Thursday, May 04, 2006

Much Ado About Term Limits: Part II

In Part I I discussed why term limits wasn’t going to fix the problems of pork and special interests in Congress.

So, if forcing Congressmen out every couple of years isn’t going to do any good,  what is the right answer?  Well, there isn’t going to be any silver bullet, but you have to either address the incentives involved or change the process to make it more difficult for Congress to meet those incentives.

The primary incentive is to retain power and get re-elected and nothing can be done to change that incentive, but you can use that incentive against them.  One of the reasons that pork barrel spending and special interest legislation has become so prevalent is it is buried in huge bills with hundreds of amendments that are tacked on at the last minute.

The reason that bills are passed this way is that there are competing interests that Congressmen want to keep in the dark.  The constituents from NY wouldn’t likely approve of bridges built in Alaska any more than people in Alaska would approve of building subways in NY.  So they hide the spending so that the people that matter (the voters) aren’t likely to find out.

The same goes with special interest spending – how do you know whether your Senator is voting for the tax breaks for Big Oil or tougher emission standards when they are all rolled up in the same bill?

The solution is a two parter, both of which have been proposed recently, but are typically tied up with so much extraneous crap to make them unpassable.  The first is to mandate a minimum amount of time between when a bill is written and when it can be voted on.  First, it can prevent bad law from being enacted like SOX, PATRIOT and the like, second it gives voters a chance to provide feedback to their representatives before action is taken.

The second solution is to limit the number or nature of amendments that can be tacked on a bill.  The legislative process is a horse-trading carnival where minority factions in Congress wield a substantial amount of power.  “Moderate” members know that they can get nearly anything they want simply by holding out.  

The central tenants of a bill are rarely voted on the merits alone, when the leadership starts canvassing for support the natural indication for most should be “Maybe.”  By saying maybe the legislator can sell his “Yes” for something else that he wants.  So typical legislation includes anything and everything regardless of what the bill is supposed to be about.  If each amendment were voted on the merits alone I have little doubt that many of them wouldn’t pass muster.

Unfortunately, the mechanics of a such a measure would be difficult to craft.  You do not want to prevent the ability to amend legislation, merely the horse trading that is associated with it.  By making our Legislators vote on every bill (without confusing amendments) and giving citizens the time to see what they are going to be voting on, our Congressmen will become more responsive to actual voter needs.

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