…in fact, in some cases they would make things worse. There’s a lot of anger at Congress right now, from both sides of the aisle, and I share in a lot of that. However, there’s a number of proposed reforms circulating out there on Facebook and on the rest of the web that sound really good, but would actually just increase the stranglehold that monied special interests have on the system. Consider:
Term Limits for Representatives and Senators
This one sounds really attractive: our legislators should be citizen legislators, who do their jobs for only a few terms, then retire back to private life. Unfortunately, the political science literature doesn’t back it up. Basically, it boils down to this: when you term limit everyone, then there are no senior legislators. The “institutional memory” of the chamber is reduced, meaning that Congress would be less efficient than it already is (cringe). When there’s no senior leadership to make things move, who steps in? That’s right, lobbyists. Furthermore, with no other options, legislators would be even more likely to cash in and become lobbyists themselves; forget the “return to private life.”
Seem crazy? Here’s some testimonials from Arizona and Missouri, where term limits have had exactly these kind of pernicious effects. It seems likely that the problems would be the same at the Federal level.
Freeze or Reduce Congressional Pay
Another one that gets people going is the thought that Representatives and Senators make what seems like ungodly amounts of money (currently $174,000 for rank-and-file members). (Reference here.) However, keep in mind that those Congresspeople have to maintain homes not only in Washington, but also in their home district, and most have families to support as well. That’s why often, rank-and-file Representatives live in boarding houses or with their own Washington staffers.
The financial pressures, especially for new Representatives who aren’t independently wealthy, make them more susceptible to the kind of kickback and pay-for-play schemes we sometimes read in the news, such as this one involving John Doolittle (R-Calif.), where his own PAC paid his wife “consulting fees.” Furthermore, it discourages good candidates who aren’t wealthy from even seeking office, further transforming the Congress into a Millionaire’s Club. It also makes it more likely that Congresspeople leave office to become lobbyists, make a lot of money, and then return to office, known as the “revolving door” phenomenon.
Note that freezing or eliminating pensions for Congress falls into the same category – any reduction in overall compensation will actually make the problem worse, not better.
There’s actually a good argument to be made that Congress is paid too little.
Kick the Bums Out When the Economy Sinks
This one’s making the rounds coming from Warren Buffett. While I happen to like Mr. Buffett on most other political points, this one makes no sense. Here’s the quote:
I could end the deficit in five minutes. You just pass a law that says that any time there’s a deficit of more than three percent of GDP, all sitting members of Congress are ineligible for re-election. Yeah, yeah, now you’ve got the incentives in the right place, right?
Sadly, this is wrong. Consider two important things:
- Congress has very little to do with economic performance most of the time. The Federal Reserve manages the overall economy, but even the Fed can’t always prevent an economic downturn, like what we’re experiencing right now. The deficit has exploded, in large part, due to two factors:
- Slow, even negative economic growth, which causes GDP, and thus tax revenues, to drop.
- Automatic stabilizer spending, such as Medicaid, Social Security disability, and TANF.
What a 3% rule would force, essentially, is for Congress to choose between their own jobs and the counter-cyclical spending that is necessary not only to keep millions of people from starving, freezing, or otherwise dying, but to help nudge the economy itself back to health.
- While the economy is an important part of Congress’ regulatory purview, it’s not the only thing it does. What if, for example, we actually needed to mobilize to fight a big war? A just war, one that was for our own national security? What if that required spending to a budget deficit of 24%, as we did during World War II? Do we really want to have to elect an entire new Congress, with no institutional experience whatsoever, in the middle of a war?
Some Reforms That Might Actually Help
Never fear, I have some reforms for you that might actually help:
- Re-districting reform: Congressional districts are re-drawn after every Census. The lines for 2012 are being drawn in every statehouse right now. Gerrymandering to ensure a partisan advantage for powerful Congresspeoples’ districts makes them invulnerable to general election challengers, making them answerable only to the lobbyists who curry favor with them. Districts should be drawn by non-partisan commissions, with legislatures getting only an up-or-down vote on the plan.
- Campaign Disclosure Requirements: since the Supreme Court has struck down virtually all hard limits on independent advertising, matching funds, and other attempts to level the fundraising playing field, force “super-PACs” who run independent ads to disclose their donor lists publicly.
- Public financing: this one’s a bit of a pipe dream, but establish a public financing system for all Federal races, which does more than match, it actually funds all eligible candidates equally, and eliminates outside contributions entirely.
- Voting reform: instead of simple plurality voting, switch to Condorcet method voting, which would strengthen third parties while also making sure that the winner of an election is really the one most voters can agree on, instead of just the one they dislike the least. With the stranglehold of the two-party system broken, I think you’d see a lot of changes in the way Congress operates and in the quality of its legislation.