Half-Baked Policies: Revamping the Federal Government
When I first learned about politics and government in high school, one of the most ludicrous tidbits I came across was about Congress. Despite incredibly low approval ratings, congressional re-election rates were staggeringly high. Back then (in 2010), they had about 16% approval, and an 85% incumbency win rate in the House (84% for the senate). Since, the divide has only gotten worse, with approval bottoming out around 13% and incumbency rates of 97% and 93% in 2016 for the House and senate, respectively. To put that number in context, only 13 incumbents were defeated, 3 of whom were in re-districted areas, and only 7 of those changed parties.
So there is widespread dissatisfaction, but only as a collective. In general, people seem to approve of their representative or senators, but have a poor opinion of the job that the legislative branch does, effectively deflecting blame onto everyone else's lawmakers. Voters in general display a desire to have more control over what happens in Washington D.C. And while any kind of restructuring of the existing system is a pipe dream regardless of the party in charge, there are large-scale fixes that would, if implemented, dramatically increase the overall efficiency of the system and hold lawmakers accountable to voters at the same time.
1) Increase term lengths to 3 years for the House
There are several concrete reasons why incumbents have a structural advantage – name recognition, no primary challenge, sometimes no opposition candidate, access to financial resources, party support. After all, there are 32 total members of congress who have been serving in their current seat since before I was born. But despite these advantages, it still seems ridiculous that the disparity is quite so large.
Having an election every 2 years is somewhat ridiculous, especially since the election cycle itself lasts at least 6 months (a quarter of the term). There's also a certain voter apathy, especially for those who vote in off-year midterm elections, a kind of "well my congressman really didn't do anything BAD so might as well stay the course" sentiment. The three-year term has a number of benefits: it somewhat immunizes the officeholder from making decisions out of fear of re-election (they can act on their conscience and not on votes), actually allows time for the implementation of an agenda, and actually weeds out the 'complacent' voters since the elections will almost always be detached from Presidential elections.
2) Impose Term Limits on Congress
It seems dumb that the presidency, governorship (for most states), and even some local government positions have term limits, but anyone in Congress can serve for life. There is a conflicting argument, however: longer-tenured legislators imply stability, while fresher faces bring about the possibility of change. It's specifically the low approval rates that undermine the stability argument; people usually want some kind of change (not change in the progressive sense, but rather change from the status quo). Plus, term limits free up officeholders to run free for their last two terms, more importantly allowing them to move on to new positions. Naturally you'd assume the ones that stick around for the maximum number of terms are somewhat good at their job, and likewise would be more impactful as the new voice in a different role.
So what are the actual term limits? The minimum age to be a representative is 25, and for the senate it's 30. No one should have had the same representative/senator their entire life, reach the age where they themselves can run for one of those positions, and have to run against that very person. So a representative is limited to eight terms (24 years total at three years a term) and a senator is limited to five terms (at 30 years even)
3) Directly Elect the Cabinet
As discussed on the Overrated podcast, no voter should have to decide which issues matter to them the most – they should be allowed to care about each one. Ideally, voters would be able to utilize a build-their-own-candidate kind of system, where they could specify what they wanted in terms of healthcare or foreign policy and so on. In the current system, there are a limited number of candidates, where most Democrats believe the same thing and most Republicans believe the same thing (although that might change in 2020). You might very well have liked Donald Trump's immigration stance, but not his position on the Iran Deal. And then you'd have to choose between the two.
The president chooses his cabinet, who all enact his or her vision on every aspect of American life. But people with access to and control over such vast resources should be directly chosen. Each party would put up a candidate in the general election for all the cabinet positions. The president would still retain the power to choose the Secretary of State, the Federal Reserve Chairman, the Attorney General, and the heads of intelligence agencies like the CIA and FBI. But for everything else, it would be an open election. If the president was dissatisfied with any cabinet member, he could choose to fire them halfway through the presidency, and the parties could once again field a candidate during the midterm election. This ensures that there is some measure of accountability from the cabinet to the president, but that the president would not be able to install his own people. Cabinet members would not have term limits, since it is highly unlikely they would remain in office for longer than one presidential administration.
4) Reapportion Senators
The 22 least-populous states have a *combined* population less than that of California. The nine most-populous states have a combined population greater than the remaining 41! And yet a state like Wyoming with a total population of half a million people still gets two senators. The bicameral legislature was initially conceived as a compromise between big (by population, not size) states and small states. The big states would have more of a say in the House, and the small states would have an equal say in the Senate, which made sense only in the context of fighting about the legality of slavery.
From the 2016 electoral map, the 13 most-populous states were split on Clinton and Trump by a count of 6-7. The 13 least-populous states were split 5-7 (where Maine split its electoral votes because it can do that for some reason). While a single election isn't representative of state loyalties with respect to party, it does show that in a contentious race, there is no clear alignment for big states or small states. While it was a necessary construct to bring the thirteen colonies together initially, we're far past the threat of states seceding from the union. While it's impossible to make it exactly proportional with respect to population, there can be some reconciliation.
Euler's number comes in handy here. The exponential e^x is for e=2.718, and this will set the bounds for population and representation in the senate. Any states below e^1=2.7 million people will have 1 senator. States between 2.7 million and e^2=7.4 million people will have 2, states below e^3=20.1 million people will have 3, and the rest (which is just Texas and California) will have 4. This just so happens to work out so that the total of US Senators remains the same. Considering that the states still retain a large amount of power for themselves, the small states wouldn't be hit any harder than they already are.
5) Give the Vice President the Veto
Considering that the vice presidency is largely ceremonial, it might be worth giving him something to do. It's rare that the vice president would actually use this in a way that would contradict the president's position, since they are of course elected on the same ticket. It would also be a unifying force for a party during an election – even if Bernie Sanders had been on the ticket as Hillary Clinton's vice president, it's unlikely that Sanders' contingent would have come out to vote. They would have recognized that it was a symbolic move, as Sanders would be far more effective in the Senate or in a cabinet position. However, if Sanders had the veto power, it would have given the progressive wing of the party reassurance that there would be a check on laws that weren't to their liking.
6) Get rid of Committees
There are 21 committees in each the House and the Senate. There are committees like Narcotics Control, Homeland Security, Financial Services, Education, and Space. Unfortunately, its members (and even its chairs) do not have any background or specialized knowledge of what function their committee serves, but would rather be expected to develop knowledge on the job. The chair of the Space, Science, and Technology (which, by the way, should not all be one thing) committee in the House is Lamar Smith, who is a career lawyer and a global warming denier. Standing committees should be eradicated entirely, and only special committees – called by the Senate Majority Leader or Speaker of the House – should be used. Once the president indicates that legislation should be drafted around a certain topic, the leadership for each party would decide which of their members can serve on the committee for that bill. No committee chairs would exist.
7) Confine Legislation to a Single Sector
Legislation infamously contains amendments and provisions far beyond the scope of its initial intention, usually to gain favor with a particular congressman and their vote. While it's not foolproof, this can be curtailed by only allowing for changes in laws to certain sectors of the economy. These categories would be those in the federal budget – military, government, education, health, veterans, housing, international affairs, energy & environment, science, labor, transportation, and agriculture. If a bill needed to take away money from something in another sector to fund itself, a separate bill would have to be passed to first reduce spending in that area. This would especially ensure that funding could not be unceremoniously stripped, as that bill would be judged on its own merits, separate from whatever the money was being diverted to. Moreover, voters would be able to see exactly where their congressperson's priorities lie.
While there's a fair amount that the founding fathers got right during their late-night writing sessions, there is plenty that they didn't (and couldn't) forsee. Two-hundred years into the American experiment, it's okay to admit that the reason things aren't working isn't necessarily because of the people, but because of the structure they're placed in. Perhaps one day, ideas like these will be far more than just experiments of thought.