Boy howdy, those tea parties yesterday were something, weren’t they? Yes sir, totally spontaneous, organic grass-roots movements they were, which I know is true because every single participant or supporter of a tea party interviewed on the subject in the last few days described them in precisely that way. Completely unprompted they were. Yep.
(By the way, I don’t know if the guy who runs the barber shop on Franklin Street attended the tea party in Hagerstown yesterday, but I know what the guy who works at the barber shop on Jonathan Street was doing — kicking a robber’s ass. Chucking him through a glass door, even. Nice work, Mr. Cooper.)
Aside from the ceremonial presence of tea and political protest, limp though it may be, the little get-togethers held to protest taxes and excess government spending yesterday had almost nothing in common with the Boston Tea Party their organizers were so desperately trying to evoke. That was all about making a statement against tyranny — taxation without representation — remember that? Conservatives seem more interested in bitching about the first half of that, but I maintain that if you fix the “representation,” the “taxation” issues will take care of themselves. Almost a year ago I wrote an article listing ten reforms that I thought would improve American government. Read the whole thing if you want, but in short the ten reforms I came up with then were:
- Institute draconian term limits.
- Pay elected federal officials the minimum wage.
- Mandate a five-day, 40-hour working week for the U.S. House and Senate.
- Eliminate the federal reserve and return direct responsibility for monetary policy to Congress.
- Discontinue pensions for federal elected officials.
- Eliminate earmarks and riders on legislation.
- Mandate equal ballot access for minor parties.
- Enforce parity in campaign funding among minor and major party candidates.
- Require federal candidates to pass a test to determine their qualifications for the office they seek.
- Eliminate the native-born requirement for the presidency.
Not that I think any of that has a chance in hell of ever happening — especially term limits, which sadly is the one most urgently needed, and the one which would do the most good — but instituting even a few of them would leave us with a better, more honest government that was closer to the people that empowered it and more responsive to their needs.
But why the hell stop there? While some people were dropping tea bags into swimming pools to complain about having to pay taxes, I was coming up with
Ten More Reforms That Would Improve American Government Immediately
How’s that for getting to the point?
Institute instant run-off voting
As things stand, in most American districts you don’t need to win a majority of the votes cast to win an election — just a plurality. That means you can win an election and assume an office even though most of the people who took part in the election voted against you. One way to fix this, and make the authority of our elected representatives more legitimate, is to have run-off elections, where candidates who fail to collect a set minimum of votes are eliminated from the ballot and the election is held again, and again if necessary until someone wins with a true majority. Another, better way to address the plurality problem is instant run-off voting, where voters mark candidates on their ballot in order of their preference. If the election ends with one candidate claiming a true majority, the election is over. But if no one wins a majority, the second-place votes on the ballots whose first-pick finished last, or failed to break a previously established minimum, are counted. If that gives one candidate a majority, the election is over. If not, the process repeats itself until one candidate can claim a true majority of votes cast. There’s more info on IRV here. It doesn’t require a computer, it works just fine with paper ballots, and it guarantees that a candidate who wins an election will assume his or her office with the support of a true majority of the voters.
Establish and enforce strict separation of church and state
This is more of a housekeeping measure than a serious reform. The United States of America is a secular government with constitutional prohibitions against the establishment of an official religion, yet we print the motto “In God We Trust” on our money, open sessions of Congress with prayers, and recognize an annual National Day of Prayer. This creates a contradiction I’d like to see resolved at some point. Fortunately, it’s easy: get rid of all those things I mentioned, and anything else the government does that supports any particular religious belief, including the existence of God. I’m not saying the government should be atheist; I’m saying, in order to truly guarantee freedom of religion to the many diverse people of America, the government must be agnostic. On matters of religion, it should be officially — and utterly — silent. Besides, e pluribus unum is a way, way better motto, anyway.
Establish a mechanism for any elected official to be directly recalled by the voters
We elected ‘em. We ought be able to un-elect ‘em, if we’re of a mind. Granted, if my longed-for term limits were instituted, this wouldn’t be such a big deal, but I still think giving the voters the option to recall an elected official who has not been performing to expectations would reinforce the authority of the people in the democratic process, and result in a more efficient and effective government. I don’t think it should be easy; it should be a difficult process, to make sure we don’t start recalling congresspeople after one unpopular vote or one boneheaded public utterance. But just in case we get sold a lemon, that process should be in place, from Congress on up to the president.
Require the vice president to preside full-time over the Senate
Pity the poor Vice President of the United States. John Adams, the first man every to hold the office, called it “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Former V.P. under Franklin Roosevelt, John Nance Garner once observed that the vice presidency was not “worth a pitcher of warm piss.” Hell, Dick Cheney was so bored with his constitutionally allocated duties that he went ahead and did the president’s job, too! But it’s not as though the V.P. has nothing to do. He is the President of the Senate. He just chooses not to do that unless there’s a tie vote, or the president is stopping by. I guess it would be pretty boring, just sitting there presiding over the senate, not allowed to vote unless there’s a tie, not allowed to participate in debates. But what the hell else are we paying him for? He gets $227,300 a year — I say we park his ass in the senate chamber, stick a gavel in his hand and tell him to get presiding.
Revise the line of succession to eliminate unelected officials
God forbid anything happens to the president (especially now that we’ve finally got a good one — and especially seeing who’s next in line for the gig), but even worse than someone taking out the president would be someone taking out the president, and the vice president, and the speaker of the House, and (stay with me here) the president pro tem of the Senate. Because you know what happens then? The secretary of state takes over, that’s what. I have a problem with that: nobody elected the secretary of state. And actually, in the case of our current secretary, most of the country actively chose not to elect her. And yet, in the wake of a catastrophe that wipes out the top of the executive branch and the leaders of Congress, the secretary of state is in charge. And from there it moves through the other unelected members of the cabinet. This being a democracy, I don’t dig that. How about this instead: keep the line of succession the same down to the president pro tem, and then leave it to the surviving members of Congress to elect the new president and vice president from out of the House or the Senate. That way at least the new guys were elected to something by somebody, as opposed to the members of the cabinet, who got their jobs through presidential decree.
Require the president to appear before Congress twice a month to respond to questions
Hey, they do it in Great Britain! I know, I know — theirs is a parliamentary system, and the Prime Minister is a member of the House of Commons, so it makes more sense for him to submit to questioning from parliament than it would for the U.S. President to be grilled by Congress. But come on — what could it hurt? Wouldn’t a Q&A with Congress every few weeks be a lot better than a boring old annual State of the Union speech? I think so. It’s not about making the president accountable to Congress; it’s about reminding them all that they’re accountable to us, and to give our elected representatives a chance to air our concerns to the president. Besides, isn’t Prime Minister’s Questions always one of the best shows on C-Span? Why should the British get to have the best show on our channel?
Mandate a balanced federal budget
State governments have to do this, households have to do this, it only makes sense. Only spend the money that you have. Except in cases of an extreme national emergency, I see no reason why the federal government should be any different. Congress came within a few miles of passing a balanced budget constitutional amendment during Bill Clinton’s presidency, but it never happened. In the last few months, led by my man President Obama, Congress has spent an unheard of sum of money not only to put people to work on various government infrastructure projects, but to bail out failing private companies. I’m not sure what the exact figure spent wound up being, but I think it was in the neighborhood of ten kalamazillion (a number invented only recently out of necessity). Maybe — maybe — you could argue that the imminent collapse of the world’s economy was an emergency sufficient enough to warrant such massive overspending, but in less dire circumstances, the federal government ought to live within its means just like the rest of us. Yes, this would mean even less funding for NASA, but for the good of the nation I am willing to compromise. I’m magnanimous like that.
Abolish the electoral college
The President and Vice President of the United States are the only two elected officials in the federal government chosen through an indirect election rather than the direct will of the people. The U.S. is also one of the last great democracies to still use a method other than the popular vote to choose its head of state. Every four years pundits and journalists start crunching numbers, figuring out which states which guy needs to win in order to get the magic number of electors to win the presidency. In 2000 the entire election came down to a few tiny districts in Florida, because even though one candidate held a slim but clear lead in the popular vote, the deciding electoral votes belonged to that state. We all know how that one turned out. When Tim Russert was around with his little white board, this was kinda fun. Now he’s dead. Toss the electoral college, find something else for Chuck Todd to do come election time, and let’s elect our president and vice president via the popular vote, the same way we elect our representatives, senators, and everyone else. Critics of abolishing the college claim that it would harm the smaller states, since candidates would focus on running up huge vote totals in more populous states where their poll numbers are high, but isn’t that what happens now anyway, with the focus on a handful of electoral-vote rich swing states? Why not cut out the middle-man?
Require equal access to debates for all candidates on the ballot
When people say there are no differences between the Republican and Democratic parties, they are not talking about policy or ideology. They mean that with the dominance of the two-party system, it really matters little which party happens to be in charge of the federal government — the top priority of either party is self-preservation. Why else have minor parties been held down so mercilessly by the Republican and Democratic parties? Well fuck that! Why not turn control of the presidential and vice presidential debates over to a non-partisan group (rather than the bi-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates that runs them currently, assuring minor candidates will be shut-out), and allow every candidate on the ballot in the state in which the debate is held to take part? Bad for the Republicans and Democrats? Maybe. Good for democracy? Hell yes.
End executive privilege
Except in matters imperative to national security, there’s no reason why every conversation the president and vice president have with anyone else in the government about government-type business shouldn’t be a matter of public record. I know it’s a moldy old cliché, but we don’t work for the president — the president works for us, and we have a right to know what the hell he’s doing. Yet there are things about the George W. Bush administration — things dealing with the war in Iraq, things dealing with the questionable dismissal of U.S. attorneys, things dealing with the unlawful detention and torture of captured terrorists — oh, the interesting things our very interesting prior president may have done! — we may never know, because Bush and Dick Cheney have claimed that most of the relevant conversations they had with the cabinet and their staffs on those subjects are protected under executive privilege. That means, at least according to the last administration, that the president can ignore subpoenas from Congress, with no penalty, whenever he feels like it. That’s a pretty sweet deal for a crooked president, but it’s not so hot for, you know, everyone the fuck else. If it’s not a national security issue that needs to be kept quiet for everyone’s safety, we have a right to know. End executive privilege, and make the president and vice president and the rest of the executive branch, and all records and documents relating to their official activities, subject to subpoenas and Freedom of Information Act requests.
I got’cher transparent government right here.