TCS Daily


Lord It Over Us

By Jeff Durstewitz - March 16, 2007 12:00 AM

The news came with stunning force last week: After almost 800 years, the British seem likely to dispense with the traditional House of Lords (affectionately known as "the other place" on the floor of Commons). The mind reels at the image of periwigged and ermine-bedecked lords stumbling out of their ancient digs on the Thames, blinking into the harsh sunlight of a new day that holds no place for them.

Well, not to worry — the "lords," only about 12% of whom are actually hereditary nobles — probably won't have to go on the dole anytime soon. And the institution is likely to survive in some form, probably with members no longer selected but elected by the fickle masses. But is it really such a great idea to relegate the peers — or at least the idea of an upper-class upper house — to the dustbin of history? Might we not find some use for them here?

The best thing about the House of Lords — which can scrutinize legislation from the Commons and chew it into irrelevance if necessary — is that it cools passions and allows cooler heads to prevail. In part that's because the British in recent decades have availed themselves of a wider nobility — not only of birth but achievement. They've largely replaced the Lords' aristocrats with political emeriti and a peerage of the talented. These eminences, paid mostly in the coin of prestige (and free parking spaces in downtown London), can deflate the obsessions of the moment and have headed off many a bad idea. Best of all, perhaps, is that many lords are people to whom the eternal partisan wars are, either because of age or inclination, largely irrelevant. Kinder, gentler solons with relatively little skin in the political game but with the insight born of long hindsight — what a concept!

After all, one of the main problems most Americans have with Washington is that the whole place is one vast fever swamp of rabid partisanship. Even our "upper house," the members of which were once at least partially insulated from electoral passions through their selection by state legislatures, has gradually devolved into a political hothouse not terribly unlike "the other place" across the Capitol, in spirit if not in procedure. If our "lords" are no longer so good at playing the older-but-wiser role they were meant to play, why not welcome the British Lords here?

Since we already have a Senate that isn't jolly likely to abolish itself, the Lords would have to be superimposed on the government — another layer, to be sure, but one that might more than pay for itself. Suppose membership were limited to above-the-fray, mature types like ex-presidents, justices, cabinet officers, ex-CEOs, aging entrepreneurs, Nobelists, and the like — policy stars and high-octane achievers. And further suppose that our upper-upper house was given no power to originate or veto legislation but up to six months to scrutinize and debate it (except in cases of emergency). It would be like an uber-blue-ribbon commission, but with teeth (or at least sharp gums).

Would the awesomely obtuse Alternative Minimum Tax have gotten through such a tri-cameral process? How about the helter-skelter post-Katrina plan, huge giveaways for ethanol buccaneers, politically protected weapons systems or egregious earmarks? Maybe the Lords could have brokered a better plan for dealing with Baghdad, too. If the British are going to cast out the Lords, maybe we should offer them a new house — er, home — on the Potomac.


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4 Comments

A Government Role for Lords and Experts
There are a lot of “experts” in the federal GovernmentPlex. I personally admire and seek out the advice of experts. But when it comes to decision making, I believe the ultimate ideal is: EXPERTS PROPOSE AND CITIZENS DECIDE. Instead of direct citizen government, the US in based on a representative, federalist structure. I believe our current system was the best possible choice 200+ years ago. However, in this century a government “by the people” is literally the direction needed to optimize government performance. The more issues (not middlemen!) that I can directly vote on, the better I feel that I am represented. The last thing I want is more “experts” speaking for me.

Jeff...good one...
It is interesting that our two-party republic produces crop after crop of fine public servants who are well meaning and mostly moderate but who are, nevertheless, forced to do battle for the sake of our pretense at democracy. Such foolishness must start getting old as a Senator matures.

Fundamentally our leaders are all on the same side. Once past the political game these players would have a great deal to contribute as a permanent House of Peers. Maybe they would need to get through a Congressional screening process similar to that for the Supreme Court Justices.

Their role would be to rationalize legislation and to look carefully into enforcement policy. To study budgets and actual spending. To integrate the missions of departments that seem to be working at cross purposes. To field and evaluate suggestions and complaints from citizens. Their vehicle to interact with the nation would be white papers, articles, project reports and press releases.

We, of course, already have NGO's, think tanks and special commissions that do some of these same things. But their work product is always colored by the fat cats who pony up the funding or the administration that brings them together to sort something out.

This body could be initiated by the President without a Constitutional Amendment and simply funded by Congress. No line government responsibilities. Staff, advisory only. Selected for life. There is ample precident for this from the House of Lords to the College of Cardinals.

This idea is worth serious discussion.

Oh, my Lord!
What a crappy idea this time. If they did it wouldn't you also get flakes like Prince Charles in it? Also, how many Louis XVIs would crop up? Why wouldn't they become just another special interest group with lobbists kissing their asssses, just like the other politicos? Even in the UK the house of lords is useless. Last year or so they did a big study on the BBC, that organ of the government, and concluded that it was left wing, anti-american biases. But of course since they have no power, they still have the (biased-BBC). Why not the reverse instead, less power to all levels of government, less political predatory parasites? If they don't have power, they can't be so corrupt as they are now. And then you would have a freer country.

No one is "above the fray"
This is a fun idea but in my mind just sounds like more philosopher kings. It will never work, and failure is costly in that we will end up with a more complicated system.

The aloof, high minded people you describe are not going to be the ones we'd get. Anyone who has influence, will also have lobbyists vying to redirect that influence....

Look to your favorite think tanks. I do not see a way to do better than that.

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