Tag Archives: term limits

Legislative Duty

Classical Democracy

Classical Democracy

As we get ready to swear in the new 114th Congress, let’s take a few minutes to think about the system of government we have established and how well it has been working. Some of you are probably happy about the change in control of the House of Representatives, but all things considered, not much has really changed in terms of who runs the US government.

The American Revolution was a watermark in human history as our founding fathers effectively began a great human experiment with a new form of democracy. The implementation of separation of powers and checks and balances in the form of executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, were not the only innovations. The establishment of the trial by jury system was not only a symbol of democracy, but a superb solution to the problem of crime and punishment. It had been evolving over time as a part of English common law as well as jury systems in other parts Europe and elsewhere. They jury system was widely believed to work much better than the old systems of relying on a cadre of professional judges or a king and his ministers, to make decisions on civil or criminal matters.

Approval Rate of Congress

Approval Rate of Congress

The creation of our elective system of representation was innovative, but not necessarily as democratic as we think or as effective as our founding fathers might have hoped. It turns out that we have seen our elective system turn into one where the vast majority of incumbent politicians are re-elected year after year, even though the public opinion of their performance is extremely low. Our politicians are widely believed to be beholden to special interests and focused mainly on getting re-elected by avoiding hard decisions because the necessary solutions may be unpopular. Most legislators are millionaires and/or attorneys who are simply not a representative cross-section of the country. Congress has developed a culture of corruption.

Many have considered ways to make the system better, to no avail. Campaign finance reform has proven to be an ineffective joke, since the 1st Amendment, which guarantees our freedom of speech, effectively prevents any limit on campaign activities. Even our founding fathers debated the usefulness of term limits, but declined to write them into the Constitution. Many states and local governments have implemented term limits, but it does not seem to have helped to change the nature of politics. I wasn’t sure there really could be any solution that would result in a body of leaders more committed to serving the country than to their own personal self interests.

Trial by Jury System

Trial by Jury System

Then, a thought hit me. I wondered if we could just replace our current system for one that might even be considered more democratic and effective—one based on the jury system. Just think about what would happen if ordinary citizens were given the chance to serve in the state legislatures and Congress for a limited period of time. No professional politicians, just a cross-section of citizens from all over the country. Could they really do worse than the current elected officials we pay to do the job and to stay in office virtually for life?

I know what you are thinking. What fool would put his life and the future of his country in the hands of a bunch of ordinary idiots? To that, I respond, what fool would put his life and the future of his country in the hands of a bunch of highly-paid, power-hungry, idiots?

Are juries elected? No. Do they possess any special knowledge or expertise that ordinary citizens do not? No. Are they easily corrupted? No. Are they easily fooled? Maybe, but I’d rather take a chance with a well-meaning jury than a corrupt one. Besides, if the pool of people making the decisions is diverse and large enough, it is likely that the collective decisions will be even better than those made by an elite pool of professional politicians. I think that 100 senators and 435 representatives are enough to provide the required diversity and knowledge.

Wisdom of Crowds

Wisdom of Crowds

In the book “The Wisdom of Crowds,” James Surowiecki discusses many cases in which groups of ordinary people with limited knowledge can, collectively, make better decisions than experts. And those studies were comparing experts who were honestly trying to make the best decision they could, not corrupt ones trying to serve their own self interest, so I would expect the comparative results to be even better.

After coming up with what I thought would be a great new idea, I discovered that I was, in fact, several thousand years behind the first democratic thinkers. Yes, the citizens of the first known democracy, the ancient Greek city state of Athens, had a system that worked in just this way.

In the cities of Ancient Greece, the Boule was a council of citizens appointed to run the daily affairs of the city. It’s origin was from the council of nobles that advised a king, but boules evolved differently according to the constitution of the city. In a democracy such as Athens, members were typically chosen by lot and served for only one year. Little is known about the workings of many boulai (plural of boule), except in the case of Athens, for which extensive material has survived.

Athenian Assembly

Athenian Assembly

An Athenian Boule was a randomly-selected 500-citizen council similar to a grand jury or citizens’ assembly. Any citizen had the right to propose initiatives and the Boule decided which issues were important enough to be on the agenda. This was followed by a majority vote of the entire electorate. This is the origin of the Athenian initiatives system, which they considered the incorruptible cornerstone of their democracy. In ancient Athens, the Council of Five Hundred operated for 180 years. Archeologists did not discover critical Greek texts describing this until 100 years after the Founding Fathers wrote the US Constitution.

Today, we live in a society a tad larger than an ancient Greek city state, so one would expect some slight modifications to their system. Interestingly, however, our Congress consists of 535 members, which is already almost the same size to an Athenian Boule. So, here is a blueprint for how it could work, although I’m certainly open to suggestions. If and when I manage to buy an island and start a new country, or maybe sign up to establish the first Mars Colony with Elon Musk, I’ll be sure to try out a Boule system.

Any citizen at least 25 years old, without a criminal felony record, would be able to submit his name into a pool for legislative duty, which would last for only two years with no chance for a second term. Legislators would be paid a very good, but not exorbitant, salary of about $150,000 and would be provided free temporary housing near the state or national capital where they will be working. No pension, no special gold-plated benefits, and no chance of ever becoming a lobbyist. Legislators would have to sign a contract agreeing not to accept any contributions or gifts from anyone or to accept any post-employment job offers or other benefits.

Chicago Election by Lottery

Chicago Election by Lottery

Two weeks before the election, five people for each available legislative spot would be chosen via a lottery. This is the essence of the jury system, but without the vetting process available to prosecution and defense attorneys. I had considered allowing the political parties to approve or disapprove of some candidates until they had an agreed-upon group, but figured that would just invite corruption and mediocrity into the system. So, to ensure there are sufficient checks and balances to the system, the lottery winners would simply undergo a criminal background check and be put up for public election. Each person would be encouraged to publicly declare his or her political party affiliation, if any, to state their position on any issues of interest, and participate in any debates.

Since our current single-vote system does not work well for elections with more than two popular candidates, we should probably use a rank-ordering voting system. Instead of just voting for one candidate, voters would list all the candidates in their order of preference. The candidates with the fewest number of #1 position votes would get eliminated, and the votes cast for them would be replaced with the voter’s #2 choice. This would continue until one candidate had a majority of the votes.

The role of political parties would be limited, during the elections, to something more like a lobby trying to promote their preferred candidates. After the election, the legislators would be free to join any party of their choice, or to create their own new party from other like-minded legislators.

The selection and election system would be simple, quick, and mostly random, but the resulting legislature as a whole should consist of a more representative body with a more diverse group of backgrounds, knowledge and experience than we have today. In other words, it would be a more democratic, and hopefully less corrupt, group of representatives.

American Idol SMS Voting

American Idol SMS Voting

X-Factor Voting

X-Factor Voting

Furthermore, we should establish a national electronic voting and polling system to enable these representatives to put important questions up for national vote, or to take local polls to get a sense of their local area’s public opinion. Maybe this would help to turn around the low and falling voting participation rate in this country. I suspect that more people now vote in TV talent shows like American Idol or the X-Factor than vote in US national elections.

Some groups have already been trying to propose the establishment of a boule system. Is it likely to be implemented, considering that constitutional amendments must be approved by Congress or three fourths of state legislatures? Of course not! But it may be just crazy enough to work as well as our jury system. In fact, with some minor tweaks to the process, we don’t even have to amend the Constitution to make it happen. We just need some new political parties that agree to select candidates via a lottery system, instead of via a primary election or caucus (fat chance). Unfortunately, the current electoral system will probably ensure these candidates have little chance of victory against the traditional Republican or Democratic candidates in the general election. However, if a miracle occurred and all existing political parties agreed to select their own candidates by lottery, we would have a new electoral system that could transform our government.

Until such time as the people become so fed up they are willing to take action, we are going to have to find other less-effective ways to deal with a corrupt, unpopular, Congress. Maybe a revolutionary group in some small country will overthrow their government and experiment with democracy using the boule system instead of establishing a new dictatorship. If not us, who will create the first new form of democracy for the 21st century? We may have to wait for the establishment of a constitution for the first Mars colony to start over again. I can dream, can’t I?

Extra-Terrestrial Colony

Extra-Terrestrial Colony

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2 Swings and You’re Out!

Congress is Broken

Congress is Broken

Some people consider baseball to be a slow game. A hitter can stay in the batters box indefinitely if he keeps fouling off the ball. There is theoretically no limit to how many pitches he can use up until he either gets on base or gets out, but the current record is 20 pitches for a single at bat. The pitchers end up getting frustrated and tired and the fans do too. What would happen if players only had two swings in which to hit the ball? Not two strikes–just two swings. I think they would probably try and make them as productive as possible. If nothing else, the game would move along quite a bit faster. What does this have to do with politics? Maybe nothing or maybe everything.

From what I’ve read, most American voters now support the concept of term limits for elected office (usually 75-80% in polls), but it is very difficult to get legislators to legislate themselves out of a job. Even New Yorkers favor re-imposing term limits after Mayor Michael Bloomberg managed to get the city council to extend the term limit from two to three years in spite of two voter referendums in 2008. Why should we wait for legislators to approve term limits? We the people can decide if we want term limits and we don’t need a law to make it happen. If enough candidates for public office stand up and pledge to hold themselves to term limits, the pressure will build until it becomes common practice, the expected norm, a defacto standard, or whatever else you might call it. So, I’m asking all candidates for public office to take a pledge to voluntarily limit themselves to 1-2 terms in office. For the US Senate, I would say 6 years (1 term) is enough. For the House of Representatives, 4 years (2 terms) sounds like enough. After that, they have to agree to take the same amount of time (1-2 terms) off before running again.

Term Limits

Term Limits

Why do I support term limits?

During the first 150 years of this country’s history, term limits were unnecessary. Turnover in the U.S. House of Representatives was routinely over 50 percent and short terms kept representatives relatively responsive to the public. Over the last few decades we have experienced reelection rates averaging over 90 percent (including voluntary retirements), creating a class of career politicians who have insulated themselves from the public will and who have grown less and less representative of the people and more dependent on special interests who offer fringe benefits and campaign financing.

Term Limits: Vote for Different People

Term Limits: Vote for Different People

This is often blamed on the high cost of running a campaign effective enough to challenge an incumbent’s name recognition. Ultimately, however, it is the fault of American voters, most of whom are too unmotivated to learn enough about the candidates to make an informed decision or even to vote at all. This is why educating our kids to understand American history and to be good citizens is so important. However, since we can’t quickly or easily change the knowledge and behavior of voters, we can at least try and level the playing field by making it easier for someone new to run for office. Term limits will help to discourage people from becoming “career politicians” and make it easier for ordinary private citizens to run for office. It isn’t a perfect solution, and does not guarantee better results, but I think it is better than what we have now.

To discuss more about the pros and cons of term limits, I would like to debate three distinguished Americans who have opposed term limits. Fortunately, I have found a way to travel backwards through time to make this possible.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton (The Federalist, #72)

“Nothing appears more plausible at first sight, nor more ill-founded upon close inspection [than term limits]…. One ill effect of the exclusion would be a diminution of the inducements to good behavior. There are few men who would not feel much less zeal in the discharge of a duty when they were conscious that the advantage of the station with which it was connected must be relinquished at a determinate period, than when they were permitted to entertain a hope of obtaining, by meriting, a continuance of them.” 


Rebuttal by Earth Visitor:

“Mr. Hamilton: While I agree that inducements to good behavior are necessary and that term limits do not help to induce one to better serve the public, the majority of inducements today come from special interests, who offer money, travel, and other perks as well as campaign support at election time. The inducements available today to serve the ordinary citizen are relatively negligible, so it is no wonder that most politicians feel little zeal in serving the needs of a powerless electorate. I would greatly prefer the service of a private citizen who has already earned high regard who knows that he has a limited amount of time in which to make a difference, than someone who knows he will be reelected year after year even if he commits a serious breach of ethics or ignores the wishes of a majority of the people he or she was elected to represent.”

James Madison

James Madison

James Madison (The Federalist, No. 53):

“A few of the members, as happens in all such assemblies, will possess superior talents; will, by frequent re-elections, become members of long standing; will be thoroughly masters of the public business, and perhaps not unwilling to avail themselves of those advantages. The greater the proportion of new members and the less the information of the bulk of the members, the more apt they will be to fall into the snares that may be laid for them.”

Rebuttal by Earth Visitor:

“Mr. Madison: You are correct in asserting that a few elected members will, by frequent re-election, become masters of the public business, but I would assert that in so doing, they have also become slaves to the special interests who toil daily to subvert the interests of the people to that of their own fortunes. These masters of public business have, in fact, become rulers over the people rather than guardians of their interests. The snares that endanger us today are those laid with the aid of these members of long standing, who have long been captured by special interests and now seek to increase their power by subverting and controlling the new and inexperienced members as well.”

John Adams

John Adams

John Adams (A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States of America)

“There is no right clearer, and few of more importance, than that the people should be at liberty to choose the ablest and best men, and that men of the greatest merit should exercise the most important employments; yet, upon the present [term limits] supposition, the people voluntarily resign this right, and shackle their own choice…. [T]hey must all return to private life, and be succeeded by another set, who have less wisdom, wealth, virtue, and less of the confidence and affection of the people.”

Rebuttal by Earth Visitor:

“Mr. Adams: The ability to choose the ablest and best men and women is, of course, of the utmost importance to the survival of democracy. Yet, the fact that a majority of the people now agree upon the need to voluntarily impose such a limit is a testament to the depths to which our elected officials have fallen in the public esteem. Are we to believe that the best and ablest men are almost always those who currently serve in office and that, should they return to private life, we would not find a single replacement of equal or greater caliber? Can you assert that those who spend most of their life holding public office, with no experience in business, the arts, medicine, or other walks of life, are truly wiser and more virtuous? I must submit that the confidence and affection of the people towards such officials is now dangerously low, but the people feel so powerless in effecting a change that they must resort to a voluntary infringement of their own right to choose. As we so wisely stated in our Declaration of Independence, whenever any form of government becomes destructive, it is still the right of the people to alter or abolish it and institute new government.” 

Take the Pledge!

I’m asking that every candidate for public office make some kind of public written statement committing themselves to no more than 4-6 consecutive years (1-2 consecutive terms) in office. This can be on a blog, a web page, in their campaign literature, or anyplace else they care to publish the pledge. I’m also asking voters to stop voting for politicians that exceed the desired term of office. The very survival of our democracy as an effective form of government is at stake. Do I believe this will actually happen? No. Do I think it will work as intended? No, but it’s a start. To actually effect real change, we also need to reduce the power of elected officials to grant favors to special interests.

The Founding Fathers were not professional politicians

The Founding Fathers were not professional politicians