Going to hell #7: a different way to choose the Congress

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Previously here; "going to hell" article here. Many correspondents have argued, as I did in my original article, that something basic in the structure of government has made it hard or impossible for national officials to concentrate on real national problems. (As opposed to score-settling, posturing, fund-raising, and so on.)

Sol Erdman, of the non-partisan Center for Collaborate Democracy, and his colleague Lawrence Susskind of MIT, wrote in with a proposal to change the nature of Congress by changing the way Congressmen are elected. Before you ask: they argue that the changes they propose would not require a Constitutional Amendment, and therefore are in the realm of "things that could actually be done."

Their whole paper is now online as a PDF here. It is long but worth reading. A few representative quotes:

What's wrong with Congress now (may sound familiar, but stay tuned...)

"U.S. elections are organized in such a way that each lawmaker gets powerful incentives to act against the public interest. To begin with, a typical member of Congress can win reelection just by convincing a majority of his or her district's voters that the other party is more untrustworthy, incompetent or corrupt than his own. And any politician knows how to make that case in graphic terms that voters can easily grasp.

"Voters today have equally perverse incentives. That is, in each congressional district, every voter -- every young single, middle- aged parent, senior citizen, truck driver, teacher, salesperson, lawyer, business owner, conservative, liberal and moderate -- has to share the same representative. These diverse groups of district residents have distinct -- often opposing -- needs, values and political beliefs.... So, if a member of Congress advocates a detailed solution to a controversial issue, several large blocs of voters in his or her district are likely to oppose his stand, perhaps even enough to want to throw him out of office. The typical lawmaker therefore avoids proposing real solutions to the most controversial issues.

The behavior current incentives reward:

"The members of Congress have found that there are far safer ways to stay in office [than dealing with the nation's real problems]. The safest tactics include:

"1) Reducing hard issues to simple slogans.
"2) Passing measures that seem to address major problems but which put off the hard decisions into the future.
"3) Blaming the country's direst problems on the other political party.

"These strategies succeed so often because of how congressional elections are organized today. Typically, one Republican competes against one Democrat for each district's House seat. Any lawmaker can therefore stay in office just by convincing most voters that the other party is more incompetent than his own."

Could a change in Congressional election procedure be Constitutional?

"Fortunately, the Constitution doesn't require that members of the House represent districts. The Constitution doesn't even mention districts. It lets each state decide how to elect its own Representatives, with Congress having the right to supersede the states' decisions."

More in their paper, including an elaboration of a new election system they have in mind. Worth checking out.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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