Joseph Gibson on how to improve Congress

by on December 30, 2010 at 6:13 am in Books, Political Science | Permalink

Chug refers me to this new book.  A few of the ideas are:

1. Make Congress a temporary job, a bit more like jury duty or serving in the military.

2. Allow all financial contributions but require full disclosure on the internet.

3. Lower or eliminate the fixed allotment for Congressional staff, to limit the "bubble" which surrounds Congressmen.

4. Do not allow fundraising while Congress is in session, to make sessions more urgent.

5. Require that bills be written in plain English.

6. Allow formal vote-trading, so minority legislators could have some prospect of promoting their better ideas.

7. Make it easier to repeal unnecessary laws.

8. Eliminate the "hold" and make filibusters much harder.

9. Make confirmations quicker and easier.

10. Make the House smaller.

There is more, but that is a start. 

In general I find Congressional reform proposals, including filibuster abolition, difficult to evaluate.  There is no simple model at hand.  Sometimes the median voter model is useful, but in most cases it implies the reforms don't matter, a conclusion which I would not wish to accept so readily.  Multi-dimensional cycling models often imply that either a) it still doesn't matter (the agenda setter remains in charge), or b) it matters some huge amount in a way which is difficult to forecast but the entire political equilibrium can shift and not just locally.

There are many "near median voter models," perhaps too many.

There is also the Becker QJE 1983 model about the bargaining power of different interest groups.  Still, when it comes to outlining exactly how the procedural reforms shift the political bargain, we are again looking at a black box.  The first cut version of the model seems to imply that political procedures don't much matter.

The overall problem is that plausible models generate either no changes or large, non-local changes.  Maybe we should take those results seriously, but then in the former case it doesn't matter and in the then-more-relevant latter case we still can't predict the nature or even the direction of the non-local shift.

Anton Tykhyy December 30, 2010 at 2:39 am

America worked hard and long to eliminate politics (as distinct from 'public policy') from the actual job of government, and now the extended civil service handles most of it. Why wouldn't you wish to accept the conclusion that America has largely succeeded in this endeavour?

Ted Craig December 30, 2010 at 4:18 am

10. Why would you want to make Congress smaller? I believe it should be bigger. It makes no sense for a state to gain population but lose a seat. 8 and 9 also seem like bad ideas. Why make it easier to pass laws? Because it will be easier to repeal them? That seems like a lot of wasted effort.

DK December 30, 2010 at 4:40 am

5. "plain english" is a carnard that makes the proposal unserious. Why don't companies making voluntary contracts routinely opt for plain english instead of legalese? why don't we do all internet searches and program all computers in plain english yet? why aren't all econ papers written in plain english?

We don't because it's too hard. Communicating precisely in plain english is a supremely hard problem. Communicating without perfect precision gives far more power and requires far more wisdom and good intentions among the judges, bureaucrats, computers, and readers that have to interpret the words.

Richard J. Medicus December 30, 2010 at 5:37 am

1. Congress is already a temporary job. It is up to us as voters to enforce it.

2. Allow all contributions to those not currently seated in congress and cut off contributions to those currently seated.

3. Eliminate all congressional staff. Currently seated members of congress (and anyone related) would not be allowed to receive contributions per #2 above.

4. See #2

5. Limit a bill to one specific item with no amendments and a requirement to tie directly to an article, section and paragraph of the Constitution.

6. Vote trading could be allowed, but, only as a short term trade. The trade must be publicized to the constituancy a week in advance and a specific trade made identifying what is being received in trade.

7. Require a 75% majority to pass all laws and a 51% majority to repeal all laws.

8. Require that representation in the house fall strictly in line with the 30,000 to 1 specified in the Constitution.

Michael December 30, 2010 at 5:55 am

Mike,
You clearly don't understand our current campaign finance system. The overwhelming majority of funding comes from individuals, not corporations. Furthermore, is it illegal for corporations to attempt to overtly direct or game the contributions of their employees.

"Corporate" influence on congress primarily comes in the form of lobbying, where they have very strong competition from other interest groups, AARP, unions, etc, etc.

Andrew December 30, 2010 at 6:22 am

We just had Congress torn to shreds by a popular movement (and of course some people still can't see it).

What's the problem?

What is the desired result?

B.B. December 30, 2010 at 6:50 am

We need a bigger House, not a smaller one. The number of residents per Congressman has more than doubled in the past century. That makes it hard for Congressmen to keep track and relate to their constituants.

I say double the size of the House.

And get rid of gerrymandering. It would be easier with a larger House.

You can use New Hampshire as a template. It has a large lower chamber even though the state is small. There is no pay except for the leadership. The terms in session are short.

Chris December 30, 2010 at 6:58 am

"In general I find Congressional reform proposals, including filibuster abolition, difficult to evaluate. There is no simple model at hand."

What about Keith Krehbiel's Pivotal Politics model?

Michael Cain December 30, 2010 at 7:31 am

"If professional legislators don't write the laws, professional lobbyists will."

Legislators don't write laws, staff does. Speaking from experience, even professional legislators wave their arms and describe, approximately and very incompletely, what they think they want. Staff undertakes the job of translating that into workable statute. Legislators get very annoyed when they find that their "simple" idea has grown into a 200-page monstrosity because it has to modify existing statute in dozens of places in order to maintain some consistency.

efp December 30, 2010 at 9:06 am

11. Require/allow line-item voting on all spending bills, as well as allow the line-item veto. Just say 'yea/nay except for items …"

Bernard Yomtov December 30, 2010 at 9:14 am

7. Make it easier to repeal unnecessary laws.

Only the unnecessary ones, of course. Don't make it easier to repeal necessary ones.

I hate the phrase "improve Congress" in these kinds of suggestions. What it usually means is "make Congress operate in a way I like better."

Bill December 30, 2010 at 11:28 am

State legislatures work without filibuster rules, holds, and 60 vote requirements. This is not a black box.

mulp December 30, 2010 at 1:13 pm

This part is simple – House is a lot more democratic than Senate, so shifting power from Senate to House is always a good thing, all the way up to abolition of Senate.

Nancy would have delivered 150% of the items on Obama's list if you had been in charge of how Federal government worked.

And likely would have seen gains in the House for her Democratic members; much as I think that would have been a great outcome, it quake at what would have happened in previous eras of Republican House majorities. The House reflects the emotions of the people which is hardly the best way to govern.

mulp December 30, 2010 at 2:15 pm

You can use New Hampshire as a template. It has a large lower chamber even though the state is small. There is no pay except for the leadership. The terms in session are short.

A small Senate (24). And a very small Executive Council (five) where most of the power resides.

The legislature can't get into great detail in legislating, so administrative power lands in the governor and executive council.

NH is no better able to address issues than places with smaller legislatures, and we have the good fortune to be close to the high growth economic development of Mass where so many NH workers work, or where so many consultants based in NH get their contracts funded. We get the benefit of big government without have to run a big government, but don't think we don't pay the price of big government. Mass taxes NH workers a lot, and then those workers pay for essential services a second time in high property taxes. Young people must move out of NH to get a start, and can then return to NH once they have gotten "rich" in another State.

Troy Camplin December 30, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Better than making laws easier to repeal: make their repeal necessary. Sunset all laws so that they all expire after 10 years, meaning you have to renew each one as they sunset.

Phil January 1, 2011 at 10:33 am

The danger in the size of the house isn't in the number of elected representartives, but the size the staff. That's where the 3000 page monstrosities that nobody reads or understands in there entirety come from.

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