Improving Democracy

It’s amazing how our democracy is universally praised and revered, yet our democratic government is distrusted and maligned.  Cynicism towards elected officials is epidemic, and understandable.  Neither campaign finance reform, presidential line-item vetoes nor term limits were strong enough medicine.  We need to do more to restore our citizens’ trust in government.  Here are some additional ideas.

If this is “a government of the people,” then shouldn’t only people—breathing humans—be able to influence it?  Why should a company, a labor union, church group or any self-serving organization be allowed to spend money on candidates or lobbyists?  We need a constitutional amendment that says something like “…only eligible voters, and organizations whose only purpose is to represent eligible voters, shall contribute anything, directly or indirectly, for or against the election of a candidate or cause, or for or against any legislation.”  In other words, if Bill Gates wants to lobby Congress, fine, but it must be with his money on his time.  If the NRA or NOW wants to donate campaign funds, okay, but it must stop all other services for its members.

Supreme Court Justices are appointed for life.  As a result some presidents appoint no justices while others appoint several.  Such an erratic system not only causes angst among those not in power, but also balloons the influence of some presidents.  It would be more sensible if every presidential term came with the power to appoint one justice to replace the most senior court member.  With one of nine justices appointed every four years, the maximum stay would be 36 years, certainly long enough.  Additional justices could be appointed because of death or retirement.

The U. S. Congress has a well-earned reputation of legislative hanky-panky.  They not only hide things in “omnibus bills” but also pollute bills with obscure amendments, pork barreling, and non-germane language.  Such schemes are a boon for lawyers and a bane for everyone else.  In Michigan, the State Constitution effectively constrains the legislature on how laws may be written (see note below).  Putting the same constraints on how Congress introduces and amends bills is long overdue.

gerrymandering

Tisdale's original Gerrymander

Boston Gazette, March 26, 1812

Every ten years, in the various states, the party in power controls how the legislature is to be reapportioned.  Usually it does to its advantage by employing geographical geniuses to optimize the redistricting in their favor—often producing districts that look like Tisdale’s original Gerrymander drawing.  Why not allow any group to submit an apportionment plan that abides by population rules; then mandate that the plan with fewest total boundary angles and curves (excluding natural features like rivers) must be accepted?  That law itself would cause partisan experts to produce simpler reapportionment plans.

Some elected officials don’t mind giving themselves a raise while others are embarrassed by it.  Unfortunately the public, though railing against such raises, rarely remembers them come election time.  We need a constitutional amendment saying:  “An elected official shall receive compensation and benefits no greater than that in effect when the person took office for that term.”  In other words, raises while in office apply to the next occupant.

Surely these ideas could be refined and perfected.  The point is these kinds of ideas will not only improve government, but maybe even stem the cynicism growing among eligible voters.  However, my own cynicism tells me that maybe we are no longer “a government of the people.”

Note: Article IV of the Constitution of the State of Michigan—Sec. 24.  No law shall embrace more than one object, which shall be expressed in its title.  No bill shall be altered or amended on its passage through either house so as to change its original purpose as determined by its total content and not alone by its title.  Sec. 25.  No law shall be revised, altered or amended by reference to its title only.  The section or sections of the act altered or amended shall be re-enacted and published at length.  Sec. 26.  No bill shall be passed or become a law at any regular session of the legislature until it has been printed or reproduced and in the possession of each house for at least five days.  Every bill shall be read three times in each house before the final passage thereof.  No bill shall become a law without the concurrence of a majority of the members elected to and serving in each house.  On the final passage of bills, the votes and names of the members voting thereon shall be entered in the journal.