A Philosopher's Blog

Reforming Congress

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 30, 2011
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While congress has a rather low approval rating, the members of congress do not seem very inclined to do much to change this. One obvious reason is that most members of congress know that they will be re-elected despite the overall low approval ratings. As such, they have little incentive to change their behavior.

The folks in congress, like most politicians, have two main goals. The first is to get re-elected. The second is to profit from their office. Unfortunately, the chances of a member of congress being re-elected does not seem to be strongly connected to actual job performance. Rather, the main factors seem to be party affiliation, financial resources, the gerrymandering of the district, and political connections. This means that incumbents will tend to be re-elected. There have been, of course, some notable exceptions to this general rule. For example, some Tea Party candidates were able to get elected and, of course, Weiner’s actions cost his his seat in Congress. However, the electoral success of the Tea Party did not result in an improvement in Americans’ approval of congress-quite the opposite in fact. Part of this is no doubt due to the hyper-partisanship that marks today’s congress and has preventing the usual political process of compromise. Part of this is due to the fact that the Republicans seem to be devoted to beating Obama rather than actually doing what should be done for the good of the country. Part of this is also due to the fact that the Democrats seem to be unwilling to take decisive action. In any case, congress is doing a terrible job, yet we keep re-hiring most of them year after year. Or, more accurately, they are able to do what it takes to stay in office while, at the same time, not doing what it takes to be seen as actually accomplishing things.

I would like to make a few modest proposals.

First, I would suggest term limits. While the term limit on the presidency was set to keep a specific president from getting another term, term limits do seem to have some merit in that they enable more turnover and reduced the concentration (and hence abuse) of power. On the minus side, term limits would prevent the most experienced members from returning (although they could go on to other careers). However, the good of such limits would seem worth the cost.

Second, I would suggest somewhat longer terms for those in congress. This would allow them to be less locked into focusing on re-election and more focused on doing things.

Third, I would suggest an end to gerrymandering. While there are some arguments in favor of this practice, CNN’s recent piece on the matter shows that the harms of the practice seem to clearly outweigh the alleged benefits. The end of this practice would mean that the folks in congress would need to work harder to earn their re-elections.

Fourth, I would recommend that there be strict spending limits on campaigns and that these limits be set rather low. This would help offset the advantage of incumbents and would change the focus away from raising money (and also reduce the amount of corruption).  Naturally, there would need to be a way to compensate for this-such as “free” air time for the candidates.

Fifth, I would also suggest strict limits on donations and the elimination of super PACS. Corporations would be able to donate, but this would also need to be limited and such donations would need to be a matter of public record. This would not interfere with free speech-after all, everyone would be able to express their views-they just would not be able to buy politicians. After all, if spending money is free speech, then simply buying politicians would seem to be free speech.

Sixth, I would suggest that all lobbying must be a matter of public record-the public has a right to know what their elected officials are being offered in return for their services. This does not impeded freedom of speech-after all, freedom of speech does not warrant a freedom to corrupt and bribe.

Seventh, strict restrictions need to be placed on how members of congress can profit from their offices. This would include limits on gifts and put an end to insider trading. I would even be for a wealth cap on members of congress (the excess would be contributed to the budget, preferably for things they vote for)-after all, they should lead the way when calling for sacrifices from the American people.

Does anyone have any other ideas?


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17 Responses

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  1. WTP said, on November 30, 2011 at 10:17 am

    I could only read about every third paragraph of this. The naivety made me chuckle so much.

    I have a couple topic suggestions…How about something concerning extreme hazing and the ethics (you teach ethics, right?) of organizations that tolerate it? Is all hazing bad? Interesting topic, hazing.

    Or how about who should get charged with murder when 30 people gang up on an individual to beat him into submission, with his supposed consent?

    Or how about one on informal gangs, on a racially sensitive campus, who call themselves “The Gestapo”?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 30, 2011 at 3:11 pm

      Hazing is wrong.
      In terms of moral accountability, it would depend on the intent, the consent and the other relevant facts. However, killing a person would be wrong and if 30 people were involved, then they bear the blame based on their involvement.
      FAMU officially condemns hazing (as do all schools).

      • WTP said, on November 30, 2011 at 5:11 pm

        All hazing is wrong. So if you wanna join our club and we have certain rituals to initiate members, is that wrong? Is it wrong when paratroopers “pin” their newbies? Are there no exceptions?

        “Bear the blame”, but is that blame murder or manslaughter? I suppose that’s a legal question, not a strictly philosophical one, but supposing the law is unclear?

        FAMU’s official condemnation of hazing hasn’t had much of an effect, apparently. From what I’ve heard, there is a “cuture of hazing” at FAMU, and not just in the band. How can that be if it’s officially condemned? Supposing the band director did, as he claims, notify the University that it was beyond his control…should he still have been fired?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 1, 2011 at 12:40 pm

          It depends on what you mean by “hazing.” If you just mean “a traditional ritual in which no one is harmed”, then that sort of hazing would seem okay. If you mean “a systematic process of degradation and abuse”, then that would seem rather wrong.

          I am not sure of how it will play out legally-there are many legal variations regarding causing the death of another person.

          Hazing is hard to root out. To use an obvious analogy, think about crime in a community-despite our best efforts, we still have criminals at all levels in society. Crime is officially condemned, yet we still have a culture that contains significant criminal elements.

          The band director should have been put on administrative leave until things were sorted out. It is wrong to simply fire a person without actually determining the facts of the situation.

          • WTP said, on December 1, 2011 at 1:22 pm

            Is it degradation and abuse when the person voluntarily submits to it? I recall (not so way) back in the day at UF the administration clamped down on hazing. However they concentrated on the “white” fraternities. The “black” fraternities paraded their pledges through campus making them perform what to most of us appeared to be minstrel-show style marching performances. Who decides what is “humiliating”. And who knows what goes on behind closed doors. The Omegas continued to “brand” their pledges, from what I heard.

            In organizations where we strongly desire the members to be tough SOB’s, like paratroopers, Rangers, Seals, etc., is it wrong? Does it not serve a purpose at some level? Certainly not in regard to the general civilian population, but…?

            “Crime is officially condemned, yet we still have a culture that contains significant criminal elements.” – Different situation. People can more easily be expelled from a school or other organization than they can from society in general. Far more complex issues involved.

            As for crime, shouldn’t the FAMU administrators have reported the problems they were having with hazing to the police? The hazing I’ve heard about going on there certainly would constitute assault and battery. Should perhaps the Board of Regents put the FAMU administrators (president?) on leave of absence until this is sorted out? Sounds like it’s pretty wide-spread.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 1, 2011 at 2:47 pm

              I have a post coming out on this tomorrow.

              The voluntary point is a good one. I’m inclined to say that consent does not grant a limitless right to do things to a person, but I would need to develop a proper argument for this. It would probably involve a Lockean style approach that there are certain rights that we cannot voluntarily abdicate simply by saying we do so.

              If we accept that the band leader should be fired because he is accountable for his band members and should know what they are doing, then the same logic would apply to his superiors. After all, they should thus know what he was doing.

              The Marching 100 at FAMU enjoys the sort of status and special treatment normally reserved for the football players at top sports schools-as such, we get similar problems.

            • FRE said, on December 1, 2011 at 3:32 pm

              How does one determine whether it is voluntary? What appears voluntary may actually not be totally voluntary. There may be extreme social pressures involved.

  2. anon said, on November 30, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    “Seventh, strict restrictions need to be placed on how members of congress can profit from their offices. This would include limits on gifts and put an end to insider trading.”

    This would be extremely hard to do without coming down very hard on all investment types. To me, congress persons should have to de-invest in as many assets as possible no later than 3 months into office. After that, all other investments will have most/all profit funnled into the budget.

    You might allow them to keep enough profits from investments to keep up with inflation (whatever it is for that year) but any additional profits go to the budget. For physical investments like land you’d have to make sure they aren’t allowing their family/friends to charge above market prices to maintain it (funneling profits to others so they can keep the money “in-house”).

    • FRE said, on November 30, 2011 at 3:21 pm

      Although I understand the reason for forcing members of congress to divest themselves of all types of investments, I see that as unrealistic.

      Probably most people who have above average incomes have investments in stocks, mutual funds, bonds, or real estate. That is necessary to maximize long term financial security. Divesting after being elected to office could result in paying huge capital gains taxes and reduce long term financial security. Members of congress should not be expected to make such financial sacrifices.

      A better approach might be for members of congress to put their assets into blind trusts so that they would not know how their assets were invested. When that is not possible, the assets should be made public and perhaps consideration should be given to requiring congress members to recluse themselves in cases where there could be a conflict of interest.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 1, 2011 at 12:35 pm

        A cap on maximum investments in particular corporations could be a viable option as well as limiting what politicians can acquire while in office.

        It is somewhat tempting to make being a congressman as financially undesirable as being, for example, a public school teacher or a professor. These professions still attract competent and principled people despite the generally limited financial compensation.

        The blind trust is a good idea.

  3. ajmacdonaldjr said, on November 30, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    Redraw the map of the US according to population: http://www.neatorama.com/2010/01/24/the-united-states-redrawn-with-50-equal-population-states/

    Eliminate our Roman system and form a parliament.

    Eliminate all corporate contributions.

    Eliminate all forms of corporate lobbying.

    Eliminate full time representation in Washington and make serving in Congress part-time (they can keep their day jobs and only go to Washington once every two years – for two months – to vote).

    Eliminate congressional salaries and pensions and pay congress people a stipend and travel costs to Washington for the sacrifice they will be making for doing a public service.

    • anon said, on December 1, 2011 at 2:00 pm

      I don’t believe that making congress a part time job will actually end up helping things. They NEED to spend time reading & researching the bills that come before them. If they have less time to do so I’d imagine that they would read even fewer than they do now.

      Eliminating their pay could also give them to have a (better) reason to take bribes/do shady deals.

  4. FRE said, on November 30, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    In general, I agree with all of your recommendations. However, I have an additional recommendation which is to improve civic education in our schools.

    Students should be taught how various types of governments work, including democratic governments. They should also be taught their responsibilities as citizens.

    The reason that spending more on political campaigns improves the likelihood of being elected is that constant repetition of silly sound bites influences voters. If voters were not influenced by constant repetition but instead evaluated the qualifications of the candidates, then it wouldn’t be much of an advantage to spend more on political campaigns. Putting more effort into voter education on our schools could result in voters’ making more intelligent decisions instead of voting for the candidate who spends the most on campaigns.

    • anon said, on December 1, 2011 at 2:06 pm

      I don’t think we can ultimately teach “voter education” to everybody or even most people. I do agree though that students (home schooled/private schooled/public schooled) should ALL have to learn about the different types/forms of governments and their actual plusses and minuses (not “our way is better than theirs, anybody questioning that is unpatriotic”).

      I’d imagine that forcing politicians/people running for office (when operating in an official capacity) to fact check/prove statements/give context to statements that they make in their campaigns and when they are in office would go a long way. Also force them to publically correct any misstatements/non-truths made in an official manner or be punished in some meaningful way. I’d imagine they would make less concrete claims about things but is that a bad thing really?

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 1, 2011 at 2:50 pm

        The folks in the media could help by asking questions that are actually tough and pressing politicians when they lie or engage in mere rhetoric. However, this would require that the people who watch the news also step up their game and expect more from the politicians and the media. As long as many people are content to be fixated on sex scandals while being bored about substantive matters, then the media will serve up a heaping plate of scandal.

        • FRE said, on December 1, 2011 at 3:38 pm

          That could help, especially if the media questioned candidates on exactly how their proposals would affect the economy. For example, some politicians now assert that increasing taxes on the rich would reduce job creation. Exactly how would it do that? Unless there is an increased demand for goods and services, why would the rich expand their businesses to create more jobs? Those interviewing politicians never seem to ask about that.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 1, 2011 at 4:54 pm

            One reason the media is timid is because they need to ensure that the politicians will keep talking to them. Another reason is that the folks in the media generally prefer to serve up the equivalent of junk food for the consumer. I would love to see a true debate/discussion involving the candidates. In fact, I hereby challenge the Republican contenders to a philosophical challenge, Socratic style. It can be held at FAMU. I would, actually, really like to talk to professor Newt-I’m sure he would be more than up for the event.

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