A Philosopher's Blog

Reforming Congress

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 30, 2011
The western front of the United States Capitol...

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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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Proposal: Transparent Lobbying

Posted in Business, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 5, 2011
Money

Money talks...

While I recognize that lobbying is a legitimate part of the democratic process, I also recognize that it provides an avenue by which various interests can exert undue influence in politics, often to the detriment of the general good.

I am not so foolish as to advocate banning lobbying. As I have noted, it does have a legitimate place in the process. Also it would almost certainly be all but impossible to get rid of the lobbying machinery. However, I do contend that the harmful aspects of lobbying can be reduced.

One serious problem with lobbying and its associated influence (such as corporations and other interests literally writing legislation) is that the lobbying activities are not transparent and made readily available to the public. As might be imagined, if lobbying activities were made readily available to the public, then this would have some influence on the nature of lobbying. At the very least we would know the prices at which our government is being bought and sold.

To this end I would propose that all lobbying activities involving public officials be made a matter of public record. This would include emails, meetings, letters, phone conversations, texts and so on. With today’s technology, it would be a simple matter to record meetings on video, to record phone conversations and so on. This information would the be posted on a site called lobbyist.gov. The main page for the site would have a link to individual pages for each member of congress. Each individual page would have a list of all the lobbyists who have lobbied the congressperson as well as links to records of all the lobbying. It would be mandated that the site be designed to be clearly and easily navigable so that the records could not be obscured or hidden. There would also be a large money counter for each congressperson which would track the amount of monetary value received from lobbyists and the interests they represent.

It might be objected that lobbyists have a right to secrecy. The obvious reply is that lobbyists might, but public officials do not. They are, after all, public officials. Hence, the interaction between the lobbyists and the public officials in their professional capacity would thus seem to be something that the people have a right to know about.

It might also be objected that some matters might fall under areas of legitimate secrecy, such as national security. Thus, any lobbyist who can claim this would have the right to lobby in secret. The obvious reply is that while dealings between congresspeople and certain interests (such as defense contractors) might legitimately involve secrecy, this would clearly not cover lobbying attempts. After all, while a defense contractor describing a top secret weapon would be a legitimate matter for secrecy, the process of lobbying congress to spend billions in public money on that contractor would not be a legitimate matter of secrecy.

I imagine that lobbyists would, of course, try to stuff as much secret lobbying as they could under the cloak of national security. However, this would still limit the illegitimate secrecy in substantial ways and the lobbying report should still include a report of secret lobbying that lists the name of the company and the fact that the lobbying activities were made secret for “national security” or whatever.  This secrecy should also be subject to independent review to try to reduce (however slightly) the inevitable abuse of the national security loophole.

The requirement for transparent lobbying would need to be backed up with penalties that would be sufficient to motivate lobbyists and congresspeople to follow the laws. After all, if the penalty was an ethical censure or a small fine, most congresspeople would simple break the rules relentlessly. One reasonable penalty is that violation of the transparency rules would result in the interest being served by the lobbyist(s) in question being banned from lobbying for an extended period of time and that the offending congressperson would also not be allowed to interact with lobbyists for a set amount of time per violation.

As might be imagined, opposing this sort of transparency is something both parties can agree on.

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