03 October 2013

A Modest Proposal for Ending Congressional Gridlock

and Preventing the Political Classes From Being a Burden to Their Voters or Country, and for Making Elections Beneficial to the Public. In 2014.

Despite the temptations to put the current Congresscritters on the menu (which might itself be a crime against the prospective diners), I'm not proposing to eat them. As Todd Rundgren put it about another entitled class, the current Congress smells of

A mix of cheap cologne
Weasel pheremone
And rotted brain

So that means we need to throw the bastards out. Permanently.

The key problem, though, is that the current system virtually guarantees that their replacements would be little, if any, better... largely thanks to gerrymandering. There isn't a complete solution, even to that problem, but there's a simple step that will prevent gerrymandering from ever again creating "safe seats":

Don't draw electoral districts on a map.

Particularly in our postagrarian nation (except, that is, in those states with the very worst gerrymandering!), the place where one lays one's head at night is a remarkably poor proxy for government interests, needs, or anything else — especially at the national-government level. Consider, for example, the county I'm currently living in. A substantial majority of its residents work or attend school in a different county... and a substantial minority of the jobs in this county are held by people who live in different counties. One county to the north, we have a city in which somewhere around 40% of the jobs involve commutes from outside the city's boundaries; it's even higher across the Bay and at the south end of the Bay. Similarly, and particularly in high-density urban areas, the representatives for one's home are pretty likely to be different from the representatives for one's children's schools — especially in an area that has a history of school segregation/desegregation issues. And that doesn't begin to consider multistate urban areas like St. Louis, Kansas City, Philadelphia, even Portland... let alone the Tri-State Megalopolis. Geography — and particularly the geography of where most adults spend less than a quarter of their waking hours — simply doesn't make sense as a determinative factor.

One of the truly inimical aspects of geographic representations is "hidden interest" support from national groupings. Consider, for example, a hypothetical urban-area representative from a state that has no firearms manufacturing and a limited-at-best tradition of hunting (Hawaii and Rhode Island are obvious examples, but there are others). Why might the NRA be interested in such an individual... except for apparent availability for rent? Then, too, there's the related problem of urban areas in the middle of soybean fields. For the last two decades I lived in Illinois, I literally had no voice in the House of Representatives — despite Champaign-Urbana being an urbanized area, it was placed in a Heffalump-safe farm district of... interesting shape. (The particular Congresscritter for almost the entire period wasn't just rented by the NRA; he was a wholly-owned subsidiary.) Indeed, residents of Champaign-Urbana had more in common concerning national representation with residents of Springfield, Peoria, and even ADM-dominated Decatur than they did with residents of unincorporated parts of Champaign County itself — who, in turn, had more in common with residents of unicorporated parts of Sangamon County.

So, instead, I propose that states should adopt one of two nongeographical methods of distributing Congresscritters. One option is simply at-large elections using preferential voting. Administratively, this could be a serious problem in large states — a ballot of eighteen Heffalumps, eighteen Jackasses, and a smattering of third-party and independent candidates could be a bit unwieldy. I prefer a slightly different one: ({last four SSAN digits} mod {number of representatives}) + 1. Thus, someone in California whose (randomly generated) SSAN last four is 2208 would be in the (2208 mod 53) + 1 = 35 + 1 = 36th Congressional District. This means that she would keep her representative if she moves to a different apartment a few blocks to the north, but stays in the same job and industry and school system. And for you conspiracy theorists out there, even if someone were to try to manipulate SSAN assignment to be nonrandom, that would have an 18-year delay (since SSANs are now assigned at birth) and require forseeing which state someone would be living in in 18 years... and that's just for the first election.

Politicians have long proven unable to avoid gerrymandering; it was a problem in Parliament long before Governor Gerry's antics that gave his name to the practice in the US. Rotten boroughs were around at least a century before the 1832 Reform Act; interestingly enough, I was stationed near the former sites of two of the more notorious ones, Dunwich and Aldeburgh. My point is that if one takes away the geography, there's no longer temptation to misuse geography. Of course, the one thing about which the political class truly is creative is striving for unfair advantage, so I'm sure there will be changes down the road to make things interesting!