, the delegation has five Democrats and four Republicans.

Now suppose the aphabetical system had been used. Each seat would be voted on by 185,000 voters selected at random from all over the state. The probability that even one such sample would be majority Republican is negligibly small. The state would end up with nine Democratic Representatives. Even if you want to argue that the number of voters would change it is still the case that the party with a majority of the vote in a given state would elect the entire delegation.
4.24.2007 1:19pm
TDPerkins (mail):
To ATR

Preach it, brother. The truth stone cold.
4.24.2007 1:24pm
JB:
As other people have said, all of these proposals are egregious violations of game theory.

The 2-vote plan would create perverse incentives to not be a visible political leader.

The alphabetical districts would similarly impoverish the public discourse, and ruin America's civic tradition, while imposing gargantuan transaction costs.

And the income rate plan would create a prisoner's dilemma that would make politicians even less representative.

There's nothing wrong with economists making recommendations about incentives, if they actually understand how the incentives involved work. Mr. Landsburg needs to go sit down with a copy of Coase for a good long while.
4.24.2007 1:29pm
markm (mail):
To me, Mr. Landsburg's two-congressional-vote suggestion as proposed is an invitation to all sorts of political gaming, and as likely to allow one-half the nation to push the candidate most unacceptable to the other half into office as to eliminate those who are so controversial they are ineffective. But it's not fundamentally wrong.

I would consider a variant of ancient Athens' practice of ostracism. If I understand that correctly, it didn't necessarily imply wrongdoing, just that the individual was becoming so important he could be a threat to their democracy. That threat was abated by removing him from public affairs for a decade.

My proposal: at each Congressional election, each voter can cast votes against up to two persons in federal office or running for federal office, anywhere in the country. You can leave one or both blank, but can't vote twice for the same person in the same election. When these votes are tabulated, if anyone has been picked by 50%+1 of the voters (that is, over 25% of the votes cast or left blank), he is banned from any public office for ten years. This won't get Rush Limbaugh off the air or stop Michael Moore making movies, but it could get Tom Delay and Hillary Clinton out of Congress - if their nationwide opponents could agree on whom they hated most.
4.24.2007 1:31pm
Jamesaust (mail):
Likewise, the rise of "unfunded mandates" with the direct election of Senators. Strangely, when Senators were chosen by state legislatures those Senators were quite sensitive to pushing costs onto states (as well as cautious in grabbing state powers for the feds).
4.24.2007 1:39pm
Ella:
MarkM

While it may be true that on a general level, voters express a preference for a smaller budget and less taxes, I think it is in much the same way that St. AUgustine prayed to God to remove his temptations, but not yet. Once every four years we elect a president. The nature of the election is such that most voters only really get exposed to the candidates' broad messages - Cut taxes, cut government, etc. Hence, they'll vote for the principle of "less government spending," without getting into the petty details of what needs to get cut.

BUt every two years, they vote for a Congressional representative and/or a Senator. More often than not, the incumbent is campaigning based on his record. Voters get a favorable impression of candidates who they've seen in the news, announcing a new highway project in their town. They also have more concrete information on what the candidate has done/will do - i.e. "voted to expand coverage for children of working parents," "voted to provide prescription drug coverage to our seniors," etc., etc. These specific programs are popular. If the voters were really driven by an overriding desire to cut government spending, they would respond positively to candidates who promise not to engage in pork barrel spending, who don't vote for increased spending, etc. Some do, most don't.

And of course, none of this reaches the problem that most government spending is very difficult to cut. The bulk of spending (54%) goes to Social Security, the Military, and Medicare and another sizeable chunk goes to interest on the debt (9%). Other programs are politically popular, and not just for the direct beneficiaries. Want to cut Medicaid/SCHIP? People don't like seeing Grandma turned out of the nursing home or families going bankrupt to take care of critically ill children. Education? People don't like stories of poor kids who can't go to college because financial aid isn't available. Medical research? Highways?

People like to complain about government spending and everyone has their favorite wasteful or unfair spending program. But the fact remains that the most expensive programs persist because they're popular.
4.24.2007 1:41pm
jvarisco (www):
These would be, I think, good changes. Though in terms of the House, there is something helpful about a representative who actually knows his district. Will mere names be all that responsive? It seems much more likely to increase polarization and party politics. One good thing about our system is that many people do not simply vote along party lines, but for actual people.

Also, I don't really mind this, but minorities would lose out too.
4.24.2007 1:44pm
MarkW (mail):
The problem with democracy is not that politicians kowtow to financiers and lobbyists; it's that politicians kowtow to their own consituents, spending other people's money along the way.

As one or two others have noted, this is Mr. Landsburg's premise, and I would argue that it is a false one. There is decades worth of investigative reporting, by journalists too numerous to list, documenting the subservience of our elected officials to narrow special interests and their lobbyists. Mr. Landsburg is trying to cure what is, at most, a minor problem with our political system, while ingnoring the major one.
4.24.2007 2:00pm
J_A:
I would think that the way to align the tax-and-spend incentives of everyone is to sharply minimize the federal tax level and replace it with state taxes. At the begining, let us make the total amount of taxes the same, but state taxes will pay of the vast majority of everything, including SS and medicare, and of course, roads, schools, etc.

Therefore, people will know what they are paying for. If they want more of it, they can vote for state legislators that will provide more roads or more schools or more SS, if not, they can also vote for that.

I live in Houston, where we have an Interstate highway, I-610, that just circles the city (the "loop"). I hate seeing the familiar "I" sign, because, if federal dollars were used for my benefit in Houston, I'm sure many more of my tax dollars have gone to similar city-only Interstates all over the country I will never get to use. I'd rather that higher state taxes would have paid for my Houston highway if I am sure I am not paying for Boston's or Des Moines'

And yes, I am willing to pay state income tax (TX currently doesn't have it) as long as I just pay the federal taxes that truly affect me.

And I am willing to pay federal taxes for true emergencies, like Katrina, or a war (just not this one, but that is another matter)
4.24.2007 2:12pm
Sk (mail):
"As a patriot and an American (not merely a Californian),"

Troll alert! Everyone knows there are no patriotic Americans in California...

Sk
4.24.2007 2:15pm
Stash:
This strikes me as pointing out the problem with federalism (which can also be applied to the Electoral College as well). That is, having 50 state elections, and elections in smaller units (or as some have suggested, larger regional units) makes "all politics local." In this way, key voting blocs in key states/districts can have inordinate power over national issues, and elected government can diverge from overall national majority preferences. Steven Landsburg wants the extra vote to target pork, but of course once the genie is out of the bottle it would be used for a slew of other unrelated purposes and be subject to gaming as many posters have suggested. Unless we want to scrap federalism for this flaw (which I would oppose, though I am the fence with regard to the Electoral College), we will have to live with a certain degree of these local "distortion" effects. A better solution, at least to the pork problem, is to make these allocations more transparent, so that the horse-trading is at least visible and can be subject to public outrage/pressure.

If I were to look at a voting experiment to ameliorate local distortion effects, it would be to the senate, where these effects (by design) have magnified force. One thought is to elect two national at-large senators. On the one hand, this would create legislators not beholden to local interests, but on the other, it would create virtual rivals to the president to speak in the national interest from a national mandate, add two more incredibly expensive political campaigns, and make two senators "more equal than others" in the chamber. On balance, I think, not something we want.

In the end, I think federalism offers more advantages than disadvantages, though I am willing to look at tinkering with it to ameliorate the disadvantages. The "extra vote" proposal seems to be both too much and too little to me, as it is too susceptible to purposes for which it is not designed, has too many possibilities to distort public will rather than implementing it, and will have little application to low-profile "backbenchers" who follow similar policies to national targets.
4.24.2007 2:21pm
David Drake (mail):
My modest proposal, requiring no Constitutional Amendment or radical change in Supreme Court precedent:

1. Abolish income tax withholding--all taxpayers would pay estimated tax and
2. Change the date returns are due to the first Monday in November.

This would shrink the size of the government very quickly.
4.24.2007 2:21pm
Justin (mail):
Or Mr. Drake, you could simply have government not provide services during the last two weeks of November. That could have the opposite effect, no?

I don't think people support government spending just because they can't remember filing their tax returns in April.
4.24.2007 2:28pm
Justin Northrup:
Giving everyone one vote anywhere in the country? Might as well get rid of a separate House and Senate. Might as well say California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois elect everyone. You would have the same problems with alphabetical representation, names are not evenly distributed across the alphabet. You wouldnt get rid of abuses, you would just change them.
4.24.2007 2:30pm
David in NY (mail):
"The problem with democracy is not that politicians kowtow to financiers and lobbyists ...."

That pretty much ruined your credibility right there. I erad no more.
4.24.2007 2:37pm
cmn (mail) (www):
Here's the reform I'd like to see. Though Congress could implement it voluntarily at any time, they would never stick to it without a constitutional amendment.

From now on, there is no default level of taxation. Each spending bill passed by Congress for a particular fiscal year has to contain as part of the same bill the levy necessary to fund it. So each debate about spending is also a direct debate about taxation, and the amount of taxes everyone pays varies directly with each government program passed or repealed. Each year people report their income just as they do now, but instead of being given merely a tax table by the government, they are given a detailed bill showing each line item they are being charged for, what the money is for, who introduced it, and whether their representatives voted for it.

This sort of thing could be done without disrupting the progressive tax brackets we have now. Just convert the tax table to a millage, and someone smarter than me can do the math to figure out, for each dollar Congress needs to raise, how many mills to levy against each bracket to raise it while maintaining the same relative tax rates.
4.24.2007 2:50pm
Abe Delnore:
The two-vote system sounds something like what the Framers of the Constitution came up with for the Electoral College, and even for a similar reason: to elect candidates of national character rather than local favorites.

It did not work very well, although I suppose you avoid some of the precise problems. It would be very hard, in any case, for voters to cast the out-of-district votes effectively.

--Abe Delnore
4.24.2007 3:04pm
Felix Sulla (mail):
This sort of thing could be done without disrupting the progressive tax brackets we have now. Just convert the tax table to a millage, and someone smarter than me can do the math to figure out, for each dollar Congress needs to raise, how many mills to levy against each bracket to raise it while maintaining the same relative tax rates.

Anyone else feel as if this thread has moved into "A Modest Proposal" territory now? Where is Godwin when you need him?
4.24.2007 3:13pm
SteveA (mail):
California voters approved the referendum imposing term limits for state legislators, circa 1990, largely because it was the only way anyone could think of to remove Willie Brown as Speaker of the California House.
4.24.2007 4:27pm
Mark Field (mail):
I'm impressed by the number of posters who favor expanding the size of the House. Perhaps before implementing this plan on a nationwide scale we should experiment in one of the states. Texas seems like a good place to see what would happen with 3000 legislators. Go for it.
4.24.2007 4:54pm
Elliot123 (mail):
A flat tax might help solve the problem. Today 50% of the population pays only 4% of income taxes. Many pay zero taxes, so they have no incentive to save other people's money. They are happy to vote for big spenders since they benefit without paying. Just ask me if I have a right to a new BMW if I don't have to pay for it.
4.24.2007 5:06pm
Kelvin McCabe:
Rev. Snow:

I was curious about the representative ratio myself, learned that Congress passed a law that capped the current house at 435, and thought, how could congress pass this law that is in direct violation of Art 1 sec 2 cl 3 (one rep for every 30,000)?

My inquiry led me to the answer that the 14th amendment, yes, the fabled due process/equal protection amendment, was the nail in the representative ratio coffin. It makes me wonder, when the 14th amendment was ratified, if the states who ratified the amendment even knew what they were doing to the representation ratio? I have not found out the answer to that question, yet. However, i could see how people might be confused voting for due process and equal protection; all good things in a post civil war environment, while trying to decipher what the hell the rest of the amendment was about. I am not confident the state electors knew what they were doing in this regard to their representation interest in Congress.

On a side note, article the first, which you note has not passed, would need only be ratified by several states to become a valid amendment now - as it did almost get passed at one time in the past - so many states would not need to revisit the issue. If passed, article the first would change the ratio to one rep. for every 50,000 citizens, the highest ratio suggested by the founders in the first proposed amendment to the constitution.

This would be somewhat of an historical anomoly, the constitution says one thing in original form, an amendment passed years later changes that, then an originally proposed amendment is subsequently passed changing the constitution back to closer reflect the way things should have been had no change been made. Confusing, yes. Possible: Also yes.

Given the subject matter, and how important the ratio was to the founders (historical evidence proves this to be the case, hell, G.Washington himself intervened at the constitutional convention on this one topic (the rep. ratio) that he felt was necessary for the constitution to be adopted by the states in the first instance. (G. Washington got his way, the ratio went from 1 for every 40,000 in the original draft to 1 for every 30,000 in the final draft sent to the states and the rest, as they say, is history).

We need to find out how many states need to ratify article the first for it to become law, then get it passed, then watch Congress pee all over themselves. Note: May want to wait till G.W. leaves office before implementing above. :)
4.24.2007 5:23pm
Felix Sulla (mail):

It makes me wonder, when the 14th amendment was ratified, if the states who ratified the amendment even knew what they were doing to the representation ratio?

If they didn't, they certainly have no one else to blame for it. I rather suspect they did...even if the Fourteenth is a bit on the longish side as constitutional amendments go, it is not as if it is comparable either in length or complexity to a modern piece of omnibus legislation that no one (not even the representatives and senators voting for it) has read in entirety. I imagine Section 2's purpose was pretty clear to the people who voted for it both in Congress and the state legislatures, even if in the fullness of time we ourselvs have trouble remembering.
4.24.2007 6:09pm
Phutatorius (www):
Dunno if anyone's made this point yet, but I take issue with the first sentence of this post. Is it not a problem that legislators kowtow to financiers and lobbyists? It seems to me that (1) this would be a problem with a democracy if it were true, and (2) it's pretty darn true in our democracy. So maybe it's "a" problem, then, but not "the" problem?

Humph. I think legislators are more justified to kowtow to their constituencies than to financiers and lobbyists. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not thrilled about either form of kowtowing. But it seems to me that the dismissed "problem" strikes at the heart of the integrity of the democratic progress, whereas the highlighted "problem" has to do with our travails as taxpayers. Big difference to me.

The bummer of this is that I didn't manage to get any deeper into the post, because I got annoyed too early on. Might I suggest a rewrite that says "It's a well-known problem that legislators kowtow to financiers and lobbyists -- but it's certainly a problem, too, that they kowtow to their constituents, spending other people's money along the way?"
4.24.2007 6:32pm
K Parker (mail):
I certainly don't share Professor Landsburg's apparent fascination with an efficient, unitary government. But I will suggest that if that is what a wants, there's a much more efficient way of getting it than by rebuilding the entire US polity--just move to France.
4.24.2007 7:04pm
Joshua:
In Defense of Pork

Actually, the author of this piece from last year isn't so much defending pork as he is throwing up his hands and admitting there's no effective way to stop it without gutting our entire political system:
Is [pork] a good in itself? No, of course not. It is, however, a consequence, an unfortunate side effect, of an otherwise very excellent system of government. As getting rid of pork requires one to tinker around with the system, I prefer pork.
The article covers much of the same ground as many of the commentators here. If stopping pork is our goal, how badly do we really want it?
4.24.2007 7:39pm
dearieme:
I don't have time to read the 85 commenst above, but if they don't declare "Well said, that man" then youse is all a bunch o' bums.
4.24.2007 7:46pm
Mark Field (mail):

Actually, the author of this piece from last year isn't so much defending pork as he is throwing up his hands and admitting there's no effective way to stop it without gutting our entire political system


Considering that Jefferson was complaining about "logrolling" as early as 1820 or so, I suspect it's inherent in any legislative system.
4.24.2007 8:49pm
Eli Rabett (www):
Basically high school sophomore thumb sucking and about half as practical.
4.24.2007 10:34pm
David Maquera (mail) (www):
Why not elect U.S. Representatives at large from their home state and do away with districts altogether???
4.24.2007 10:37pm
JunkYardLawDog (mail):
Ella,


Social Security takes up 21% of the budget, Defense and Security another 21%, Medicare 12%, Safety Net programs 9%, and MEdicaid 7%.


OK, let's take your facts quoted above. Social secuirty, Medicare, Safety Net and Medicaid. That adds up to 49% of the budget, then add in the portion of the budget going to things like public schools, school loans, affirmative action enforcement, a pro-rata portion of the defense budget based upon population numbers, federal block highway and mass transit grants, etc etc. etc. All of these things are going to the poor by and large.

So I'll stand by the facts, its your understanding of them that needs to be corrected.

And we haven't even begun to talk about the disparity in state and local taxation that gets paid by the middle class and rich and goes 80% or more to the poor.

Says the "Dog"
4.25.2007 12:01am
unlawyer:
Forgive me if anybody else has mentioned this.

1) It seems to me that the two vote proposal could give western state voters an advantage. Voters in those states could get extra information about eastern state results after those polls close and then decide to vote in races that are close.

2) Since votes that come from outside my district weaken my vote, if I were a voter in favor of one of the two major parties, I would consider voting for a third party candidate with the aim of no candidate getting a majority and forcing a run-off between the two major party candidates. Under the assumption that a run-off would not include votes from outside voters, I could then vote in a run-off election that excluded outsiders and thereby regain the power of my vote.
4.25.2007 12:22am
Kim:
I am shocked that no one realizes that it is the unbridled power of government that allows constituents, lobbies and anyone else with money have an influence over all of our lives. If the government's power were strictly limited, we would not have influence-pedaling (why lobby when there can be no law passed favoring your interest above others).
4.25.2007 1:07am
dwlawson (www):

This reform would be for the House only. I'd
leave the Senate alone. If you forced me to
propose a Senate reform too, it would be simple;
repeal the 17th Amendment.


Hear hear! This is one of the causes of what I believe is one of our problems: The Tyranny of Democracy. Since both houses are popularily elected and candidates have their fingers on the pulse of the electorate, hot issues lead to bad legislation.
4.25.2007 1:24am
dwlawson (www):

Why not elect U.S. Representatives at large from their home state and do away with districts altogether???


Noooooo! As a resident of Illinois, that might cede total control to Cook County interests.

As a former resident of Northern California, that might cede total control to Southern Cal.
4.25.2007 1:27am
TokyoTom (mail):
There are only two ways to deal with the gerrymandering problem: first, breathing some meaning into federal court review of the line-drawing process via the Equal Protection clause and second, eliminating separate congressional districts within each state - coupled with cumulative voting whereby each voter has votes equal to the number of representatives in that state and can cast those votes for any and all candidates they wish, including cumulating all votes one or a few particular candidates that they like (this is the same system now used to protect minority voters in private corporation). The top vote-getters would win the available seats. This would tend to encourage all candidates to run toward the middle, while allowing any significant minorities to ensure that they have proportionate rtepresentation if they wish it.

The Supreme Court has failed to give the EP clause any meaning in gerrymandering, allowing each party to craft absurd districts that effective disenfranchising voters for the other party and leading to increasing polarization in each party (as the most important election is the primary for the dominant party). The Court has also upheld the similarly bizaare districts crafted by each state to provide proportionate minority representation under the Civil Rights Act - these should go as well. But the Court sees gerrymandering as political questions rather than EP problems.

So we are left with trying to improve the system state by state - and relying on willingness by the parties in such states to surrender the advantages that they already have.
4.25.2007 2:53am
veteran:
bornyesterday wrote:
1 rep per 10-20000 people? I like the idea of actually having the chance to know your rep, but a Congress of 3000+ people would be rather ineffective.

Ineffective could be a good thing if it meant they were unable to pass bad legislation.

On the other hand they pass a lot of legislation now and they still seem to be ineffective.
4.25.2007 8:08am
Ella (www):
Dog

You do know what Social Security and Medicare ARE don't you? They don't go to the poor, by and large, they go to retired people who've paid into the system all their lives. And guess what? The more you pay into Social Security, the more you get out. And yes, I know that there is no actual trust fund. Doesn't change the way the system works.

Look it up and come back when you have actual data to support your bizarre assertion that 80% of the federal budget goes to the poor.
4.25.2007 9:55am
Felix Sulla (mail):
Dog: Beyond agreeing with what Ella said above, let's take these assertions:

[T]hen add in the portion of the budget going to things like public schools, school loans, affirmative action enforcement, a pro-rata portion of the defense budget based upon population numbers, federal block highway and mass transit grants, etc etc. etc. All of these things are going to the poor by and large.

Do you have a source at all for your blanket assertion that "all of these things" go to the "poor by and large," or do you just *know* in your heart that those poor people are all living on luxury yachts out there somewhere on the ocean of money that flows to them from federal largesse? Do you even know what "poor" means? If you define poor as about 70-80 percent of the population or more, than you *might* be right (not about the yachts, of course). And, to take only one of your blisteringly bewildering assertions, what in heaven's name do you mean by "affirmative action enforcement"? And can you even give us a (sourced) number for what is supposedly spent on that, let alone as a percentage of overall expenditures.
4.25.2007 10:09am
Jordan (mail):
Texas seems like a good place to see what would happen with 3000 legislators. Go for it.


Presumably, not much would happen. Which is as it should be.
4.25.2007 5:41pm
R. G. Newbury (mail):
Comments:
At large multiple voting would be a logistical nightmare.

The proportional voting scheme used in Ireland and I think in Isreal, results in Congresscritters being elected *from a party list*. If you vote for the party, your vote counts towards the election of someone the party wants, not necessarily towards your local candidate.

Proportional representation results in splinter groups obtaining strong power to extort *their* desired result as a consequence of holding a balance of power. The ultra-religious parties in Isreal are a prime example of a group exerting a strong political influence on a matter with which a majority of the population disagrees.

A better scheme would be a Single Transferable Vote, where the voter ranks the candidates in order of preference. The candidate with the lowest total of first-vote preferences is eliminated and those votes distributed in accordance with the second preferences. A candidate is elected when he obtains a 50%+1 total of (redistributed) votes of the votes cast. (In some respects this operates like a multiple vote run-off but it works instantly). Although there are possibilities for directed voting, the fact remains that to win, a candidate must be more accepatble to more than one half of the voters than the other remaining candidate. I note that this only works where there are more than 2 party candidates.

For something completely different, how about granting extra votes to voters based on their achievements. In the novel In The Wet, Nevil Shute proposed such a scheme and postulated on the resultant changes to who got elected and how they acted as politicians. Extra votes were granted for thingsd such as (going from memory here... been many years, I should read it again): Obtaining a degree or an officers commission in the armed forces, Owning property with a net equity above a certain value, Not being divorced and having raised a child to 16, *Paying* in excess of a certain amount in income tax, Residing and working outside of the country for more than 2 years... Everyone got the standard one vote. There was a specially granted extra vote, 'Pour le Merite' so to speak bringing the possible categories to seven.
I suspect that any state could implement such a scheme. I won't go into the reasoning, except to say that it made sense (and is unlikely to be politically acceptable in this day and age...) Read the whole thing.

I think that the only thing which will actually change the way politicans work while in office is term limits.

I think that the only thing which will actually change the way voters deal with politicians (in the overall sense) is a true flat tax *with no deduction*. No cost of living etc. Make everyone pay the costs of the porkbarrel.

I do like the idea of having tax return date just before the election. Maybe Stephen Harper's government could be convinced to set the fixed election date legislation so that the fixed date is April 29th here in Canada...
4.27.2007 1:06pm