Today, the government functions much like Vanilla Ice. It pops out with a quick 'hook', that looks great on media, but contains little useful substance. Like Ice, and the rest of the pop world its output is primarily superficial trash, and is soon forgotten after everyone's heard it ounce. Because of the public's memory lapse congressmen can easily steal some old idea, but their name on it, and gain brownie points for trying to help out the country. However, the public relations approach to politics is one of the most ineffective ways to rule a country.
In the Power Game, Hedrick Smith proposes a strengthening of the two existing political parties in order to increase the effectiveness of congress. This is the wrong approach. The steady weakening of political parties is a healthful aspect of our democracy. Most municipal elections are non-partisan. One state, Nebraska, doesn't even have parties represented in it's legislature. These non-partisan governments still manage to produce legislation without the influence of parties. So, why can't congress? Congressmen our torn between three different loyalties - themselves, their constituency, and their party. Elimination of parties would allow them to be more focused on the act of governing instead of a week quasi-idealogy.
Unfortunately, political parties have become deeply ingrained in our society, and an immediate disbandment is unseeable in the near future. Most voters still consider elections a battle between the Democrats and Republicans. Third party candidates have only a small fraction of the money of the big parties - they are also kept out of most debates. Thus, many people that would be great congressmen our kept out due to ideological differences with the parties. (Although some people, such as David Duke, seek the public office under a party banner, even though the party leadership adamantly opposes them.)
Instead of instigating an all-out elimination of political parties, states should establish their own changes in congressional election procedures. One of the easiest changes would be a simple restructuring of the primary system. Congressional candidates would be decided by indirect rather than direct primaries. The actual primary voting would merely be an opinion poll. The real business would take place at the precinct convention held afterwards. That way, the more educated, and more politically knowledgeable people will select the candidate, using an intellectual, instead of gut-level, approach.
Another easy modification of the primary system would be 'clump' primary, similar to Louisiana's primary. All the candidates from all the parties would be grouped together on a ballot. If nobody receives a majority, the two top vote-getters compete in a run-off. That way everyone has a more-or-less equal chance of making it to the final ballot.
The other changes would be incorporated in the final elections, and would probably take longer to implement (due to the lack of precedent in the United States). Big states could begin implementing Euro-parliamentary style elections, in which each party gets representatives based on the party's popular vote. By implementing this system, third parties with fresh ideas would have much better chances of gaining prominence in congress. Also, the state party's discipline would be increased. (Candidates that broke with the party's stance on key issues could be booted from the party, and thus from congress.) This method, though radically different than Hedrick Smith's party strengthening methods, would unfortunately fall victim to the same key problem: a few high-ranking party officials would be given control of a nation of millions. However, it does have an advantage of allowing additional parties, and forcing 'coalition' government that would be more responsive to the people.
Another similar change that would be effective in states, no matter what there size, is an at-large election. All candidates are lumped together on one ballot, and all the top vote-getters become representatives. Implementing this method of elections would also serve to strengthen minority voters who are often hampered by gerrymandered congressional districts. The primary shortcoming of this system would occur when an immensely popular candidate takes a great majority of the votes, allowing other, almost unknown, (and very possibly unqualified) candidates to sneak in with just a handful of votes. However, these shortcomings are far outweighed by the propagation of new ideas and solutions that the new system will allow.
All the above electorial changes could easily be lumped together, with different states adopting different plans. The different plans would result in representatives with differing ranges of loyalties toward their local parties, while cutting back on their loyalty to national parties. It would also increase the chances of the election of independent and third party congressmen. The 'new breed' of congressmen would be more independent, and less held by party standards, and consequently, more prone to make compromises.
In the 1800s, most congressmen served a term or two, then went home. Today, a representative serving five or even ten terms is not at all unusual. The congressmen become distant from their constituency, and become more interested in the intricate details of Washington. To counteract this, a term limitation needs to be implemented. The limitation would prohibit any representative from serving more than three consecutive terms; senators would be prevented from seeking more than two consecutive terms. However, after sitting out for two years, he could seek reelection. Thus, a well-liked congressman could still serve an extended period of time, but a distrusted one would quickly see the boot. Congress would function like a basketball team. In today's system, the starters play the entire game. Some are still just as capable at the end, but most are exhausted by the third quarter. With term limitations, the starters would get a breather. And like in basketball, if the replacement outperforms the starter, he'll probably start the next game.
A great restructuring in congressional financing and campaigning would result in vast improvements in government functioning. First, and foremost, television advertisements would be abolished. This will cause a great cutback in the bitter mudslinging campaigns, and force congressmen to focus on substance instead of glamour. As compensation for this, ALL contenders will be allotted snippets of air time in which to tell their stance on issues. (Close regulation will prevent these from degenerating to the status of political advertisements.) There would also be opportunities for all candidates to participate in televised debates. To cover any additional costs of campaigning, all congressional candidates will be given a fixed campaign allowance, and prevented from using outside funds.
These modifications, however, do contain a great number of opportunities for abuse. To counteract possible abuses the nomination procedures would be changed. First, the candidate would be required to obtain an initial number of signatures. After he obtains these, he will get a small subsidy to help obtain a set number of signatures to officially register his candidacy. Finally, after he has completed his petition, he is eligible for public funding, and use of media air-time. However, if he fails to receive five percent of the popular vote in the election, he must pay back the government. (The amount he is required to pay back will be determined by his performance - if he receives no votes, he will have to pay back all public funds. If he receives 4.98% of the votes, he will be required to pay back a much smaller amount.)
Now that the most qualified candidates have obtained office, all they have left to do is work together - a most arduous task under the present system. However, since most of the 'new-breed' congressmen will be elected independently of 'big money' and with little aid from political parties, working together will be much easier. In order to transform this independence into sound legislative practice, a minor restructure of the committee system needs to take place. Instead of being selected by parties, committee membership would be determined by congress as a whole Furthermore, the ccommittee chairman would be voted upon by the committee (instead of the party caucus), and need not be a member of the majority party. (Committee reforms would fall in place naturally after the election forms were instituted.)
The expansion of presidential power to levels before the '74 revolt would also help the government to work out its problems. One of the key powers to restore to the president is the ability to impound money congress has appropriated. By allowing the president to use this power (which constitutionally should still be held by the executive branch), congress is forced to make cost-cutting compromises over the budget, instead of just sidestepping the president to pass another mammoth budget. Unfortunately, this power could be abused by the president. In order to help ensure an able leader who wouldn't abuse his power, the presidential election system will be reformed in way similar to congressional elections (TV time reform, total public financing, debates, etc.). And if the elected president still abuses his power, the constitutional power of impeachment can always be employed.
Undoubtedly, any problems found in congress are merely reflection of problems existing society as a whole. How can Americans justly call congress a circus of idiots, while giving overwhelming support for their own representative? Congress' drive to find quick fixes to complex problems is a mere reflection of the people. Isn't it fitting that a nation with one of the lowest level of consumer saving also has one of the largest budget deficits? Slowly, Americans are beginning to learn the fallacies of their actions. Hopefully this acknowledgement will lead to reforms that enable the country to run like a well oiled sports car (instead of a broken Yugo).
- jeremy hubble 11/15/91