Should Congress Be Run Like Jury Duty?

In the last blog here you read about the prospect of requiring political officials to recuse themselves from legislation in which there may be a conflict of interest. Currently only judges recuse themselves from cases but my ultimate proposal was to require congressmen to do the same thing. Though this would be one mechanism to eliminate a fair amount of corruption in the legislative (and executive) branches of state and federal government, it is not necessarily the best way.

Recently there has been a perception that Congress is largely ineffective and incapable of passing critical and needed legislation or federal action. Though this is a problem endemic in a two party system, it is nothing new. The checks and balances of the federal system outlined in the Constitution coupled with two dominant parties produces an impasse that generally cannot be overcome. Some people believe that the dominant system requires compromise in order to accomplish anything. However, decades of compromise have left the U.S. with ineffectual and unnecessary agencies and institutions, most of which have arisen from the legislation Congress has managed to pass. The recent showdown over the budget accentuates this point. Furthermore, Congress has the responsibility to confirm federal judges and federal department heads. When they neglect or shun this responsibility, the managerial structure of the U.S. is assaulted and agencies and departments are left with leadership vacuums that make them all the more ineffectual. In the end these issues are the byproduct of partisan politics. Rather than a body of individuals who meet to discuss and pass legislation, the U.S. Congress is now an arena where the party bosses dictate what decisions their people can make and what legislation will be proposed or passed. This highly undemocratic means of running a nation is the outcome of the status quo and neither the republicans nor the democrats are willing to change it. Consequently, we know that this system of divided government is flawed and stands little chance of becoming effective short of a transition to a single party system. Of course, that prospect would represent the wishes, needs, and desires of an even smaller percentage of the population that the current regime. So, what can be done to fix this?

An elected legislature has proven to be largely incapable of meeting the needs of society. Partisan bickering prevents meaningful immediate action while frequent elections prevent coherent long term plans from materializing or being maintained at the state and national levels. Transition to a non-elected legislature holds a great deal of promise. This is not a proposal to have legislators appointed by any political body or figure. Rather, the idea here is to make service in a legislative body similar to jury duty. Anybody who has filed their taxes would be entered into a pool of people who could be selected for a term on a state or federal legislature. For example, in the state of Montana, a 90 day legislative session is held every two years. These positions are currently staffed through elections. At present, very little has been accomplished by the MT state legislature because of partisan politics. Making legislative service a civic duty staffed by random selection offers the opportunity to remove organized partisan politics from the process. The people who have found themselves with the responsibility would have no ties or obligations to an organized party in the legislature and would hopefully be able to consider legislation based on their own experience and opinion, not on the dictates of party bosses. A recent study (which I cannot find online for the life of me) studied this prospect in detail and found that a legislature by lottery would eliminate a significant amount of deadlock and corruption prolific in contemporary American politics.

What do you think?

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2 Responses to Should Congress Be Run Like Jury Duty?

  1. mw says:

    First – thanks for submitting this post to the Carnival of Divided Government. This is just a courtesy comment to let you know this post was included in the latest edition.

    That said, I know this post is just kind of a thought experiment, but regardless I thought I’d let you know where I take issue and copy some of my commentary on the post here:

    Ignoring the vanishingly small probability of anything remotely like this ever being enacted into law, Jeff appears to fundamentally misunderstand why our divided government was designed by the founders to function exactly as it does.

    Jeff complains that “An elected legislature has proven to be largely incapable of meeting the needs of society. Partisan bickering prevents meaningful immediate action while frequent elections prevent coherent long term plans from materializing or being maintained at the state and national levels”

    What is the likelihood that the policies “meeting the needs of society” that Jeff thinks is so obviously being blocked by divided government would find general agreement among the citizenry? While the policies that comprise “meeting the needs of society” are apparently obvious to Jeff, they may not be agreeable to me or anyone else. This should be patently obvious to anyone.

    The founders recognized the country was comprised of vastly different and competing interests that could never be reconciled into a single view of what comprises the “needs of society”. So they built a government architecture that give all these interests access to power, and permanently institutionalizing the ensuing argument. If we cannot agree or compromise on our collective perception of the “needs of society” – then nothing gets passed. This is by design.

    The concept and rationale for a constitutionally divided government cannot be explained any better than it was by the architect of our constitution – James Madison in Federalist #10:

    “A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and factions [special interests] in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government…

    Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary…

    The influence of factious leaders [special interests] may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.”

    Partisan polarization does not start with divided government. Divided government simply assures that everyone in our deeply divided country has a seat at the table when sweeping policies are proposed. If such a policy cannot find bipartisan support, then that policy should not be enacted into law. Divided government stops it. This is as it should be.

    • mw,
      Thanks for the comments and for including this piece on your blog. I did some more searching to find the news article that alerted me to this idea. Though I didn’t find the article I did find the study it cited. You can read about this study here
      To quickly respond to your comments, I understand the historical and political motivations for including such divisions, checks and balances into the constitution. I’m not saying they are necessarily wrong but I would say they are no longer productive given the vast changes society has experienced over the past 250 years. Furthermore, it is not my contention that sortition somehow overcomes the differing viewpoints held by the citizenry or that it would fundamentally reinterpret the constitution. Rather, as I convey in my blog, the expectation is that randomly selected legislators will vote based on their partisan viewpoints and not to meet the ambitions of unelected party bosses. Randomly selected representatives could actually do more to represent the ideals of divided government much more than the contemporary system of two hegemonic parties. If my original blog post went so far as to confuse our dysfunctional party system with the tenants of divided government, I do apologize, and want to clearly state that I do not agree with a two party system but I do support the ideas of divided government, so long as those divisions to not support the denial of rights to minority factions.

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