Tuesday, November 15, 2011

An Amateur Congress? No Thanks

Rick Perry wants an amateur Congress. Jamelle Bouie is on it:
Here’s what you would get by adopting Perry’s “reforms.” Already, congresspeople are buffeted with concerns from constituents and interest groups on a variety of policies, to say nothing of the pressure of fundraising and reelection. Absent the time to educate themselves or the staff necessary to collect information, something has to give, and more often than not, that something is independence. When lawmakers are pressed for time, resources, and cash, they’re far more likely to rely on lobbyists for information, and even written legislation. After all, of the people in or around government, lobbyists (and assorted advocates) have the most time and resources for changing the direction of policy. Professionalized legislatures aren’t perfect, but they stand as something of a bulwark to the undue influence of interest groups. Take that away, and you’ve turned Congress into an institution more porous than it already is.
Exactly correct.

The only major thing I'd add is that an amateur Congress wouldn't just mean more influence for lobbyists. It would also empower everyone else in the system, but particularly the bureaucracy, which would have much less to worry about from Congressional oversight of existing operations, and would probably have more influence on drafting bills. Moreover, it's likely that an amateur Congress would tend to write more vague and less detailed bills, which would leave more discretion to the bureaucracy (and, for that matter, to the courts).

Bottom line: if you like (representative) democracy, you should arrange for the politicians to be important within the system.

On the other hand, as a campaign move, Congress-bashing is always a winner. So who knows whether Perry in particular will survive, but Congress-bashing surely isn't going away any time soon.


  1. Heck yeah, I'd cut their pay in half, and hire twice as many congresscritters.

    Or even better, cut their pay to 20%, and hire 5 times as many. We could fire a bunch of congressional staffers, and have congresscritters doing the staff work. People would go to Washington for short term, to work on specific issues. Our budgetary priorities would revert to more traditional priorities, rather than those bought off artificially as priority.

    And those congresscritters would be closer to their constituents, by definition. The issues of the day would receive attention.

    Entitlement program spending a problem, you say? Well, we'd have to fix that, and no need to worry about incumbency holding us back, because our incumbents won't be around long.

    And yeah, 10 year terms on federal judges are long overdue. They can be reappointed after 10 years, if they're any good.

  2. Agreed, it's silly and not well thought out, but kudos to Perry for actually putting forward instutional reforms. Why didn't Obama implement or advocate for institutional reforms to our political and electoral institutions? I know lots of folks would say, well, Congress runs its own rules, and elections are mainly state concerns, but clearly Perry is capable of putting this stuff front and center in spite of all that. And while Obama can't massively reform how Congress works or how elections are run, his ability to influence these things aren't zero. So much of the populist energy, both on the left and right, is focused on institutional reform (although that word is rarely used), and yet the democratic party and Obama have both largely avoided the issue. Why is that? Will it be an issue in the 2012 elections?

  3. Well stated, Jonathan/Jamelle. I concur 100%. Populist proposals for institutional reform of the legislature --- be it lower pay, shorter sessions, term limits, fewer staff/resources, etc. --- almost always seem to suffer from the same problem: the don't accomplish populist ends, and in most cases, accomplish exactly the opposite.

  4. "And yeah, 10 year terms on federal judges are long overdue. They can be reappointed after 10 years, if they're any good."

    I assume "any good" means make decisions you favor. Just what the US needs an even more politicized court making decisions based on what will sell when their 10 year term is up.

  5. You're assuming that no term limits implies the courts aren't already politicized?

    Ah, to be young and naive again. ;-)

  6. Better young and naive than insincere and obnoxious.

  7. Right. And as we all know, any disagreement with leftist orthodoxy is obviously "insincere" and always "obnoxious". It's convenient, how that works out. Only the "correct" positions are to be given breathable air.

  8. Look at the Nebraska legislature and how it functions and you'll see a perfect example of the problems these "populist" reforms at work. It's really pretty bad.

  9. If you don't pay Congressmen, then only very rich people will be able to be Congressmen!

  10. I suspect that, for Rick Perry, a larger role for lobbyists (particularly corporate lobbyists) would be a feature, not a bug.

  11. No, Anon, any disagreement is not automatically insincere or obnoxious. But, when a person insists on calling anyone who might disagree with them a "Leftist" and "naive," well, what should that kind of behavior be called?

  12. Anonymous @ 11:50, As far as I'm concerned that's the opposite of how Congress should work. At the end of the day, the job of a legislator is to vote on things. Many different issues come before Congress, and a legislator needs to make a firm yes or no decision on all of them: whether to vote for or against the bills in question. If you only care about one issue, then you'll get to be one vote out of many on that issue, and then have all these other votes to consider whether you want to support or not. A legislator needs to be a jack of all trades.

    If you care about only one issue, then it seems like the sensible thing to do is to work from the outside. Join a think tank, develop a reasonable bill proposal, and then launch a campaign to persuade Congress to your side. Personally being in Congress only gives you one more seat than being outside Congress.

  13. I think that, with respect, Jonathan's post is ill thought-out, and Dan D's point is the correct one.

    The British Parliament in the 19th century had unpaid MPs, meaning they were drawn exclusively from those wealthy enough to devote their time unpaid. However, Parliamentary oversight of the executive was much stronger then. The Labour Party then succeeded in getting salaries for MPs, which enabled working-class people to serve in Parliament, but has made for less Parliamentary independence, more power for lobbyists and bureaucrats - exactly the opposite of the author's predictions.

    The reason is obvious - "amateurs" are more driven by their idiosyncratic wishes/beliefs/etc. They are (for better and worse) harder to corral or make fall in with the party line, and harder to manipulate with promises of advancement. It is unlikely that an unpaid Congress would result in a similar situation to that in minor state legislatures, where I agree with Bouie's points. The prestige of serving in Congress would mean that despite the lack of pay, it would be filled with politically highly motivated, wealthy people. They would likely be more of a check on the executive bureaucracy than at present, but would be even less likely to "look like America" (not that Congress is exactly representative in that sense right now).

    Whether that is a trade worth making is a matter of opinion.

  14. No, Anon, any disagreement is not automatically insincere or obnoxious. But, when a person insists on calling anyone who might disagree with them a "Leftist" and "naive," well, what should that kind of behavior be called?


    Not sure what you'd like to call it, anon, and not sure I'm concerned.

    But, I'd call those who think the current judiciary is not politicized "naive", well, because they surely are naive.

    Similarly, I'd call most on this lefty site, likely +70% of the posters on this site, as hardcore "leftist", and when they lunge to classic lefty positions, it's an easy call.

    These aren't aspersions, they're descriptors. If they sting you a bit, and you don't like those descriptors, that may be something you want to look at.

  15. In my experience in Nebraska, Anon @6:31 AM, a semi-professional legislature is more beholden to the executive and lobbyists not the other way around.

  16. Anon @6:31 AM:

    Your post reminds me of an essay by Madison (I think? One of those guys), where he says the best legislators will be the landed aristocracy, because as pure rent-collectors they have no conflicts of interest in economic policy.

    The thing is, if you want Congressmen to have extra independence from full financial security, you don't need to go with people who already have it. You just need to GIVE financial security to whoever you elect. Give them a lifetime pension at full salary after one term, and you're set.

    If you want to wipe out Madison's conflict of interest concerns, you could also ban Congressman from taking paying jobs or investments during/after their political service. They get paid a generous congressional salary and pension, and that's it.

    Personally I think this would be the best thing since publicly funded campaigns.


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