Friday, January 9, 2009

Some of the Strengths and Pitfalls of Larry Sabato’s Suggestions for Constitutional Reform

Sabato wants to have a constitutional convention to remix the constitution into an diddy which jives better with contemporary realities. To this end he proposes several changes to the current constitutional order.

I. Proposals for Changes to the Senate

I agree with Sabato’s proposal to give the ten biggest states two extra senators, and one more for each of the next 15 biggest states (p. 26). The representation of the US Senate is dismal. Sabato points out that the twenty-six smallest states form a majority in the Senate, even though they represent only 17% of the countries population (p. 25). Perhaps giving greater voice to larger states will help put a stop to programs such as corn ethanol subsidies, which bring billions of dollars to states like Ohio, Iowa, Nebraska, etc. but are damaging to the overall economy of the United States.

Sabato’s proposal to institute a system of national senators which are drawn from past presidents is not inherently bad. Presidents are elected by the public at large. They’re time spent in office uniquely qualifies them to represent the interests of the US as a whole. My problem is that these women/men are going to be comfortable with power, and may dominate the US Senate, becoming power-brokers who may undermine newly elected presidents and/or defy the popular will when it manifests itself in referendum elections which bring in new Senators. Sabato believes that since both parties will be pretty evenly represented by the national senators, power will remain stable in the Senate. However, free from the usual constraints of primary and general elections, these nationals would be free to collude, which along with their natural influence as big names with big connections, could make them more powerful than regularly elected officials; thereby allowing them to unduly disrupt popular politics. Furthermore, Sabato would give his national senators tenure for life (p. 29), but he does not explain how seniority would apply to these philosopher kings, causing me to fear an accumulation of even greater influence and power. Sabato himself recognizes this potential power of this position, he discusses the work Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter had done – reaching across party lines to work together once elector pressures were no longer a problem. He says, “the ex-presidents and vice presidents could potentially shape public opinion, making it a bit easier for senators to cast an unpopular vote in the national interest” (p. 29). Ex-presidents are likely to collude and influence, which admittedly has huge potential to do good – but the other side of that coin is a huge ability to upset the democratic process.

The basic idea, however, is sound. I would simply suggest that our national senators be excluded from seniority perks. This would ensure that the power of the national senator position is primarily one of persuasion and not one of coercion. Also, national senators should be subject to a nationwide confirmation vote – similar to the one Sabato advocates for presidents on p.88 – every 6 years. This would create an appropriate electoral check against potential abuses which this new position might incur, while still maintaining the necessary detached holistic, perspective which these representatives are meant to embody.

II. Proposals for Change to the House

In Colorado the election fervor is palpable. Their electoral votes are more hotly contested now than they have been in years. Competition has mobilized people who would otherwise have remained on the sidelines during less salient elections. Sabato is correct, competitive elections are healthy for democracy. His proposals for redistricting reform are spot on – though, less for the purpose of reducing partisanship and/or creating districts which frequently change hands, and more for the purpose of maintaining an active and relatively informed electorate. He’s unclear exactly which system of non-partisan redistricting works best. Personally, I favor computerized “minimum-split districting.” It is remarkable how little computer scientists are interested in rigging elections. Instead, an open-source program which uses complex spatio-statistical modeling to create smooth district lines while minimizing community-splitting would 1. Earn “props” to the writer, 2. Be subject to review by other programmers. Furthermore, the technology is completely within our means. Yes, let’s turn redistricting over to non-partisan commission – a non-partisan commission of computer programmers.

The 1,000 member uber-House is a poor idea. First, the House is the meant to be the more vigorous and quick moving section of our bicameral legislature, but how quickly can a 1,000 person behemoth respond to anything? The tools necessary to break road-blocks would become ineffectual due to an increase in the already tremendous task of communication. Threats and favors would be leveled en masse, but would still be ineffective in garnering the support necessary to get anything done.

Also, Congressional accountability is already a widespread problem. The remedy to the shortcomings of the House should not be a greater diffusion of responsibility through a cloud-like mass of swarming representatives. More individual accountability is needed – not less. If anything Congressional districts should be made bigger, so that they are less given to representing the anti-majoritarian peculiarities of parochial districts.

III. Balanced Budget Amendment Proposal

Sabato’s break-down of the national debt is very convincing. The fact that 9% of the Federal budget goes towards paying interest on our debts is incredibly disconcerting (p. 56). Our interest payments may eventually consume the US budget and destroy the Congress’s ability to spend money on vital activities (p. 56). To prevent this scenario, Sabato proposes a moderated Balanced Budget Amendment. This seemed at first to be an open and shut case, but ultimately by clearly explaining the disadvantages of a constitutionally mandated balanced budget Sabato – I think inadvertently – convinced me that it is a terrible idea. A balanced budget amendment would prevent the government from investing money in order to foster future growth. Sabato quotes Karen M. Paget. She says that, “the soundest fiscal policy for the federal government is simply to keep the annual increment added to the national debt below the rate of real economic growth” (p. 61). This allows the government to feed the economy with spending while simultaneously decreasing the national debt as revenues gradually increase. Also, the exigency of emergency spending during recessions and national disasters (p.65), combined with the constitutional difficulties of enforcement (p.66), would not only render such and amendment powerless, but could also erode the rule of law and our constitutional order in general. To paraphrase Hamilton in Federalist 27, social exigencies will always trump parchment promises. Contrary to Sabato’s intention, I have been convinced that a Balanced Budget amendment is the wrong way to solve our debt crises.

On the other hand I do like the possibility of using a line item veto as a method for cutting pending. Even though the actual amount of money cut when Clinton wielded it was relatively small (p. 102), such an ability would still force legislatures to justify their pork-barrel spending. I also like that presidents would be able to use this power strategically to trade pork for votes on domestic policy issues. This would strengthen a President’s ability to enact her domestic policy proposals. Specific national policy proposals are relatively well understood – Presidential elections represent an unique opportunity for citizens to debate and discuss policy. Presidents should be empowered to enact the democratic will by implementing his most important policy proposals. A line item veto would significantly increase his political capitol allowing him to get his policies instituted. Similar to a parliamentary system, these packaged to deliver policies would allow people to evaluate the effectiveness of the candidate’s policies more effectively and would allow the public to make clearer evaluations of policy innovations.

IV. Proposals for the Presidency

The disorganized candidate selection process has contributed to the ineffectiveness of the Presidential office: 1. Front-loading contributes to permanent campaigns which detract from the President’s essential responsibilities (p. 125), and 2. To secure a nominations candidates end-up over-representing the interests of a few early states such as Ohio and New Hampshire at the expense of all others (p.128-129).

To alleviate these problems Sabato suggest dividing the US into 4 large regions. Each region will hold its primaries during a single month (April – July) determined by lottery. A lottery would also select a low-population state with 4 House Members or less in order to preserve the original – walk with the people – intent of early primaries. This proposal is extremely convincing. The element of randomness and instability would uproot permanent campaigns which typically camp-out in early primary states in hopes of getting a hold-on the momentum necessary to win nomination (p. 133). Likewise, because the early states are selected randomly, candidates will be selected in a more fair and representative manner. No longer will Ohio and New Hampshire dominate the psyche of presidential hopefuls. The nomination process will be opened to other states which under the status quo receive little or no attention from Presidential hopefuls during this period.

The electoral college has the potential to create anti-majoritarian outcomes, where the winner of the popular vote loses the election. This actually happened in 2000 when Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the election (p. 137). One problem with the electoral college is the disproportionate allocation of electors. The inclusion of Senators in each states elector count, skews the vote in favor of low population states. Furthermore, the winner-take-all system allows a candidate to win several states by small majorities to win the election; even though his opponent won his states by huge margins and, thereby secured the popular vote.

Also, according to the constitution, in the case of a tie vote for president, the new president is determined by the House of Representatives. Each state selects just one representative to vote to decide the new president (p. 138). Considering how disproportionately populated states are in the US, such a selection process is likely to produce an outcome which is not shared by the majority of people who live in largely populated states. This “unit rule” is extremely undemocratic and is likely to anger a lot of people if an electoral tie for president ever occurs.

To remedy these problems Sabato first suggests increasing the size of the electoral college – allocating additional electors according to the size of the state with the biggest states getting the most electors. This would alleviate the disproportionate power of smaller states on electoral outcome. According to Sabato, such an allocation would have turned the 2000 vote away from Bush and given it to Gore – the winner of the popular vote (p. 152). However, the potential still exists for the winner of the popular vote to lose the electoral vote, if her opponent wins more electors by smaller margins. So unlike Sabato I would still prefer a straight-up national vote or else proportional versus winner-take-all selection for electors. Despite their drawbacks either system would better ensure that the will of the people is honored.

Sabato’s second proposal is much stronger. He advocates an “elimination of the unit rule in the House of Representatives” (p. 147). Instead, he beleives each House member should be allowed to cast a ballot to decide the president (p. 147). This method would be more representative of the general populous – as each allocated proportionally according to population – and are therefore much less likely to produce an anti-majoritarian outcome.

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