Reforming American Government

First day of classes for the new semester today; altogether very interesting. In my American Politics class, we will be ending the semester with an Oxford-Union debate with the following proposition: "RESOLVED: the American political system is illiberal, undemocratic, and in need of serious reform." As luck (or irony) would have it, I landed on the affirmative side. This is hardly my usual position, as I tend to think that the American government is reasonably effective at what it does. But I think I will have fun with this position, as it lets me try out some verrry interesting ideas for rebuilding the government.

Tonight's target: Congress!

I think we can all agree that a parliamentary system filled with blowhards who make pompous speeches that nobody cares about, votes on legislation that they haven't even read, and generally is for sale to the largest donors needs a serious overhaul. Going with the premise that the present system is undemocratic, I think we should strip Congress of most of its functions and devolve them directly onto the people. This has the decided advantage of cutting the congressional staffers out of the loop; I find it rather appalling that most of the legislation is drawn up by unelected bureaucrats, albeit at the direction of the congressmen. But how many times have staffers slipped nasty legal revisions into monstrous bills that are only discovered once they are passed, if ever?

The major functions of Congress are power of the purse, and passing Federal law. (Things like "advise and consent" or declarations of war are largely ceremonial and can safely be ignored [heh].) In an age of secure internet banking, I see no logistical reason why citizens could not be expected to vote on law or budgets on a systematic basis, remotely via secure networks.

A few minor points would have to be cleared up. There have to be some checks on the power to propose legislation, or else people will be blizzarded by millions of new bills a day. Call it legislative spam. Additionally, there would have to be rules for the length of time that a proposal would be open for debate, and then for vote. I think a month for debate followed by a few days for voting should be quite enough for the new class of savvy voters that this system would spawn. (Not everyone would vote regularly, of course; but given that voting rates for national elections are at about 50%, you could say, by extension, that the same is already true in Congress.)

Moreover, a supermajority of 67% would be necessary to pass new legislation. This is in order to safeguard against abuses of the system inherent in pure democracies, making the classic 51/49 tyranny impossible. Besides, as Heinlein noted in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, if two thirds of the country can't agree on something, is it really such a good idea in the first place?

I see a few different models for how budgeting could work:

1. Each citizen would allot his own tax payments among the various federal programs as he sees fit, being guided by the previous year's allotments, the programs' funding requests, and public lobbying for or against various programs, and his own views. This would be time-consuming, but one could also employ funding templates drawn up by policy analysts, columnists, geeks, demagogues, etc, which would be thoroughly vetted by the online community; of course, you can modify these templates as you see fit.

At all times, a running total would be visible, so that people can see serious funding imbalances and adjust their own choices accordingly.

Issues: Boring or obscure programs could get underfunded. There would be no consistent methodology for the budget, barring a consensus arising out of the open-source model. A citizen's budgetary power is directly proportional to his wealth; what about the poor? What about noncitizens who pay taxes? What about people who don't vote; what happens to their money?

2. Same as above, except tax revenues are divided equally among voters.

Issues: Straight-up income redistribution. Socialist paradise, here we come... Other issues as above.

3. Standard voting, program by program; different proposals would be considered and eliminated until one has a 67% majority.

Issues: Very tedious.

4. Standard voting, department by department, as above.

Issues: Less flexibility over individual programs. This would be counteracted, presumably, from the multiplicity of proposals, each with a different policy mix.

5. Standard voting, one whole package.

Issues: Are you kidding??

This has been quite entertaining. I'm looking forward to follow-up posts, where I'll look at other areas of civic America in need of overhaul.

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