TCS Daily


A Congress of Your Peers

By Robert McHenry - January 11, 2006 12:00 AM

Charles Madigan, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, recently asked his readers to send in suggestions for a new Newt Gingrich-style Contract with America. He was looking for ideas for changes in our political business-as-usual, changes that would improve the performance of the federal government. The resulting column was published last Sunday.

He received scores of suggestions. They covered myriad topics, but predictably what concerned most readers were the hot-button issues of the day: the war in Iraq, government secrecy, health care, taxes, corrupt politicians. One of the suggestions struck me as particularly interesting. This may be because it was my suggestion. I sent it in on impulse when I read Charlie's appeal, but since then I've thought about it a little more. I'd like to explore some of the pros and cons with TCS readers.

My suggestion was for an amendment to the Constitution: Members of the House of Representatives shall be chosen each two years by lot from among the adult citizens of each congressional district.

Pretty simple, eh?

First, the pros. There would be no elections for the House, so there would be no primaries, no need to choose between a hack incumbent and one of a new set of the same old blow-dried overachieving real estate agents or lawyers or funeral directors. No campaigning, no campaign finances, no hard money or soft money or disappearing money, no negative ads, no ads at all, no campaign consultants, no scurrilous attack sheets in the mail, no garish campaign signs in everyone else's front yard, no speeches, no stupidly simplistic answers to poorly posed questions, no phone calls from pollers, no need to worry about why these particular people want this particular job so badly.

Convinced yet?

There are some cons, of course, that we'd have to face up to. It would probably turn out that an entire complement of brand new congresspersons every two years would be slow to get themselves organized and begin legislating. No, wait; that sounds very much like a pro, too. (There's more to this: Without the seniority system that keeps the House so rigidly structured, there would be no entrenched powers, no rule-by-vanity, no common currency for the trade in favors. If a budget bill did manage to pass, it would likely be free of the "earmarks" so beloved by the current incumbents. Emphatically a pro.)

Well, then, how about this? : The representatives chosen by lot would lack familiarity with the arcana of House rules. Hmmm; then they'd have to simplify them, I suppose, turning this into another net pro. Hang on; I'm sure I'll think of a con presently.

Have you ever served on a jury? Do you recall how you came to be there? Almost certainly you were chosen by lot to begin with, from a list of registered voters. There was an additional sorting-out process later on, and perhaps this new system of choosing members of Congress would have to have one, too, to eliminate those who are already felons, the obviously intellectually challenged (who under the present system are all too apt to be elected), those who have truly important jobs, and so on. But when you were impaneled on that jury, you and your few chosen fellow citizens were handed the power of liberty or imprisonment or perhaps even of life or death. In what way is the responsibility of a member of Congress greater or more solemn or demanding?

Mark Twain famously remarked that Congress is our only native criminal class, and recent events have suggested that perhaps that motto ought to be inscribed over the entrance to the Capitol, underlined in red. (Full disclosure: At present I have no representative in Congress, mine having lately been caught with both hands and both feet in the cookie jar. The utter lack of skill with which he conducted his criminal career ought to have debarred him from any employment higher than busboy.)

But now imagine yourself a K Street lobbyist facing 435 citizen-legislators you've never seen before and trying to figure out which ones to take golfing in Bermuda next weekend, and wondering moreover why you would take them. None of them is the least concerned with building a war chest for the next campaign, because there won't be one. In two years they'll all be gone, greatly relieved, back to their private lives. What have you got that might interest them? Your connections, your secrets, your bonhomie, and your SleazePAC organization are of no use to you now. As a matter of fact, it's beginning to look as though you may no longer be of any use yourself. (I know, I know, I said I'd find a con. I'm still thinking.)

Though steady in the application of day-in, day-out iniquity, the House of Representatives has never been the chief locus of headlined corruption in our national government. Although the Crédit Mobilier scandal of the 1870s centered on Rep. Oakes Ames of Massachusetts, other proper-named (because discovered) episodes of blatant criminality, such as the Whiskey Ring (in U.S. Grant's administration), Teapot Dome (in Warren Harding's), Watergate (in Richard Nixon's), or Iran-Contra (in Ronald Reagan's) have arisen within the executive branch. The odd senator has been caught from time to time in this or that peccadillo, but the conventional wisdom is that senators are too narcissistic to be truly criminal. So in proposing this amendment I have no illusion that it would bring an end to governmental corruption. Until men are angels, corruption there will be. But such corruption as this ultimate in term limitation would have to be, it seems to me, of the more trivial sort.

Aha! Not a moment too soon, I've thought of a con. Under my proposal, your morning newspaper and the evening news, to say nothing of your favorite political comment blogs, would be far less interesting. But then, isn't living in less interesting times worth voting for?

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopædia Britannica, and author of How to Know (Booklocker.com, 2004).
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23 Comments

Unilateral Armament?
Two problems seem to stand out: Would take both parties to pass the necessary Constitutional Amendment, and the screening process needs work.

If you couldn't get the idea thru as a Constitution Amendment, why not have a single political party adopt the idea. If it has the merits advertised, why couldn't a third political party unilaterally adopt the method?

For screening, you keep the primaries. Pick a half dozen people by lottery, invite them to telivised debates (transcripts posted afterward) and a week or two later, after they've passed their legal background checks and people have had time to think (and read blogs) about the crop of candidates, hold the primary, and you have your candidate for the general elections.

The Next Door Neighbor Party.

Let them vote as they please, except they must swear an oath if the accept the nomination they will not organize with any other party if elected. This isn't a lottery for the Democrats or Republicans to have a shot at getting freebies, after all.

The more people like the idea, the more of these folks get sent to Congress.

Add that the members of the House be propertied
I suggest this not so much for the Jeffersonian reasons, but because it would provide the state with something of considerable value to confiscate in the event that the congress-person proved to be corrupt.

A con
The proposed system wouldn't do much to halt corruption. All you would need is a Rep. who was smart enough to get picked, but doesn't know or care much about the law. That person might be susceptible to an 'incentive' (money, property, etc) to vote a certain way.

The point is, it is not the system that is bad, but the people who exploit it for their own personal gain.

Here's a con
Loved the article and would actually support the idea as long as there was a provision to prevent Congress from further empowering non-elected (or selected) government agencies to enact "regulations" that have not been specifically approved by the legislature.

The temptation would be to throw even more of the decision making power to the "experts" in the alphabet soup agencies.

A Better Way
I believe there is a better way (compared to the “Congress by lot” proposal) to achieving legislative responsibility and accountability. I would suggest a Constitutional Amendment to include:
1) Congressional term limit of 6 terms.
2) Senate limit of 2 terms.
3) National Referendum...which creates an infrastructure for citizens to propose, enact and veto legislation.
4) Sunset Provision required in all legislation. All future legislation must have an expiration date (say from one to maximum of ten years). In addition, existing legislation would have an expiration date retroactively applied. The expiration requirement also applies to regulations enacted by Executive Branch departments pursuant to implementing legislation.

Law (other than the Constitution) should be seen as TEMPORARY meeting of the minds, and thus subject to elimination, reaffirmation or enhancement on a regular basis. The provisions proposed will serve to keep our law more current and relevant.

RE: A Better Way
Term limits still leave campaigns and war chests in the mix.

Sunsetting all legislation is an idea that I have long thought would be great, but without a provision that prohibits non-legislative regulations, the problem of growing power centered in totally unaccountable agencies is a huge problem. This is a huge problem now, but if Congress is further limited in their scope and power, the power would just shift more drastically towards the alpabet soup agencies.

Constitutional Amendment.
I do not agree that Our US Representatives should be appointed. This is the only Federal Office holder the voters can replace every two years. I suggest we return to methods we started with. Senators appointed to represent each state, thus when the state legislature becomes unhappy, they can replace the senator. Require the US Senate to be the lesser house & the House of Representatives to be the superior one.

Next subject, I pray & hope voters are presented with more choices in all federal elections. The Republicans have become too Democratic & the Democrats have become too socialistic, where did consertisim go?

House is the power
All funding measures must originate in the House.
I agree in principle with the original article.
But I do believe we need to have a politcal process and elect someone, not let someone take a turn at steering.
Term limits and increasing the number of REPS so each represents 50,000 people.
A lobbyist would have to spread his wealth to over 4000 members of Conress. That is a lot of bribes and golf outings.
And return the Senate to direct appointment by state legislatures.

New Revolution
I too, agree in principle with this article and many of the comments. Having representative selection similar to jury selection may also serve to reduce the apathy of voters and lead to a more informed electorate. The fact that 90% of congressional incumbents are re-elected and that the last two presidents were re-elected is not exactly a shining light for democracy. You could mitigate the potential problem of representative venality and incompetence through first testing them to see if they have a "passing" knowledge of political history, government and the constitution. A psycological test could also be administered. Sgt.P's point regarding the real power of the entrenched bureaucracies is a good one. A new culture with incentives, efficiency and accountability needs to be instilled. Some agencies could be eliminated with a net gain to the country. A movement is beginning. Let's not revert back into a feeling of cynicism and helplessness. No one defends the status quo except privileged self interests.

Further to the point
First, I think this is a good idea (because I had been exposed to it a number of years ago). I think there is one con: If the representatives don't know the ropes, the staff members to whom they would be committed would become politically stronger without corresponding responsibility. Some means of limiting that influence would be needed.

It would probably be of value to select half of the representatives each year to allow some continuity from one congress to the next.

A few further thoughts:

1.No elected or selected official in the federal government could serve more than one consecutive term.

2.No elected or selected official in the federal government could run for any other federal, state, or local elected office while in office.

3.No elected or selected federal official could accept any campaign funds while in office.

4.No appropriation restricted solely to a particular state or locality may be attached to any appropriation bill, but must be voted on by itself.

As a general comment, it is not clear that a random selection of citizens who are sufficiently motivated to register to vote could do any worse that the collection of status seekers we now have in office, and I believe that the impetus to corruption, that seems to match the will to power, would be largely reduced by these measures.

These measures would go a long way toward returning a substantial amount of real power to the states, as the founders intended. This then moves an increased impetus to corruption to the state governments, which would require further action by concerned citizens at the state level.

"Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty"

John F

regulations
All regulations flow out of laws. When the law that authrizes the regulation sunsets, so do the regulations that it spawned.

houses
I believe the only thing that makes the Senate seem superior, is that they represent more people. I suppose in the past when Senators were chosen by the state legislatures, it is possible that it was more likely that Senators would be from "aristocratic" or at least politically influential families. While representatives were more likely to be from more common stock.

Under the constitution, the only difference in the power of the two chambers is that spending bills must originate in the House.

A congress of your peers
All together, a great idea. Why limit it to the house? With the current demonstration of Senate brilliance now going on using Judge Alito as a foil, I think the Senate needs a good house cleaning, too. I worry about the professional staff that would carry on regardless of the office holder. Look at the entrenched bureaucracy in State and CIA among other departments, who believe that they actually run the place and the appointees are just interlopers.

Further to the point
The great thing about a complete change every couple years is that these people won't think that they are doing something that will never effect them. The will have to go back to the real world in 2 years, and face the rath of their neighbors.

A Congress of our peers
Since a freind of mine suggested this about three years ago, I have been pondering the ins and outs of this idea.
Some of the reservation expressed by some of the respondents to this article have been the subject of many of my ponderings.

We must have some way of determining who is qualified to serve in Congress. I still think picking a name of of a hat so to speak would be an effective way of selecting people for Congress.

First we have to compensate the people we have chosen in a generous manner. This way, they won't be tempted to engage in activities of corruption, like taking bribes.
Make the term four years instead of two, but have them run each year for re-election against themselves. This way, the poeple have the opportunity to get rid of a bad
congressman. If we make the incentive a good retirement and require them to serve all four years to receive it, then it gives them added incentive to make sure they don't **** off the poeple they represent. If they don't get re-elected three times, guess what, no retirement benefits. We also have to make compensation a decision of the voters and not Congress, so they can't vote themselves compensation that the poeple think is not fair.

We also need some sort of crash course in the operation
of government for the chosen congressmen, so we at least have some competance in the people that have been chosen to serve in Congress.

It was once considered a civic duty to serve in Congress. We have gotten away from that ideal lately.
The poeple know we have a problem, and in some states have taken steps to correct the problem, only to have some judge strike down the ammendment. The only con in this argument is how to get it passed.

From all the posts I have read, we have plenty of good ideas to make this happen.

Good luck to all, and keep thinking. We all could make this happen, if we want to.

Ed Moss

A Congress of Your Peers
I have a long time had a very simular idea. mine is first the meeting place is the capitol building, but the offices are stripped down to a cot,a desk,a lamp,some chairs,small refrigerator,and hot plate. second the congressmen are drafted from their respective communities and will BE REQUIRED to serve 3 years. after such service they will be exempt from serving for no less than 4 yrs. then they get their name put right back into the pot.(any refusing to serve will be of couse be treated as a draft dodger and punished accordingly) Third we the people will of course pay for groceries and modest clothing and all office and law making equipment.
I have thoughts on the Senate as well.
Gene
Clarkdale
Ga.

This was tried already...
...sort of...for President in the last election. Park Gillespie won in what had to be the worst ever experience for Showtime.

One direct federal election
If members of the House were selected by lottery, the only directely elected official would be senators.
If the 17 Amendment were repealed, there would be no direct election of federal officials, assuming the lottery.
Another idea is to return to the land owner philosophy. Only people who pay taxes can vote.

A More Perfect Union

Coastal and agrarian states may wish to extend the franchise to marine
mammals and farm animals, as Massachusetts has done splendidly porkwise
with an
uxorious walrus in the Senate.

Money is power
He who controls the purse strings....

Additional pros
We would also have an automatic representation that is 51% female, 12% black, 12% Hispanic, etc, removing the problems of perceived inequity.

I do worry that the in-place bureaucracy will gain power, but I think this would erode over time. If it takes 20 years, that's no big problem.

New Hampshire, with its huge and low-paid legislature already has a lot of experience with a large proportion of complete meatheads in office. But interestingly, I think we've got a better state for it. No sales or income tax, always in the top five for SAT scores and HS retention rates, extremely low violent crime rates, low unemployment. We rubes up in Cow Hampshire seemed to have stumbled on a way to have good government.

Congress
I had never really considered the idea of selecting our Congressional representatives by lot, but it does sound like a pretty good idea. I agree with jfharvell's point about staggering the turnover so that half of them would have a year of experience. And I agree that safeguards would need to be enacted to prevent the congresspeople's staffs from assuming control of the office from behind the scenes.

One minor adjustment to our current system that might yield positive results, is mandatory sentencing for elected officials who get convicted of a felony. I believe that police, politicians, judges, and all other public trustees, or people in a position of public trust, if convicted of any felony, should serve a mandatory 5 years in prison in addition to, and consecutive of, the common penalty for their crime. The penalty should apply regardless of any plea agreement, if the original offense is prosecutable as a felony.

An additional enhancement to the enhancement should also be legislated, that doubles the mandatory sentence for felony convictions that result directly from an abuse of authority. I think cops, judges, politicians, etc., should be held to a higher standard, so that any feloneous act triggers the penalty enhancement, even if the crime is completely unrelated to the offender's office. But when the authority entrusted to these officials is abused during the commission of a crime, I feel the severity is considerably increased. Such acts deserve extreme punishment.

No Subject
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