Sunday, August 24, 2008

Political Reforms, Good & Bad

----- Congressional candidate Alexander (Sandy) Treadwell distributed to news media recently (8/12) what his office billed as “a major reform package designed to add greater accountability and fiscal responsibility to Congress.” The message from Treadwell headquarters did not say when, where, or to whom the candidate delivered his reform package. Those omissions signaled to recipients that the words billed in news-story form as what Mr Treadwell “said,” words couched in direct quotations and ostensible paraphrases, were not actually voiced to actual auditors. Editors and news directors who received the message, all over the 20th Congressional District, discarded it.

------- The only exception was a TimesUnion blog item. That item’s author sketched Mr Treadwell’s proposals in a sentence. He also briefly reported a response in which a spokesperson for the Representative that Mr Treadwell is trying to unseat, Kirsten Gillibrand, cited her boss’s leadership in promoting transparency and accountability. The journalist also voiced an opinion whose terms (and tone) may account for the paucity of Press attention: “As with sunshine and butterflies, it's pretty tough to take issue with this stuff.” Maybe that estimate prevails among news professionals. If so, it is gullible, and the policy it sustains--spiking such “stuff”--is grossly irresponsible. The changes advocated by Mr Treadwell are not trivial. Their circulation offers an suitable occasion for thought about desirable ends and effective means. As it happens, some measures in the Treadwell package would yield gains for responsive governance, while others would be sabotage. Between diagnosis and suggested treatments, there is a disconnect.


------- As matters stand, says Mr Treadwell, “People view Washington as a distant, closed-door institution that pushes a political agenda of self-promotion instead of policies that address our needs.” Change is needed so as to rebuild people’s trust in Congress,” to “open up Congress to greater public scrutiny,” “to strip away some of the perks that do not promote good government” and to “make our representatives more responsive to taxpayers.”


------- Citing that diagnosis and those values, Mr Treadwell prescribes these changes in “the way our government does business”:

Term limits: a constitutional amendment to limit members of the House of Representatives to four terms (eight years) and Senators to two terms (12 years)….

Earmark Moratorium: a one-year moratorium will provide an opportunity for a thorough review and overhaul of pork barrel spending programs to increase transparency, prevent corruption, and ensure that these federal projects are worthy of taxpayer funding.

Franking Disclosure: this would require all taxpayer-financed mailings to list the cost for creating, printing, and distributing the mailer, ensuring that constituents know how their tax dollars are being spent. Being able to send out taxpayer-funded mailing is a privilege and greater transparency will help to ensure that this privilege is not misused.

Mandatory online posting of Congressional office budgets: The public should have access to how much their federal representative is spending on his/her office and a detailed listing of those expenditures. With each of the 435 members of the House allocated at least $1.1 million for office expenditures, taxpayers have a right to know how this money is being spent.

Accountability in Government Hiring and Promotion Practices: Taxpayers should have access to a user-friendly, easily searchable database that lists the salaries of all political appointees on the federal government payroll. The database would include salary, job title, and office of employment for each appointee. In addition, all members of Congress should be required to disclose family members who gained employment in a government position following the member’s election to Congress and also [sic] any promotions or salary adjustments of these employees if it [sic] was not gained through a promotional examination or collective bargaining.

Lobbying: The perception of lobbyist influence clouds government at all levels and Congress should take action to address perceived conflicts of interest and real influence peddling. [To that end:] ----- Elimination of the Revolving Door: the House should adopt Senate rules to end the “revolving door” culture in Washington. This includes: a two-year period during which former House members will be prohibited from lobbying Congress; an expanded one-year period during which former senior House staffers are prohibited from lobbying all House staffers, not just former co-workers; and a new one-year period that would prohibit any House staffer from lobbying his or her former office of employment. ----- Tougher Regulation on Family Member Lobbying: both the House and Senate should toughen their rules to ban all immediate family members of House representatives from lobbying a House staffer and all immediate family members of Senators from lobbying any Senate staffers. ----- Additional Disclosure: all members of Congress should be required to disclose information on their office website pertaining to any immediate family member or former staffer who is registered to lobby at the federal, state, or local level. In addition, the site would also list all lobbying clients of immediate family members or former staffs that merit disclosure under federal, state, or local laws.


------- Most admirable about Mr Treadwell’s reform package is recognition of an authentic, serious problem: the incumbency edge. Various conditions help elected legislators to entrench themselves in office without giving faithful service to constituents. Some of the enabling conditions relate to ignorant, inattentive, overly partisan constituents. Some relate to journalistic sloth. Some stem from system-rigging.

When a candidate wins election to legislative office, she instantly joins a secret society: The Incumbents Gang. Members of the gang, while being Republicans and Democrats and in other ways antagonistic, are not direct political foes. All have a common interest—staying in office—and success for one does not bring failure for another. All are inclined, then, to welcome insulating, comfort-giving arrangements: generous salaries and benefits (seldom publicized), hefty allowances for staff and office expenses, easy-to-evade rules about using taxpayers’ resources for campaigning, ready access to lobbyists’ campaign donations, discretionary grant-making authority (earmarks; member items), toleration of ethical lapses, safe districts.

Several measures in Mr Treadwell’s package would mitigate conditions that enable incumbents to stay in office without doing diligent representation. Those measures would make the activities of incumbents more visible to outsiders. They would curb some competitive advantages that incumbents enjoy, at public expense, over challengers.


------- The bad item in Mr Treadwell’s package is the first one: Term Limits.

------- Imposing mandatory limits on the number of terms that an individual can hold an elective office has become quite a popular reformist nostrum. It is the rule now, in slightly varying forms, for governors in 35 States and for legislators in about 16 States, as well as for many mayors and city councils. If its promised benefits have eventuated, however, the word has not gotten around. Meanwhile, its partisans make their ‘case’ without reference to experience, and they ignore its obvious causal implications.

A moment’s reflection can serve to indicate that Term Limits rules subvert the effectiveness of the other reform measures with which they have been coupled. Term Limits do not foster transparency or accountability. Instead of mitigating the unfair advantages that go with incumbency, they turn incumbency into a fatal handicap. In doing so they work against the cause of responsive governance. Here’s how.

*Lost choices for voters. Under Term Limits, eligibility to stand for elective office is restricted legally not only by age, place of residence and nationality but also by vocational history. (With regard to U.S. Representatives and Senators, the Supreme Court has ruled, by five votes to four, that the additional requirement can only be imposed by way of Constitutional amendment). Excluded from eligibility under Term Limits are candidates who have acquired more than a mite of on-the-job training. Under Term Limits, voters cannot keep in office an individual who, in their judgment, has done a good job.

*Lost incentives for contestants. Thanks to Term Limits, then, elected representatives are liberated from incentives to work hard and effectively for their electors. In large measure they would be free of the discipline that goes with being, of all things, elected representatives. Since Senator Jones can’t be re-elected (after a term or two or three) he would be foolish to go to the trouble, the heavy labor, of learning what his constituents want and how, through well designed legislation and carefully cultivated alliances plus administrative know-how, to meet their needs. He gets no pay-off from being a remedy finder and a people pleaser.

------- When he cannot be re-elected after a prescribed few years in office, how is an incumbent likely to behave? Mr Treadwell argues glibly that Term Limits “would shift the focus in Congress from constant re-election campaigning to public service.” That causal proposition is a crude way of acknowledging that under Term Limits, elected representatives would be emancipated from popular control. It is an oblique way of treating that emancipation as a blessing. It also exemplifies, and it cultivates, psycho-political naïveté.

Freed from the special discipline that goes with being an elected representative, an office-holder might indeed devote herself single-mindedly to “public service.” She could adhere righteously, paternalistically, to an internalized concept of The Right Thing, regardless of public or collegial opinion. She also could focus on private service. She could join colleagues in fattening the salaries, the pensions, and the other perquisites that go with public office. She could draw the pay and the perks while doing private business or just loafing. She could devote herself to the “public service” of a corporation or lobbying firm that offers lucrative employment at the end of his short political career. She would surely behave in light of the knowledge that quality of service to voters cannot affect tenure in office; she is going to be forced out anyway.


------- On this showing, Term Limits should be purged from any package of reforms that is aimed at improving the quality, the responsiveness, of governance by elected representatives. Other reforms on Mr Treadwell’s list would be therapeutic. But there is a conspicuous omission. (It is a particularly surprising omission, given Mr Treadwell’s experience as a State Secretary and Republican Party State Chairman).

------- Absent from the Treadwell package is recognition of one of the Incumbent Gang’s heavy weapons: control over drawing their own electoral districts’ boundaries. Those boundaries must be re-drawn periodically, in keeping with laws prescribing that for seats in the House of Representatives and in lower houses of State legislatures, district populations must be approximately equal. Authority to re-draw the boundaries reposes in State legislators. The members are obliged to draw district lines that are contiguous and compact territorially and that take account of local (county, municipal) boundaries. Within those constraints, they are free to suit themselves. And what suits them primarily is job security.

Their security of tenure depends on the party-political leanings of voters. A constituency is safe for a sitting Republicrat to the extent that a comfortable majority or plurality of her constituents are Republicrats. All incumbents are safe, accordingly, to the extent that in each district the voters, by a lop-sided majority or plurality, favor one party or another.

Efforts to give every incumbent a safe district are hampered by those pesky rules about numbers, contiguity, compactness and municipal boundaries. They are hampered too by a competing value: making life safe for the reigning party’s incumbents. But the two values can reconciled (as they often are in practice) by resort to the Sacrificial Lamb device: redrawing boundaries so that one or two junior members of the minority party lose seats while the other incumbents, of both parties, stay safe.

------- This venerable counter-democratic practice can be stopped. The solution consists of taking the power to re-draw the boundaries of legislative districts away from sitting legislators and assigning it to a Blue Ribbon commission. The commissioners would be instructed to pay heed to populations, contiguity, compactness and municipal boundary lines, while ignoring party registrations and previous election returns.

------- For the cause of responsive governance, that reform would surely be salutary. It also is practicable. Its adoption depends on popular support, which in turn depends on candidates’ pledges. If it were added to Mr Treadwell’s list, with Term Limits being deleted, voters would be offered a reform package that is worthy of support.

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