Friday, September 21, 2007

Why We Should Stop Electing Congresscritters

I occasionally find myself wondering, "Is the average American as crooked and sleazy as the average member of the House and Senate?" It seems hard to imagine.

There are aspects to the political process that either favor the morally handicapped, or that cause these deficiencies. There are days that I lean towards one explanation or the other.

Many years ago, a member of the California legislature, State Senator Alan Robbins, wrote an eloquent and powerful essay from his prison cell about the corrupting effects of raising money for campaigns. I wish that I could find that essay; he talked about how very few members of the California legislature survived their first re-election campaign without being either corrupted by the need to raise huge amounts of money (bribes disguised as campaign contributions), or find themselves supporting measures of which they disapproved, because they had to make to get that money. (Here's a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that explains a little of the background on the bribes that sent Robbins to the federal slammer.)

A few years earlier, the FBI had attempted to bribe a number of members of the California legislature and had no problem getting enough evidence to prosecute a number of them. Another member of the State Senate was tried (name escapes me at the moment), and some of his remarks to the undercover agents were played. "We'll have to run this through while Rose [Vuich] is out of the Capitol. She actually reads the bills!" and "Vuich isn't for sale." This was considered a remarkable situation--that a member of the state senate was not corrupt.

The shame of being revealed as an incorruptible member of the State Senate may have been too much for he; within a few weeks of these damning comments coming out, Vuich announced that she wasn't running for re-election. (After all, who is going to contribute to your campaign once they find out that they aren't getting anything for it?)

Anyway, here's the thought: instead of electing members of Congress and the state legislatures--which creates this enormous problem of bribes that pretend to be campaign contributions--why not just pick members at random from the registered voters of the district? (If anyone was randomly picked twice in a lifetime, I would demand an audit of the random selection process--and perhaps have that person start buying lottery tickets.) It's rather like being on a jury--except the pay is better.

Yes, we would probably end up with some people that aren't too smart, or too rational. Of course, we have that already. Rep. Lynne Woolsey (D-CA), for example. But I am pretty sure we couldn't do any worse than the current crop of corrupt and stupid sorts that tend to represent us in Congress.

Random selection doesn't prevent outright bribery, of course, but neither does the current system. The only good news is that outright bribery--especially if it involves people without a lot of experience being politicians--is a lot easier to spot and prosecute than "campaign contributions" being used to buy votes. If special interests want to persuade Congress to support some cause, they either have to start with a fresh batch of House members every two years (and 1/3 of the Senators every two years), or they have to persuade the entire population, in the hopes that they will be persuading the next year's Congresscritters.

My guess is that for at least some special interests, the costs of mass persuasion will be so high that some special interests may just give up. For others, they will keep up the effort, but they will be much less successful. I'll take my chances with random selection of Congresscritters--at least the moral caliber of our representatives will be improved.

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