Recently one of my political activist friends on Facebook, who is also a real life friend, posted a link to a sweeping proposal for reforming United States Congress which incorporated most of the rhetoric which has been circulating for decades concerning special interests, corporate control, the predilection of congressmen to grant themselves perquisites of which the average working person can only dream, inefficiency, lack of transparency, and outright corruption, and distilled it into a series of specific demands for action, some of which would require amendments to the United States Constitution. Before embarking on so drastic a step, it would be prudent to examine any evidence concerning the likelihood that such measures would have the intended result, and also what unintended consequences might ensue.
That the United States Congress as presently constituted represents the average American poorly is scarcely to be questioned. It is also evident that most aspects of Congressional responsiveness and accountability have gotten considerably worse over the last fifty years, under both Republican and Democratic administrations and with varying mixes of majorities in both Houses. A lot of effort has been expended during that time period to correct that situation – to constantly refining boundaries of representative districts, to removing barriers to voting such as literacy tests, to encouraging women and minority candidates to run for office, to feeble efforts at campaign finance reform, to regulating media so that one candidate is not able to exclude rivals who are less well-heeled, and so forth. None of this effort has produced more responsive legislators, ones genuinely accountable to the majority of people who elected them.
When one is lost without a compass, literally or figuratively, plowing on ahead at full tilt in the same direction is seldom a good idea. A better strategy is to retrace your steps to the last point at which you were reasonably certain you were on the right path, carefully examine the situation as it stood at that point, and re-plot your itinerary from there, using the lessons learned during the time you were off course
I have a habit of thinking which I call “running it past my 1812 brain” which consists of rephrasing a problem – whether in my personal life or in the world at large – as if it were occurring in 1812 and then letting the British House of Commons debate it in light of their experience in the years 1812-1822. I’ve read all the debates in question. They are as rich a source of thinking on legislative, economic and social issues as the peace settlement at the Congress of Vienna, which formed the basis for Henry Kissinger’s Doctoral dissertation, is for broader issues of foreign policy.
Parliamentary reform was a hotly debated issue at the time. Many of the proposals had already been put in motion across the Atlantic when the United States Constitution was adopted, and many were subsequently adopted in Britain through the Reform Act of 1832 and after. Sufficient time has passed to analyze whether various reform measures resulted in an increase or decrease in legislative responsiveness to the population at large. This is a difficult thing to measure, of course, but there are a number of things that could be cited tending to support the contention that it did not. The increasing concentration of wealth and stagnating or even declining standard of living among the working classes between 1832 and 1860, and the fact that there were severe famines in Ireland in 1816-17, 1822, and 1844-46, but only the last caused massive mortality, might be mentioned.
There are a number of characteristics of unreformed Parliament that made it less representative on paper but seem to have produced a body of legislators who were more responsive to the long-term well-being of their country than American Congress is at present. In 1817 they managed to defuse a high level of social unrest that threatened to escalate into revolution, spawned by a poor harvest and the world’s first industrial depression, and did so without permanently altering the laws that guaranteed individual freedom, incurring massive debt, or killing or imprisoning very many people. The social reform legislation passed at the time was quite limited in scope but was well thought out and performed as expected. In retrospect, it is hard to identify any major piece of legislation passed during this period, which was conspicuously unwise or had vastly different effects from its stated purpose.
The House of Commons in 1812 was unquestionably less representative, in raw numbers, than it was after 1833 or than the American House of Representatives as a whole was at any time in history. Even in the most open constituencies only male heads of household voted. Some constituencies had very limited franchises, and their populations varied all over the map. Theoretically a person could vote in as many places as he owned property, and a person could represent any constituency where he owned property. The existence of small “rotten boroughs” encouraged independence, because a man who took an unpopular stance he believed was for the long-term good of the country and was defeated in a large popular borough or county had the option of persuading the voters in a smaller place to support him, and it didn’t have to be his place of primary residence. At the time it was argued that the level of special interest control was higher in rotten boroughs than in popular constituencies, but the voting records don’t bear that out. Special interests are always going to have some say in legislative elections. This system gave proportionately more representation to those interests that didn’t have deep pockets.
Taking steps to improve the economic position and educational level of an underclass before granting them more political autonomy seems to result in better long-term results for the underclass and society as a whole than granting more political autonomy and trusting that the votes of the newly enfranchised underclass will produce economic and social policies that improve their relative position. Given this, restricting the franchise somewhat at the national level is worth exploring as a means of reducing demagoguery. Our forbears marched to the banner of “no taxation without representation.” Should we be considering “no representation without taxation?”
Feature Image – View of Capitol Hill from the U.S. Supreme Court – Creative Commons
British House Of Commons – Public Domain
United States Capitol – Public Domain
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