Reclaiming the Republic in Two Simple Steps

In the not too distant future, a young Hispanic woman will graduate from college. She may have a degree in Anthropology, Economics, or Chemical Engineering. At this point, she’ll be too young to run for a House seat, but having a desire to serve her country, she’ll get a job as a Congressional Aide. Over the course of the next few years, she’ll learn the ins and outs of the lawmaking process, observing the legislature in action performing the will of the people. Alternatively, she may go to graduate school, pursuing her field of study with an emphasis on project or research management. Either way, after she turns twenty-five, she’ll return to her hometown and say, “I want to become a Congresswoman.”

Now, her family has never had very much money. That won’t matter, because campaigning as a practice will no longer exist — all candidates will have equal time to present their views, debate their opponents, and respond to criticism. She may have an incumbent to run against, but then again, maybe not because term limits will make it as likely as not that the current representative is retiring. All she will need is the support of her family and friends, the rhetoric and oratory skills necessary to make an impression upon her community, and the critical thinking needed to dissect her opponents’ policy proposals. No matter her background, this young candidate will have as much of a shot as any other talented, capable, and motivated person of her generation. The more unrelated her degree is to politics, the better — she will bring a new and diverse perspective to the management and leadership of this nation.

The Constitutional Amendments needed to make this possibility a reality are basic and straightforward, amenable to bi-partisanship among the people even if the political parties manufacture false controversy. The first new amendment would be phrased to eliminate money and in-kind gifts through lobbying and campaign finance. Article 2 Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution states that “The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Merriam-Webster defines bribery as “the act or practice of giving or taking money or favor given or promised in order to influence the judgment or conduct of a person in a position of trust.” The proposed amendment will define campaign contributions and lobbying gifts as bribes and affirm the enforcement of the Impeachment Clause in the event of such a bribe.

The second new amendment will impose term limits upon all Congresspersons. This is even simpler, for it has direct Constitutional precedent. The Twenty-second Amendment, ratified in 1951, imposed the two-term limit upon the President of the United States. Term limits were not extended to Congress for the pure and simple reason that Congress was the body proposing the Amendment. Luckily, another method exists for proposing amendments through the states in the event that certain members of Congress “abuse their power and refuse their consent on that very account . . . to admit to amendments to correct the source of the abuse,” according to Virginia delegate Colonel George Mason in 1787. This method requires two-thirds of the states to call a national convention, at which point amendments may be proposed just as if they were put forth by Congress. Once proposed, the amendments may be ratified then and there by three-fourths of the state delegates, or they may be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures as in the normal process.

Since the turn of the Millenium, and well before that, Congress has made the need for reform appallingly obvious. Congress’s approval rating has sunk to an all-time low, and disgust with the political process has alienated the majority of citizens from voting at all. Far from comporting itself as the dignified Greco-Roman legislative body envisioned by the Founders, the House and Senate have become a greater source of gag-reel absurdities than any other American cultural institution. The major media outlets generally blame Congress’s inefficiencies and inadequacies on the opposing political party, but the true causes are much more fundamental.

Of all the disturbing trends in American Congressional politics, incumbency default does perhaps the most damage by its pervasiveness and legislative effects. Incumbency default gives rise to the phenomenon of so-called “safe seats” wherein once a candidate is elected, he has a distinct advantage in all upcoming elections, no matter how much of a buffoon he makes of himself on the evening news. Incumbency default is not new, but it has been increasing as a general rule. In 1992, 56.1% of the seats in the House of Representatives were considered safe. By 2004, 77.9% of all House seats were safe, according to Alan Wolfe. A marginal guarantee of reelection gives sitting congresspersons more license to vote for their own special interests without having to worry about negative reprisals. Even if the people a congressperson allegedly represents dislike her actions, those people will still vote to retain her if only to prevent the opposition party from gaining seats.

The most damaging ill effect of incumbency default is increasing ideological extremism. While not a new phenomenon, of course, extremism is being amplified by the electoral process. Jeffrey Ladewig of the University of Conneticut writes in the Journal of Politics that “there is reason to theorize that the change in the electoral security of members, embodied by the vanishing marginals phenomenon, may have contributed to the recent ideological polarization in the U.S. Congress.” He defines vanishing marginals as increased victory margins of incumbents. Members of Congress, he writes, abstain from voting according to their own beliefs or experience and instead vote to ensure a greater chance of reelection. Through retrospective analysis of their constituent’s reactions to past votes, the members of Congress discover that more ideologically hardline votes garner a greater margin of victory from the home district.

This vicious cycle itself is prone to a peculiar sort of corruption. According to Ladewig, “[Members of Congress] may be compensating their districts with greater levels of constituent service in order to ‘buy’ a greater degree of electoral security and ideological leeway.” In other words, if a Congressperson wants to vote his or her own conscience, that person must compensate with earmarks and pork for the home district. Paradoxical though it may seem, fundamentalism and cynicism grow hand in hand. Sometimes even this may not be enough, however. Ladewig states that “there is evidence that constituents respond to greater ideological extremism by their MC [Member of Congress] by becoming more ideologically extreme themselves.” This vicious cycle, members of Congress adopting extreme positions to ensure reelection, thereby causing their constituents to become more extreme themselves, is amplified ad absurdum when Congresspersons can hold onto their seat indefinitely. This indefinite retention is increasing over time, generating more and more opportunities for fundamentalist ideology to entrench itself. Needless to say, the simplest way to end this cycle is by imposing term limits on all members of Congress.

The issue of money in politics has gotten substantially more press in the last few years than the safe seats issue, possibly because it represents a simpler and baser form of corruption. With incumbency default on the rise, logic would dictate that campaigns become less expensive over time. In fact, the opposite holds true, in part because “in addition to raising funds for their own campaigns, [party leaders] appeared at fund-raisers for their party colleagues…over time parties put in place systems for redistributing campaign funds from safe to marginal districts,” as described by Thomas E. Mann. Of course, campaign spending is a classic arms race. As both sides up the ante, neither gains a distinct advantage, while the American public is left with a torrent of insipid political ads and a Congress that spends the majority of its time campaigning for reelection.

The buck doesn’t stop on the campaign trail, either. K Street, the infamous home of Washington D.C.’s lobbying corps, is a significant factor in elections that are allegedly taking place within the candidate’s district. Lobbyists have a much greater effect on the lawmaking process than congressperson’s own constituents as well, and aggressive lobbying is not exclusively responsible for this. Mann goes on to state that “The tendency in Congress and in the press is to think of lobbyists as victimizers and lawmakers as victims. We know, however, that the opposite is often true. The lawmakers themselves, in the zeal to raise ever increasing bundles of cash, regularly shake down lobbyists for money.” How does one “shake down” a lobbyist? Sometimes with a tire iron, but more often by promising beneficial legislation for the interests that lobbyist represents, of course, or by threatening damaging legislation if the lobbyist fails to comply.

Despite the Supreme Court’s equivocation of money with speech in the Citizen’s United decision, money serves a far different purpose than speech and is, in many ways, directly opposed to the ideals espoused by the first amendment. For one thing, if one is spending money to make one’s voice heard, that platform is by definition not “free.” Thus, allowing for unlimited spending in elections actually restricts the freedom of speech for those who lack a million-dollar microphone. Secondly, interest groups are not only spending money to bombard the voter with information, but to use psychological engineering on said voter. As Molly Wilson describes it in the Cardozo Law Review, candidates and their corporate sponsors use knowledge of cognitive bias to manipulate voters on a subconscious level. Other things being equal, the candidate who spends the most money of “strategic communication” is the most likely to win. With elections at this point open to the highest bidder, enforcing the bribery clause of the Constitution through an amendment will go a long way towards healing the electoral process.

Thousands of amendments to the Constitution have been proposed; only twenty seven have been adopted. Passing an amendment requires overwhelming popular support. Campaign finance and congressional term limitations present even greater difficulties, because they directly affect the legislature and thus the legislature will in all likelihood never vote them through. Fortunately, Article V allows the citizens of all the states to bypass Congress and propose amendments to the Constitution through a national congress of state delegates. This process has never been used before; all amendments thus far have gone through the House and the Senate. Nevertheless, the architects of our democracy showed tremendous foresight in ensuring that the foundational law of the land would not be at the mercy of one branch of government.  The framers of the Constitution empowered the states and their people to act as the final check and balance, able to reform the Federal Government when it becomes inimical to the well-being of the Republic.

With wealth no longer a prerequisite and a lifetime career in the House and Senate no longer an option, political primaries and general elections would take on a radically new aura. Campaigns would become genuinely competitive for the first time in living memory, discarding the false and ginned-up controversies of the advertising age for a serious debate over policy from all areas of public life. Like the child who gains interest once he is no longer browbeaten into doing something, voters no longer bombarded with absurd advertising would seek out information on their potential representatives. Said candidates could be anyone, from software engineers to psychology postdocs to Shakespearean actors cum English professors. The diversity of the electoral field would grow to match the diversity of the American population. Without the option of a lifetime of service, anybody could take a sabbatical from their career and go serve their country for eight or twelve years, coming back with an impressive resume item and a unique sense of accomplishment. The vote would be decided on the basis of pure merit, not wealth, nepotism, or underhanded scare tactics.

Once on the floor of the House, a representative without special interests to satisfy or a nest-egg to incubate would be able to focus exclusively on their civic duty — governing for the benefit of their fellow citizens and leaving behind a legacy to be proud of once the term expires. Here, the diversity of the campaign season would really shine. A medical doctor could weigh in on proposed cuts to Medicare and Medicaid from the standpoint of practical experience rather than parroting a lobbyist’s slideshow. A small-business owner could debate a salaried employee over the relative impact of the payroll tax. A diesel mechanic could point out inconsistencies in fuel-efficiency standards. Every one of these legislators would have personal interest at stake, it’s true, but these interests would revolve around themselves and their real world community. They would not be kowtowing to constituents–they would be fighting for fellow residents in their home district, people they had actually met and interacted with prior to the campaign season. Even honest mistakes would be vastly preferable to the cynical double-talk and pandering of the current process.

Above all, these public servants would recognize that they were not there to get reelected, and their successors would either continue their legacies or correct their mistakes. This is a principle that dates back to the Articles of Confederation, which “set limits on the number of times a person could be elected to a given office.” According to Richard Bernstein, the supporters of rotation in office wanted legislators to experience the effects of the laws they passed, and they wanted the holding of office to be a privilege based on performance rather than an institutionalized right. This principle, though latent for over two centuries, rings as true today as it did when the monarchy and the aristocracy were first driven from our shores.

We can overrule the Supreme Court’s decision on money in politics. We can overrule Congress and require them to behave themselves as public servants, not as an insular oligarchy. Perhaps most importantly, we can save ourselves from ad after obnoxious ad throughout every fourth year. When elections are not won by money, but by character and vision; when new, clearly defined and well thought out ideas can no longer be excluded by tenure and seniority, but become necessary to claim regularly available seats; when legions of diverse citizens act on the promise that the only things the Constitution requires of a representative are 25 years of age and seven years a citizen, this nation will witness a political renaissance. All of our problems will not be solved, of course. Debates will rage, ideologies will clash and morph, and the very real natural and geopolitical threats we face will not go away. All the more reason to re-establish a fair and functioning system of representative democracy, that we may stand up to and vanquish the challenges ahead.