My friend Bill Flammer and I have very different opinions on a number of political issues. But we still talk. And we are still friends.
Bill and I also agree on a number of things, most importantly wanting a good future for our grandkids. And although we disagree on significant issues regarding the Executive and Judicial Branches of government, we both share a deep disappointment in the Legislative Branch. Congress is broken.
During a recent interchange of ideas, we both bemoaned the current situation of political deadlock. Then Bill suggested a radical change to our method of selecting representatives:
Select/appoint members of The House of Representatives like we do jurors, randomly from among registered voters in each state. Members would serve one two-year term.
My initial reaction was that Bill must have gotten ahold of some of Willie’s Gold cannabis; or perhaps he had fallen under the spell of an hypnotic cult leader from an extremist unicorn protectionist sect and was now drinking some strange kind of sparkly Kool Aid.
Then I started to think about Bill’s idea.
I can see some real advantages to Bill’s idea:
There would be no elections for The House of Representatives which means…
– No money needed to “run” for office
– No need to spend time campaigning for re-election
– No congressional “districts” and, therefore, no gerrymandering
House membership would mirror the national population,which means that among the 435 randomly selected representatives we could expect that…
– 50% would likely be women
– All occupations would be represented, most importantly those not currently in the mix (e.g. waitresses, plumbers, truck drivers, care givers, Wall Mart employees, etc.)
– Approximately 49% would be white; 14% black; 26% Hispanic; 5% Asian; 5% 2+ races; & 1% Native Americans (Likely future voting age population: U.S. Census Bureau data based on persons born since 2007)
– Representatives would come from all kinds of family/living situations including those not currently represented such as: low income single parents, singles, renters, trailer park residents, public housing residents, and even the homeless
– All religions would be represented
– All ages (at least those of voting age 18+)
– All political leanings (Dems, Republicans, Libertarians, Independents, you-name-its)
Members would not “owe” anyone for their office and therefore, could be expected to be more likely to…
– Be free (or at least more likely) to “do what they believe is right”
– Reject “pork barrel” legislation
– “Look out” for their home state, but not necessarily special interests within that state
– Choose who they spend time with/listen to (i.e. provide access to)
– Draw on their unique experiences, talents, and personality
As a body, a randomly selected House of Representatives with membership that rotates every two years could be expected to provide…
– Balance to the professional politicians who control the Senate
– New blood with new ideas and perspectives every 2 years to reflect attitudes of the people
– A counter to the influence to the political parties and special interests
Currently politicians self select. Entering “The Political Arena’ is tough business and only a certain type of person with a unique ego/status/commitment combination would want to be a politician in the first place. Random selection would insure that all personality types would be represented, not just those who can “sell themselves.” Introverts and other quietly thoughtful people would be in the mix as well as outgoing or impulsive people – there would be balance. Currently campaigners are rewarded. We end up with people who have the traits of a high-pressure salesman vs the traits of a frugal purchasing agent or a wise consumer. We get smooth-talking lawyers when what we need are people with good judgment. We get wealthy and highly educated people but not necessarily people who have to daily “real world” experience.
The motives of House Members would be less likely to be questioned. Randomly selected Representatives would be fulfilling a civic obligation. They would not be fulfilling some personal goal or agenda that we citizens are unlikely to fully know. Ideally this would lead to more confidence in the institution as a whole. As a minimum, random selection would reduce the cynicism.
A random selection system would decrease the influence of the political parties. Members could, and likely would, consider party positions on various issues, but their allegiance would not be tied to any special interest or political party, it would be to the people of their state and to the country as a whole. Let’s get rid of “the aisle” altogether. If we select House members randomly, we could seat them alphabetically, by state, or failing a better system, by height, the way Bill and I were organized for dance lessons in high school.
“Hold on a minute Jim!
I happen to like my current representative and you are saying you are going to replace them with someone picked at random? What will happen to them?
What about my right to vote?
Would these people even be capable of doing the job?
If this is such a good idea for the House, why not change the Senate?”
Let me take these questions one at a time:
What happens to current members you happen to like?
Depending on where you live and your personal leanings, you may or may not feel that your representative is “looking out for you.” My guess is that for most Americans it is at best a “fifty-fifty” chance. As an institution, however, the current Gallup Poll approval rating is about 21% with 73% disapproving of the way Congress is handling its job.
With random selection it is going to be the case that not all of the representatives selected from your state will share your views. But some will, and based on the law of averages, there will be, among the 435 Representatives, many with whom you will be very happy regardless of your political leanings.
I would envision that there would be a transition period which would allow the current House members to move on to other pursuits, either political or otherwise. Yes, they would have to “change jobs” but hey, we all have been in that situation at one time or another – and they would still get their retirement.
Voting is the basic underpinning of a democratic (Majority Rule) republic (Basic Rights Guarantee) like the US. However, we don’t need to vote for everything. The founders envisioned the people selecting “representatives” to vote on the behalf of the people. (Self Promotion: For my thoughts on the importance of Voting and how we can improve the process see the post titled “Voting” on this blog.)
If random selection were enacted for the House of Representatives, we would still have plenty of ways to exercise our power to vote for politicians who directly impact our lives at all levels: The president, the Senate, governors, state elected officials, mayors and city councils, school board members, and even judges at the local level.
Clearly some of the people selected at random would not be that bright. Half in fact would be “below average” on an IQ test. Except, of course, in Minnesota where all of the children are “above average.”
Over the years I have come to understand that there are many ways in which a person’s value to society can manifest itself. Not all of “the smartest people” make good decisions. It is even more clear to me that there is no correlation between somewhat objective measurements like intelligence, education, or wealth and the values that I would hope to have myself and desperately want in someone who is representing me: honesty, integrity, kindness, sound judgment, and courage. “Good People” come in all varieties and from all backgrounds.
On one hand being a member of Congress seems like a complicated and seemingly overwhelming job. But then again, what is it that members of Congress actually have to “do”? The most important function they have is to vote on proposed legislation. This is a relatively simple binary choice: “Yea” or “Nay.”
The hard part of course is sorting through the mountain of information and legal mumbo jumbo that goes into the bill being proposed. However, this is not unlike the role that we require of jurors who also need to ultimately make a binary decision based on complex and often contradictory information. If our “peers” are capable of making life and death decisions in a trial, with help, our peers can also make important decisions about legislation.
Unlike those serving on juries, members of Congress must also deal with an onslaught of special interest and political party lobbying that would not go away even with a random selection process. They would not be expected to do this alone.
These new “drafted” lawmakers would have the same significant resources to help them do their job as do our current representatives. Each would have a Chief-of-Staff who oversees a personal staff of about 14 persons dedicated solely to them. Additionally each congressional committee has staff members who provide subject matter expertise in specific areas.
I also envision a comprehensive one-year training/orientation program to prepare the new Congress Members for their two-year term. This training program could include academic/formal training in courses like government, history, and civics. It would also include meetings and briefings by the political parties, industrial and business leaders, and local and state elected officials. Additionally, new members would receive orientation to each of the major executive departments of the Federal Government such as Defense, State, and Health and Human Services. Congress itself (the current members and staff of the House and the Senate) could provide in-depth updates on current legislation, budgeting issues, ethics, and House rules.
Any number of existing institutions/resources(e.g. Harvard Kennedy School of Government; West Point; The University of Georgia, The University of Washington, Penn State or literally hundreds of public or private institutions in every State) could be engaged develop the training program/curriculum and/or to provide the facilities needed to provide the training. This one year training period would also provide an opportunity for the new Congress Members to build working relationships with their fellow selectees. Leaders would emerge from within, just as they do naturally within any group of people.
Getting ready to be a Congress Member would certainly be a lot to swallow but there would be benefits to those selected to serve. I would see serving in the House as a three-year obligation: One year getting ready, and two years serving in the office. Pay and benefits would be the same as House members are now receiving which would include a salary of $175K/year, health and retirement benefits. As with military service members, selectees would be guaranteed their old job back upon completion of their tour of duty. One additional benefit requirement would be housing in DC. This could be handled much the same as the military does now: the government would obtain and maintain 435 residences which House members and their family could use during the time they are serving in Washington.
Why not select Senators the same way, randomly?
There are three reasons we should not select Senators randomly. The first is that with only 100 members, the law of averages would not work very well. This is particularly true at the State level where each state gets only two representatives. Random selection will result in a few “loose canons” who, in a smaller body, could be very disruptive. Secondly, the nation’s founders very clearly, and wisely I believe, wanted to provide the smaller states with some protections against being overly dominated by the larger States. This has to do with being a Republic and it is vital that citizens in all states retain this power through their vote for Senator. Thirdly, there is value in having the “long term” view that has traditionally been a hallmark of the Senate. This provides a good balance to the turnover/short-term/current view of the House. Every six years we get to decide whether to keep or discard that vision.
Are you still skeptical?
This proposal would likely require an amendment to the Constitution and it would be very difficult to get enacted. It may help to clarify the merit of this proposal and why I think it would be worth the effort if you ask yourself the following questions:
Is The House of Representatives currently doing a good job?
Does money play too big a role in who is selected?
How much time does your current representative spend getting re-elected?
What are the motives of your current member of Congress? Are you sure?
Are representatives influenced by those who provide them with financial support?
How much influence do the political parties and or lobbyists have with your current representative?
Are the current members of congress truly “representative” of the American people?
Are some categories of people currently “under represented” in Congress?
Why is the approval rating of Congress so low?
With the current system is anything likely to change for the better?
Would it be worth it to try something new?
Bill and I would appreciate your feedback on his idea (click on “Leave a Comment” at the bottom of this page). We welcome you to punch holes in the idea, but please just don’t put any holes in us.:-)