Giving Immunity Necklaces to Legislators

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:30 pm, August 31st, 2013

I enjoy following politics, and enjoy looking back at old journal entries about political issues, but I also try to avoid writing too much about politics in this journal since it’s a subject that tends to evoke a visceral reaction in a lot of people. People have strong opinions on a lot of subjects, but politics and religion seem to be the two subjects where differences of opinion too often lead to arguments rather than discussions.

That caveat aside, this journal entry is a hopefully non-controversial, and very random, brainstorm of one possible way to address the fact that Congress seems to be making a mess of things. It’s not really a viable solution, but is a fun thought experiment that might generate further (civil) discussion on how to improve the current system.

Some background

The upcoming deadlines for passing a budget (important!) and raising the debt limit (much, much, MUCH more important!) are two highly visible instances where Congress seems to be unable to do even its most basic job. After reading this Josh Barro article I’m not as worried that Congress will fail to raise the debt limit and thus plunge us back into economic chaos similar to 2008, but the fact that one has to worry whether the US government will endanger the US economy is a sign of significant problems with the current system. Our Congress should be an example of the best and brightest minds coming together to do great things, rather than a collection of angry people fighting with one another while barely managing to keep the system functional.

As an engineer, any time there is a problem I wonder how it could be fixed. Following standard engineering practices, the first thing to do is to identify the primary source of the problem. After not-nearly-enough thought, I would posit that the US Constitution did a great job of building in checks and balances to our system of government, but it failed to account for political parties, much less a two-party system that incentivizes “supporting the team” over focusing on the merits of specific issues. There are other issues (money in politics, difficulties in scaling representative democracy for a nation that has grown hundreds of times larger, etc), but a very strong argument can be made that it is the tribalism of the two-party system that is most often the impediment to a smooth-running legislative process.

The Ryan Plan

To solve this issue, some reward would need to be introduced to ensure that the most effective, respected lawmakers are focused first and foremost on making the government run well, and that they are rewarded more for being good legislators than they are for being good party members. Note that while elections are supposed to fulfill that purpose, unfortunately our system is heavily impacted by voter apathy, the influence of money, name recognition, and other factors that have little to do with a legislator’s competency. Since the premise of this journal entry is that any option is open for discussion, and reminding anyone still reading that I haven’t had a ton of time to think this through, I offer a plan that allows the best legislators to face re-election less often. This plan is very loosely inspired by another dysfunctional tribal system: that of the TV show Survivor.

Proceeding from the premise that the incentives for lawmakers are too far skewed towards promoting their party interests, any solution must provide an even greater incentive for putting aside party interests in cases where they conflict with the national interests. Since politicians are most interested in their own re-election, why not take a page out of Survivor and its “immunity” challenges and reward the most effective lawmakers with another term without having to face re-election? In both Congress and Survivor, what individuals fear most is being voted off the island, and thus immunity from ejection is the biggest incentive one can possibly offer.

How it would work:

First, some broad principles. This proposal should be created in a way that ensures legislators still have to go before voters, but it would allow the most effective legislators to do so less often. Second, it needs to be structured in such a way that “most effective” really does mean legislators who do the best job of legislating, rather than simply rewarding those with the longest tenure or highest party rank; in the same way that rankings are developed for schools, doctors, and myriad other things, we should be able to identify and reward the best lawmakers. With those disclaimers out of the way, here are some rough thoughts on how this proposal could work:

  • Each election cycle a non-partisan office (similar to the CBO) would be responsible for creating a nomination list of the most effective legislators, with the list to include 30% of the legislators up for re-election, divided in proportion to party. As an example, for the 2014 election that would mean:
      Democrats up for re-election Democrats to be nominated Republicans up for re-election Republicans to be nominated
    House 201 201 * 0.3 = 60 234 234 * 0.3 = 70
    Senate 21 21 * 0.3 = 6 14 14 * 0.3 = 4

    Factors to consider when developing this list might include things like the legislator’s effectiveness in passing legislation, the legislator’s approval ratings in their district, their ability to find innovative solutions to legislative problems, etc.

  • From those candidates identified by the non-partisan office, each house of Congress would then be responsible for narrowing down the list by a further one-third (representing 20% of the legislators up for re-election), again in proportion to party.
      Democrats up for re-election Democrats exempt from re-election Republicans up for re-election Republicans exempt from re-election
    House 201 201 * 0.2 = 40 234 234 * 0.2 = 46
    Senate 21 21 * 0.2 = 4 14 14 * 0.2 = 3

    The final list would need to be a compromise arrived at by both parties, and would need to pass with a two-thirds majority to ensure there was broad support from both parties. This process would ensure that the parties still had some say in approving or rejecting individuals that were of particular interest.

  • A Senator could not be exempt from re-election for two election cycles in a row, so even the best Senator would still have to face re-election each twelve years. A House member could not be exempt from re-election for three election cycles in a row, so a stellar House member would still face re-election every six years.
  • A recall process could be set up for cases where voters in a district were unhappy with this process, although the need for a recall should be very, very rare if the non-partisan office did its job correctly.

There are clear holes in this proposal, and the logistical challenges of trying to implement it make it almost impossible – a Constitutional amendment would be needed, and undoubtedly groups would complain about reducing the “voice of the people” – but if it was implemented it would lessen the reward for legislators who merely complain the loudest, and give legislators a chance to actually earn re-election by building coalitions to get solutions implemented. As a side benefit, the best legislators would need to spend less time fundraising and campaigning, and could instead focus on doing their jobs as lawmakers. With less need to focus on fundraising, this approach might also help to address some of the issues related to money in politics, although any such impact would likely be limited and would probably be better addressed via legislation.

This proposal is just a random idea that occurred to me while trying to come up with a third journal entry topic, and was a fun way to engage in political discussion while (hopefully) not offending anyone’s sensibilities. I’d be interested in other crazy ideas that people might have, and will offer two bonus points for anyone who can link their idea with a popular TV show or movie, or three bonus points if the movie is Forrest Gump. Meanwhile, unless October comes and the debt ceiling isn’t raised, this should be my last political post for a while and I’ll return to writing journal entries about bobcats and Steve Martin.

4 Responses to “Giving Immunity Necklaces to Legislators”

  1. If You Spew Spew In This says:

    You clearly got all the brains in the family. This is raw genius.

    • ryan says:

      Those are both excellent points, but I sense some sarcasm. The immunity necklace idea will work. Guaranteed. In ten years time we’d have the budget problems solved and there wouldn’t be a pothole for miles.

  2. Mom says:

    Where are your trip pictures?
    Anxiously awaiting!
    Love,
    Mom

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