I’ve been too distracted by our dysfunctional Congress lately to report that my knee is feeling better and I’ve started hiking again. Since our government has managed to produce self inflicted wounds at a level that has brought about the closing of our National Parks and National Forests resulting in negative impacts to our hiking community, I feel it’s appropriate to comment on that here. While I’d like to just tell Congress to take a hike, I think our government is broken to a degree where we need to change the system in order to “take back our country.” I believe changing the players on the field would only make a trivial difference.
With a 10% congressional approval rating, it’s clear that there is a significant disconnect between the wishes of the American people and the actions of our elected representatives. I believe this is mostly the outcome of our government evolving in a way that has resulted in extreme under representation. Below, I will explain why I believe the above to be true, propose a budget to meaningfully bridge this disconnect, and provide an illustration of what game changing increased representation could look like. At the end there is a poll you can choose to participate in. This is long for a blog post, so look for bold underlined type if you just want to check out the highlights.
WHY I THINK WE ARE UNDER REPRESENTED
Our Founders started out with a ratio of one member of the House of Representatives for each 30,000 people. If we still used that ratio today (tied to the 308,745,538 people recorded in the 2010 census) we would have 10,292 representatives. Since 2010, our population has already grown past the 320,068,000 mark (which would yield an additional 377 representatives in less than 3 years!). If we had that level of representation, I think issues like gerrymandering and money in politics would be reduced to trivial concerns due to the complexity of dealing with over 23 times the districts we have now. Since our dwindling individual “proportional” influence is now radically diluted to less than 1/23rd of what it was in the past, it’s not surprising that our representatives enjoy an unforeseen concentration of power that fosters a flagrant disregard of the will of the people.
That this reality is an extreme perversion of the original intent of our Founders is further underscored by the emerging massive disproportional relationship between districts (Montana-at-large’s 994,416 to the Rhode Island First’s 351,476). As evidenced in the Article the First (Joint House/Senate Conference Committee version) of the first Congress, our Founders anticipated that there would be representational issues as our population increased. Although they only thought through as far as the case of a US population exceeding 8 million people and the Article the First was never ratified, the thinking in it is clearly more rational and the results would be more proportional by far. They proposed that after crossing 8 million people (less that the current population of New York City), the country would have over 200 representatives and would apportion districts at a minimum population of 40,000 and a maximum of 50,000. If Rhode Island’s population was used as an “updated” minimum (instead of the 40,000); the resulting new maximum sized district should be 439,345 (significantly smaller than the average sized district of 710,767). The original intent would therefore yield 22 more representatives for California than it has now to maintain a proportional balance between districts.
Although apportionment was fiddled with continuously to increase political power of one party over another, the Reapportionment Act of 1929 doomed the population of the United States to a House of Representatives that is now specifically designed to be disproportional—the antithesis of the intent of our Founders. The Act arbitrarily limited the House to 435 seats therefore continuously concentrating power into the hands of representatives as the population grows. It also no longer required districts to be “contiguous, compact, and equally populated” allowing for the gerrymandering of districts in a way that makes representatives far less subject to being voted out of office and also allows for the fiddling of districts by dividing the population up in a way that also unfairly consolidates power. The fact that Democrats won the popular vote by over 1.7 million votes in the House of Representatives in 2012 but ended up with a whopping 17 less seats than Republicans illustrates the magnitude of disproportion we are dealing with. Given an opportunity however, Democrats would engage in just as much gerrymandering. The problem is systemic and the logical result of the Reapportionment Act of 1929.
We now continuously govern (a euphemism for what is taking place) from crisis to crisis and find ourselves the recipients of a House of Representatives that is governed by the tyranny of a minority instead of anything resembling majority rule. The level of isolation enjoyed by our politicians to act so recklessly and against the obvious will of the people could only be achieved by the acquisition of extremely disproportional influence. Consider the situation we are now in as a country. It has been widely reported that there are enough votes in the House of Representatives to pass a clean Continuing Resolution (CR) today thereby ending the government shutdown. Amazingly, even with all the disproportionality mentioned above, a clean CR could easily be passed by majority rule. Yet, Speaker Boehner will not bring a clean CR to the floor for a vote even though it’s been widely asserted that he would like to. Also widely reported is the idea that the House is now divided into three parties. The real effect is that the Tea Party is caucusing with the Republican Party so that they can together control what comes to the House floor. What’s left unsaid is that if this was formerly acknowledged Nancy Pelosi would become Speaker because the Democrats would then be the majority party. Obviously if the Tea Party had a separate Speaker and were unable to influence who the Republicans chose as Speaker; Boehner would remain Speaker of the Republican Party. It’s also clearly the case that a separate Tea Party would prefer Boehner over Pelosi as Speaker. Because the rules don’t currently allow for that way to choose a Speaker, Boehner is forced to disproportionately follow the will of the Tea Party or likely find himself no longer Speaker. The result is the emergence of an unexpected form of tyrannical minority rule.
It should be obvious that the system is broken and we have nowhere near the form of proportional representation in the House as was envisioned by our Founders. It’s no wonder we have a large population that doesn’t believe government can do anything right. Simply changing who represents us can only produce minor positive results. We need to develop a game changing way to fix our system. We allow this to continue at our peril.
A BUDGET PROPOSAL
Any intervention we could take to produce game changing improvement would cost money. If we aren’t willing to invest in improving our representation, then we probably deserve the results we are now getting. I should point out that investing in the expansion of representation is not the same as expanding government. The presence of more representatives doesn’t necessarily mean they would generate more government programs. That said, I am not the Congressional Budget Office and I don’t have staff helping me. Additionally my numbers are derived from numerous averages and will therefore generate discrepancies due to rounding. The purpose of this exercise is merely to try and tether concepts about change to a ball parked idea regarding costs. Skipping to the bottom line, I came up with a number of $4.99 per person per month yielding an annual budget of $17,724,034,000. There’s nothing magic about this number. The contribution on the individual side is that of a small tip on a restaurant bill. The collective number is large enough that it appears something meaningful could be accomplished. It merely has the feel of being realistic.
For those who are interested, I derived the budget as follows:
I started with the premise that if we invested in our representation at the same ratio that our Founders invested in theirs, we would have a better chance of actually having the kind of representation most of us would believe in. I opted to use the original 30,000 person per district number because of the rate our population is increasing. This helps maintain a reasonable district size that probably wouldn’t need to be altered more often than the existing ten year census period. I decided to use the existing average district size of 710,767 as a starting point because that number includes some of the real world realities of running into boundaries that don’t precisely lend themselves to an even 30,000 number. So, I divided 710,767 by 30,000 and got a number of 23.69. Since whole districts are required, I rounded up to 24 which yielded a population of 29615 per district to allow the wiggle room needed to maintain a maximum of 30,000 per district at the start of every ten year period.
We currently pay members of the House of Representatives $174,000 per year and they have a budget ranging from 1.3 to 1.9 million dollars a year for their staff (they are permitted up to 18 full time staffers). I chose 1.6 million (between but not the average) for a staff and added the salary and arrived at a budget of $1,774,000 to provide a representative per district. I divided that number by 29615 and got a cost of 59.90 per year per person and divided that number by 12 to arrive at the 4.99 per month per person investment.
I then used the 2010 Census number of 308,745, for the US population and divided by the 29615 population district size which yielded 10,426 representatives (note that this is 134 more than simply dividing by 30,000). I subtracted out the 435 we already pay for which resulted in 9991 still to be funded. I multiplied 9991 by $1,774,000 to get the total budget of $17,724,034,000.
ILLUSTRATION OF WHAT WE COULD DO
All I’m trying to do with the illustration below is to make tangible the magnitude of change we could create. I’m confident that anything our society would implement would be better than this illustration. It is simply important to have something tangible to compare our current system to in order to assess the potential value of making a significant structural change.
I think we could do better than simply adding the 9991 missing representatives to the House and give them the exact same responsibilities a member of the House has now. In thinking about the general criticisms of Congress that have been floating around for years, I think it makes sense to create a new form of representation for the other 9991. There are numerous criticisms of how our representatives do their job that a new form of representation could be designed to address those concerns. For example, three common complaints about our representatives are:
1: They spend too much time and energy campaigning and raising money and are unduly influenced by campaign contributions.
2: They are unwilling or unable to put aside their partisan differences and work together for the good of the country.
3: They should get outside the bubble that is Washington DC, spend some real time in their districts, and learn what their constituents think firsthand.
For the new category of representatives, the above three issues could be solved by doing things like publically funding their elections, requiring them to spend most of their time in their districts, and creating a venue for the public to come together and show their representative how to work together.
Due to the overwhelming role of lobbying in our current system, I think an interesting option would be to design a People’s Lobby. This would be designed to give the people a way to come together, organize, deliberate and influence their elected representative.
The People’s Lobby could structured like this:
I would start by accepting the current districts of the House of Representatives (I’ll explain why below), and I’ll use that average sized district mentioned in area above describing how I derived the budget to illustrate the concept. That district would be divided up into 24 sub districts which I’ll now refer to as lobbyist districts. Each lobbyist district would have a budget of $1,774,000 and have a paid district lobbyist who is elected by the people every two years.
The district lobbyist would be required to live in the lobbyist district and would be tasked with declaring how he would vote on every bill the House of Representatives votes on as if he were a member of the House. If he so desired, he could also develop legislative ideas to present to the representative for consideration etc. Like a representative, the district lobbyist would require help in order to provide an informed vote or come up with legislative ideas. A major vehicle for receiving that help would be a blog/social media/website that the district lobbyist would lead discussions on. The login for the district lobbyist would allow him to create topics for discussion and comment on anything posted anywhere on his website.
Similar to a representative’s 18 staff members, a district lobbyist would also be able to appoint 18 paid advisors who live in the lobbyist district to help him make his decisions. These advisors would interface directly with the public in person and via the website. Their login would allow them to comment on the topics that the district lobbyist posts but they would not be able to generate new topics in the district lobbyist’s area of the website. Each advisor would also have her own associated blog/social media presence within the district lobbyist’s website. In her area of the website, she could start her own topics etc.
Although we need to operate within a budget and limit who gets paid, there still needs to be a way for everyone to publically participate and influence the community commensurate with their abilities and desires to do so. To be effective however, there needs to be a way to prioritize what gets paid attention to. So, I think three more levels of access and participation would make sense which I will refer to as researchers, influencers, and evaluators.
While it is important for the district lobbyists and their associated advisors to live in the lobbyist district so that they are part of the community the lobbyist was elected to represent and because they are getting paid, I don’t see a reason to require that for the next three levels of access and participation. I think it makes most sense to align people with who they work with best and are most eager to learn from and support. Therefore, researchers, influencers, and evaluators could “caucus” within any of the 24 lobbyist districts within their congressional district. They could only participate in one of the lobbyist districts at a time but could regularly change affiliation (quarterly, for example). Of significance is how I think that could impact voting for the district lobbyists. With 24 options to choose from after the election, one could more easily afford to take the risk and vote for who they want instead of who they think is most electable. I believe this would allow more diversity in the system.
The position of Volunteer Registered Researcher would be open to participation to all who qualify and caucus in the lobbying district and live in the congressional district. They would be required to maintain a blog/page on the district lobbyist’s website (probably organized under the advisor) so that people knew who they are and what their qualifications are to provide comments. Their login would allow them to comment on posts by advisors but they could only generate new topics within their blog/page. Requiring a level where qualifications are required essentially allows the constituency a way to seek specialized knowledge from individuals that have been “peer reviewed” in some way (e.g. earning degree in a relevant field to the topic being discussed).
I think everyone should be able to comment publically, just not at every level of the discussion. So, the position of Volunteer Influencer would be open to participation to all who caucus in the lobbying district and live in the congressional district. They would have the option to maintain a blog/page presence but not be required to do so. Their login would allow them to comment on posts by researchers but they could only generate new topics within their blog/page. However, they would be required to comment publicly (as opposed to commenting anonymously).
Numerous people wouldn’t want to comment publicly or want to contribute anything more than their support or lack thereof of someone else’s comments/proposals/criticisms. There is also a need to prioritize the contributions in the event there are too many to read through and comment on. I think both these needs could be solved by allowing everyone who caucuses in the district to be an evaluator in addition to any other position they have. Evaluators would have a login that allowed them to be able to anonymously like, dislike, re-blog, rate, share, and/or link in response to anything posted anywhere in their caucus website or the website of the district lobbyist. Anyone reading the content could sort/search for content by almost any imaginable criteria to prioritize what they look at first. The most viewed content would eventually become the content which brought people together. People would learn the partisan talking points pretty quickly and would lose interest in content that merely regurgitated those points until a new perspective emerged. I think people would look for content that either presented an interesting and fair compromise or a completely different way to look at an issue.
Obviously, as a People’s Lobby, there needs to be a way for the district lobbyists to join together and present ideas that have support across the congressional district to their representative. Similarly, it would be desired that the congressman would have access to responding to content on the website. Therefore, there would be a People’s Lobby Area on the website where everyone in the congressional district would have evaluator privileges to interact with content. The congressman and the district lobbyist would have access to post new topics on anything and try to gain support. Significantly there would emerge new forms of both quantitative and qualitative research methods to determine what constituents in a congressional district support and to what degree they support it.
For example, a real time opinion poll that is accessible to all who qualify and want to participate and is instantaneously updated could emerge. I think computer programmers could figure out a way to make the following work (they may have already). We could have access to an interface for opinion polls that allows people to login and vote in a poll anonymously that generates a public result. However, there could be a way for the software to privately track one’s vote so that one could change it at anytime or even remove it entirely to reduce the validity of the poll because one liked the way a different question was posed and they want another one to receive more attention. In some polls everything could just be public and that wouldn’t even matter. These polls would become ongoing indicators of public opinion and would therefore not require repeated investigations of the same questions. The questions themselves would be more subject to scrutiny and refinement leading to new questions. As people removed their votes from polls they found to have bad questions a self organizing system of discerning the issues or questions people cared most about would emerge based upon the numbers of people responding to a particular poll. Since everyone in the community would be allowed to have a connected blog/webpage, anyone could start their own real time poll. Literally every public statement would be vulnerable to line by line polling which would yield significant quantitative and qualitative results. The community would be able to ascertain not only the spread between up and down votes to get a sense of the truth value of the statement itself, but the total number of voluntary respondents would indicate the relative intensity the community feels that the statement needed to be reviewed. The results would be dynamic as they would evolve over time as the polls would represent ongoing opinion. Significantly, the only people who could participate would be as described above, but anyone in the world could follow what is going on within the community. Because of everyone’s ability to post, link, and create polls the community could also get a sense of why it was voting the way it was etc.
Returning to the budget, each lobbyist district would have a budget of $1,774,000 as shown above. A ballpark idea of how this could be broken down (admittedly somewhat arbitrary) could be to pay the district lobbyist $120,000 and each adviser $60,000 representing $1,200,000 of the budget (which translates to $3.38 per person per month to fund). This leaves a balance of $574,000 to fund whatever is needed to support the system. The key thing though is the major need of support would be the webpage that everyone connects to and elections every two years. Since the webpage would be congressional district wide, multiplying the $574,000 by 24 lobbying districts yields a budget to support the system of $13,776,000. I don’t think a brick and mortar existence would be required. There are plenty of places to meet in our communities already and there’s always Google Hangouts, Skype, and the like. I don’t have the resources or knowledge to know if that is too low, high, or a good budget for support; but it feels like something reasonable could be done on it. At a minimum it’s a gesture to acknowledge that this is conceptual and the nuts and bolts haven’t been worked out.
KEY THINGS ABOUT THE SYSTEM
The People’s Lobby does not require any government involvement to emerge. This is why I didn’t try to solve the imbalance of power generated by the current gerrymandering that created districts of radically different size. It would just be one more lobby in the sea of lobbies that already exist.
The People’s Lobby could be funded by any mechanism the people agree upon (either as a country, state, or congressional district). It could be government funded by any one of the three levels of government. There could also simply be a federal government mandate for existing districts to have a People’s Lobby and leave it up to each district to decide how they want to fund it, or a mandate at the state or congressional district level. It could be paid for by a head tax, progressive tax, or by allowing private enterprise to participate and raise money by selling ads, or any other methodology a district chose to engage in.
It would create permanent good paying jobs that due to the residency requirements would also not be outsource-able. I’m not sure there’s a publicly funded program that is as geographically tied to return the money to the community as this one. The funding for each lobbyist district would come from the people within the roughly 30,000 population that the district represented. There would be absolutely no redistribution of money from one community to another. There would be 19 new jobs in each average sized lobbyist district and 456 in each average sized congressional district. Calculated nationally over the additional 9991 lobbyist districts there would be 189,829 permanent jobs directly created and there would also be a multiplier (I don’t know how to estimate what that would be) where jobs would be created as a result of these jobs and the way people interacted with the system. For example, there would be the jobs just to maintain the website and probably continually develop improvements to it. People who wanted to get more attention would become micro-lobbyists and meet others for a meal to help gain attention to something the micro-lobbyist was supporting thereby increasing demand for restaurant food etc. The increase in jobs would raise tax revenue which could be used to lower the countries debt and or provide tax relief.
If I were a congressman, I would want a People’s Lobby in my district. On the surface, having 24 district lobbyists shadow vote my every vote, a total of 456 people paid to watch my every move and scrutinize my every statement does sound overwhelmingly oppressive. However, if I did a really good job, everyone would know about and I might not even need to bother campaigning to be re-elected. My need to raise money would go down markedly and perhaps vanish altogether. Every special interest group would understand that they couldn’t just convince me of something. They would know of the level of public scrutiny I was experiencing which would require me to disclose what was said and that in turn would be dissected, polled, and responded to. I could stand on the floor of the House and with my Smartphone in hand recite the live poll numbers of something I was supporting or coming out against. I could present an alternative and make claims about my constituent’s desires because their views would be publically verifiable on the People’s Lobby website. If I was great, like a superstar athlete, I wouldn’t need to campaign for my job; the community as a whole would ask me to stay. If I didn’t feel that way, there would be 24 people serving as a kind of shadow representative training group ready to take my place.
I would want a People’s Lobby as a citizen. Obviously, the district lobbyists and advisors would want one because they would be paid. I would want something like this because I think it would radically alter the productivity of our government and yield new and exciting local opportunities. As a local interaction with the Federal Government, there would exist a local component that could help the community get help from sources outside the Federal Government. For example, I have an idea that it would be great if my community had a safe and appropriate hangout designed for kids to go to after school. It would literally be teenager focused. Adults wouldn’t be permitted access without being accompanied by their student. Students would gain access by scanning their school photo ID card and there would be a computer system that would allow parents to confirm when their children arrived and when they left. There would be food, activities, places to study etc. I could flesh that out a lot more. The main point is I would need help in a lot of areas to determine if there was a genuine market for that, what a budget would look like and so on. All I would have to do is caucus with a district lobbyist who had a development advisor who looked for government funding etc. I could post using my page, try to get the advisor to get interested and post to his page. If it appealed to the community, a demand would be discernible etc. People that could see they could make money on it would begin to lend their expertise and try to bring the idea into physical reality. Venture capitalist and entrepreneurs might scan the development advisors posts looking for something to run with. Others expert in getting government funding or grants from NGO’s might get involved. The project could get funded through a hybrid of all those sources. The point is, a framework where everyone is going to look would yield unforeseen opportunities similar to what has taken place with the internet and social media.
The real question is would it be worth about $5 per month per person in your family to have a People’s Lobby or similar entity in your congressional district. Let me know what you think.