Modest proposals to make the US a better place

flagtearSo that’s some chutzpah in the title, isn’t it?

I’m not sure there are many people in the United States who do not think our political system is a mess right now, although there are a wide range of opinions about why that is and whose fault it is. Those discussions are taking place in a big echo chamber, but I think there are a couple of big problems that could be resolved and that don’t inherently favor one political party over another. So here goes.

The Senate in its current form is profoundly anti-democratic

That was, in fact, the point of the Senate when originally constructed. It was supposed to provide a check on the passions of the moment; the House of Representatives could swing all over the place every other year, but the Senate’s longer terms, appointment by state governments vs. popular election (we ditched that long ago), and equal representation for each state was to the countervailing force.

But consider how our population has grown: in an unevenly distributed way.

In 1790, the year after the Constitution took effect, the most populous state in the union was Virginia, with 747,000 citizens. (That includes the population of West Virginia, then part of Virginia. And I shudder to think how much of that population was slaves being counted as three-fifths of a citizen, but… not germane to my point here.) The smallest was Delaware, with 59,000. That a 12.6:1 ratio between the smallest and largest states.

In 2010, the largest state was California, with 37 million people. The smallest was Wyoming with 563,000. (Let’s congratulate Delaware for not being the smallest!) The ratio now is 66:1. Essentially, when a Wyoming residents votes for a senator, that vote as 66 times the impact of a Californian’s vote.

That’s pretty crazy. And as this recent piece in the Washington Post notes, it’s getting worse. According to growth estimates, by 2040:

Eight states will have just under half of the total population of the country, 49.5 percent, according to the Weldon Cooper Center’s estimate. The next eight most populous states will account for an additional fifth of the population, up to 69.2 percent — meaning that the 16 most populous states will be home to about 70 percent of Americans.

This becomes a situation where the majority of Americans, living in urban areas, are essentially getting overruled by a minority of people with very different concerns and outlooks who control the upper house of the legislature. That, in my book, is a recipe for the dissolution of a union.

That said, the idea of a body that is somewhat less subject to political whims is a good one, and providing some additional representation for smaller states is also a good one. Short of redrawing all the state lines to roughly equalize population, what do we do?

My proposal:

  • Set the size of the senate at 1 seat per state plus 100 (so it would be 150 until we added another state)
  • Each state gets their guaranteed seat, and the rest are apportioned by population among the states
  • The “prime Senators” (the 1 per state) run statewide, the rest have districts within the state
  • Keep the term at six years, with a scheme to make sure that states with more than two senators don’t have their entire delegations coming up for election at once.

This keeps the good things about the Senate (longer terms, smaller size) while making the overall body more democratic. While senators with districts within in a state might sound like glorified House members, I believe that larger districts would force candidates to appeal to a broader range of people, and there would variations in political outlooks in different parts of states. So you avoid, say, half of Texas stuck with John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.

Depoliticize the drawing of House (and Senate!) districts

Of course, the Senate proposal’s impact is much less if we have the same shenanigans with the way districts are created going on. So how do we make that less of a political process in which the winner of a state government gets to define whose votes count for a decade?

My proposal: algorithmic creation of districts. But wait, I’m not a deranged Valley type who thinks tech solves everything. Algorithms have a nasty tendency to incorporate the intent and biases of their creators. So this is problem that requires an open source solution:

A nonpartisan commission to identify the organizing principles of districts. Some suggestions: keep concentrations of populations in the central parts of districts, draw lines through the less populous areas. Keep districts geographically reasonable: no weird one-mile-wide stretches to connect places hundreds of miles apart. And, the principles need be defined without specific plans, so there’s no peeking at the results.

Then, we’d need a federal agency with tremendous independence to code the thing. And that code has to be open source. Every nerd in America gets to poke through it and we need a process by which anyone finding anomalies – built-in biases that aren’t part of the principles, security issues, etc. – gets to publicly raise them. Total transparency or it doesn’t work.

I think this really could work. It would require discipline. The principles commission would need to have a very clear process for appointments, and we’d probably want an independent review board along the lines of the Congressional Budget Office to evaluate what it came up with.

But I think we could do this.

Then there’s the Supreme Court.

The idea of jurists with lifetime appointments was a great one. The appointment process is pretty political, but in theory, once a justice gets to the court, they are answerable to nobody, and that is what we want when deciding thorny issues.

It’s not working, though.

At this point, the process of selecting justices has been hopelessly corrupted. Let’s be honest: all of us, from all political quarters, are looking for justices we can count on for certain issues. Those who are against abortion rights want someone they’re sure will help strike down Roe v Wade. Pro-choice people want someone who won’t no matter what. I want someone who won’t give Texas the right to invalidate my marriage.

That said, I think a presidential and the Senate are as good as it’s going to get – better with my Senate proposal above, I think. So this is a problem to tackle on the other end, by eliminating lifetime appointments.

We still need insulation from the short-term politics, and I think the shortest term we’d want to consider is 10 years. Maybe 15 is better. And no second terms. That term is long enough, however, is ensure that the president who appoints a justice does not get to appoint her replacement. In fact, odds are great that a president of a different political party will be making that call.

And this lessens a big factor in presidential elections: the possibility of a president packing the court with justices of a particular ideological stripe. Not only would they only be there for ten years, we wouldn’t have the uncertainty of not knowing which president will only get to choose one justice and which would pick four. Barring unexpected death or illness, the dates for the next appointment would be known. Ideally, we’d start this by setting end dates for the current justices, starting with the longest tenure on the court, to shift over to the new model.

So that’s it: my three ideas to improve our political system. I suppose in the short term, the Senate changes would be good for Democrats. The redistricting changes would be good or bad for specific parties depending on a number of local factors. And the changes to the court would likely have no benefits for either party.

I think, however, all of these things would be good for an increasingly frustrated and cynical citizenry.

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