Dialing Back My Hatred for the American System of Government

In the comments to my last post, Andy raises two very good points. The first:

Here’s why not: it would likely destroy the institutional power of Congress–whatever it has left–by stripping it of any serious oversight mechanism. The “A bubble” of administrative agencies that sit between the executive branch and Congress would essentially have free reign, and nobody could seriously question their rules or budget level requests.

Now, this doesn’t argue for keeping non-oversight committee – Appropriations, Finance, Rules, etc. – but it does agitate in favor of keeping some committee structure, or at least creating a new GAO-like organization with broad investigative powers. Still, it doesn’t eliminate option (c), that is committees with heavily rotating memberships. That’s where Andy’s second objection comes in:

I don’t think that routine swapouts are an especially good good idea. The same problem arises here as with term limits: the staff runs the committee (you think that’s a problem now? just wait until committee members play musical chairs every Congress).

This is a really outstanding argument, as standing committee staff members would know former members, who would then be able to lobby those still employed by the committee. And as none of the members would have as much experience in the committee’s issue area as the committee staff, meaning staff would have an even larger influence on votes than they do today. This could be solved if committees were banned from having a standing staff, and rely on their own team when switching. But this raises another problem, namely the potential for the creation of a cadre of Congressional issue experts who hop from office to office when committee membership switches. Their influence would be basically equivalent to that of a standing committee staff. You could solve this if you placed limitations on hiring/firing (no one who’s worked on the staff of a member of committee X may switch to the staff of a new member of committee X, each Rep/Senator has to have a staffer for each committee regardless of whether they’re on it, etc.) but that would basically create a situation where no one knows anything about anything. Which would be bad.

Taking Andy’s points into consideration, I think a more modest option (d) is in order. Keep more or less purely oversight committees–Foreign Relations, Intelligence, etc.–intact, as they function today. The potential for corruption is minimal compared to Finance or Appropriations, and the need for expertise great. Abolish the Rules committees outright, or at least the House one. They’re unnecessary bottlenecks in the process. For committees doing a mix of oversight and traditional legislating–Armed Services, HELP, etc.–adopt a rotating chairmanship with a much more egalitarian distribution of power within the committee and competitive elections for membership. Make the chairman more akin to the Chief Justice of SCOTUS than to the Speaker; give individual members the right to call votes and hearings, with a provision where the majority can override. For committees where you really don’t need as much expertise, which no oversight responsibilities, and with a high potential for corruption – Finance, Appropriations, etc. – either do a heavily rotating system with no staff and hiring restrictions as described above, or just defer bills on those topics to the party leadership, which can then decide whether or not to put it to a floor vote.

This is much more complicated, but would preserve the best features of the status quo while making some very real improvements, especially on taxation/budgeting/social insurance issues.

I Wouldn’t Go So Far As To Say We’ve Actually DESTROYED The Committee System…

Yglesias presents a list of reasonable structural changes to the American political system that are currently within the realm of possibility:

— The House shifted in the past from a strict seniority rule for committee chairmanships to one that allows for change (see, e.g., Waxman vs Dingell) and I would like to see them shift in the direction of routine contestation of committee and subcommittee top spots.

— The Senate could and should peacefully effectuate a similar shift.

— The Senate has, in the past, altered the filibuster rule and should do away with it.

— The electoral college is a sick joke and the National Popular Vote movement offers a plausible way to end it.

— As best I can tell, absolutely no rule is preventing states from experimenting with electing their House delegations via proportional representation.

— The District of Columbia ought to be a state, and nothing is stopping the current Democratic congressional majorities from admitting us as one.

— There’s no practical way to get rid of the Senate, but we can at least try to have a public political culture that acknowledges that it’s an unfair and anachronistic system.

Apart from proportional representation – which if implemented badly, which God only knows it would be, could result in ugly Israel-style coalition majorities – and the last point, which isn’t really something one can “implement”, I think these are all great ideas. But the first two raise a more interesting question. The very existence of the Congressional committee system is not set in stone. Congress can repeal it whenever it damn well pleases. So: should it?

I’m hard-pressed to think of reasons why not. The same things that can lead to committee members gaining expertise and their votes becoming a useful wheat/chafe separation mechanism also lead to much more centralized corruption and big-money politicking, as well as plain old dangerous concentrations of power, as we see with Max Baucus. Even most of the expertise generated lies more with members’ staffs, the selection and ideological leaning of which are determined by those aforementioned money-tainted processes. These problems seem pretty endemic to how the current committee system is currently constituted, and won’t go away until it does.

The question, then, is if we should either (a) just abolish all committees and let every bill go directly to the House/Senate floor or (b) give the majority total authority in deciding that. Maybe; the latter option especially seems fairly unobjectionable, and works quite well in parliamentary settings. The only other option that seems workable is (c) to make committee membership rotate every two years or so, and within that have chairmanships rotate on a monthly basis or so. The main advantage this would have would be to dilute the majority’s real authority, and just confuse the hell out of attempts of lobbying firms to both hire staffers of important committee chairs and to lobby existing members. PhRMA, say, wouldn’t even be able to hire the House speaker’s former chief of staff and expect to get a bill on the floor, as would be the case in the quasi-parliamentary system outlined above.

So yeah, I think (c) is the best of these. But the broader point is that committees aren’t set in stone, and we should think seriously about altering how they’re constituted and/or whether they exist.

I Do It For the Faculty, But I Gotta Keep It Hood

Maybe I’m oversensitive about this, given as I’ll be writing a Social Studies thesis in two years, but Will of Ordinary Gentlemen’s criticism of the prose stylings of Jeff Rosenfeld (linked by Conor Friedersdorf) seems oddly detached from the realities of academia:

Among other relics from middle school, my CD case still contains well-worn copies of both Pinkerton and The Blue Album, so I read Jeffrey Rosenberg’s [sic] undergraduate thesis on Weezer’s odd career arc with great interest (via). My interest waned, however, as the piece wore on; not because Rosenberg’s ideas were stupid or uninteresting, but because his thesis is written like every other piece of turgid, academic prose.

OK, that’s unfair. There are, in fact, accessible academic works floating around out there. And Rosenberg’s thesis really isn’t that bad. In fact, it’s pretty darn interesting – more interesting than anything I wrote as an undergrad (a low bar, to be sure). But it is written in the oddly stilted, formal style of most academic papers (THIS IS MY THESIS STATEMENT), and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. I mean, I understand why an undergraduate’s writing style would be modeled on other academics’. But a paper on the fall and rise of America’s premier geek-rock band needn’t be impenetrable to a broader audience.

But undergraduate theses aren’t written for a “broader audience”. They’re written for the two, maybe three faculty members and/or grad students who’ll be grading your thesis. Those are the people who’ll be deciding if it gets highest honors or high honors or honors, and given as that grade has a pretty big impact on the Latin honors one graduates with, most students are going to be focused on pleasing them, not blog readers six years out. Being academics, thesis graders are accustomed to “turgid, academic prose”, and will thus prefer theses which use it. This is especially true with a thesis like Rosenfeld’s, which more than most needs to establish its seriousness to readers who might be skeptical of its academic virtue from the outset.

Status Conscious Kindles

I feel like there should be a technical solution to this. If we really want to brag about what we read on Kindles, Amazon should install a low-resolution color display on the device’s back that will only show the cover of the book currently being read. It won’t hurt battery life that much, given that the image won’t be changing all that often, and while it’ll jack up the price quite a bit at first, displays are getting cheaper fast enough that it should should get down to a reasonable level fast enough. After all, you can get an Eee PC with a ten inch color display for $340, and a Kindle Braggart Edition would need a smaller screen and none of the other components.

Of course, it sounds ridiculous to speculate that people will pay, say, $200 more for a Kindle that can help them burnish their literary cred, but in my experience humans are vain and status-oriented enough that they’ll do it. In any case, this is something the good folks at Amazon should look into.

NY Times Readers Are Failures As Human Beings

Clark Hoyt:

Jennifer Keen and Paul Sousa — the bride’s name is always first — could not have been more different from the other couples on the June 28 weddings and celebrations pages of The Times.

Sousa, 41, grew up homeless, was hooked on heroin by 15, and was in and out of prison for the next 24 years. Keen, 26, came from a stable household but said she was sexually abused by a relative and by 16 was addicted to methamphetamines, marijuana and alcohol. They met outside a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in Sacramento.

Their story of love and redemption — each is drug free and studying for a career — was told in Vows, the regular Sunday column that customarily features high achievers from more traditional walks of life.

A few readers did not like the change of pace. “Are we telling young adults it is alright to waste half their lives in a drug stupor and somehow it will magically work out?” wrote Richard S. Emrich of Plymouth, Mich. I heard from other readers who said they regarded the weddings pages as a place for upstanding people with good educations who come from good families. Sousa and Keen, they said, did not belong.

Bolds mine. You know when you know someone is motivated by pure, concentrated evil? When they read this and lament that they aren’t reading another piece about two ibankers’ children who met magically at the squash court as Groton freshmen. I wish all the best to Keen and Sousa, and may God have mercy on their doubters’ souls.