26 August 2008

Increasing Political Competition: Term Limits and Redistricting Reform

I have previously posted on ideas to make our political system more competitive, in the belief that greater competition will produce better results. Expanding the size of Congress and reforming campaign financing are two ideas. Term limits for members of Congress and redistricting reform are two more ideas.

Term Limits

Term limits were an idea that seems to have peaked in the 1990s. After the Supreme Court decision in U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, in 1995, it became more difficult for citizens at the state level to impose term limits on their federal representatives. U.S. Term Limits still exists, their website is here.

CATO Institute: Real Term Limits: Now More Than Ever (written way back in 1995, the problem has only gotten worse) :
Shorter House limits would create more competitive elections. They would also reestablish a citizen legislature.

To effectively end politics as a lifetime sinecure, thereby making congressional service a leave of absence from a productive, private-sector career, requires that terms be short.

The nation's Founders strongly believed in rotation in office. They left term limits out of the Constitution because they did not foresee that politics would become a career for so many people. Short term limits would remedy that mistake. Nothing is more important today than reversing the pernicious rise of a professional political class.

Henry Clay, one of the greatest House Speakers and legislators in American history, today would still be waiting for a subcommittee chairmanship at the end of his six (nonconsecutive) terms, the point at which 98 percent of representatives ended their House careers in his time. In the late 1800s the most senior representative elected Speaker was serving his seventh term; six were elected while serving their third through sixth terms. Today the byword of the system is patience. Radical change is necessary, and it can be achieved only through shorter term limits.

More about efforts to repeal term limits here: Defining Democracy Down: Explaining the Campaign to Repeal Term Limits

The arguments in favor of term limits are sound. The Articles of Confederation imposed a limit of three years of service out of any six years, with Congress having annual terms at the time. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, George Mason, and Richard Henry Lee all expressed preferences for term limits.

Because of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, in order to allow the states to impose term limits, either Congress must specifically allow such impositions under federal law, or a constitutional amendment would be necessary. Instead of imposing an uniform federal term limit, the states should be allowed to impose term limits on their federal legislators should they chose to do so. Some states may impose term limits, but other states should be free to not do so, if that is their preference.

A good idea would be to limit office holders to two terms out of any three. Called consecutive term limits, this would create a break for waiting challengers to run for office, while creating a pool of former office holders, who are out because of term limits, thereby creating credible challengers waiting in the wings. Truly gifted representatives would have the opportunity to serve again, with gaps to allow for fresh choices. Coupled with an expanded Congress and campaign finance reform, the competition could become fierce, and the American people would benefit.

That is my preference, but a lifetime limit on three (or two) terms in the House and two in the Senate would be preferable to the status quo. These lifetime limits are much more restrictive that consecutive limits. Even so, lifetime limits would be a vast improvement over the current system and would be more than acceptable.

A good reference on term limits can be found here, Legislative Term Limits: An Overview. There you can find links to state law, recent court decisions, and recent legislation.

By the way, Obama opposes term limits; McCain opposes term limits. Ah, the two party system, what a choice.

Redistricting Reform

The fourth item on increasing political competition would be to reform the redistricting process. A good organization on this issue is Americans for Redistricting Reform.

It is accepted that the current process encourages political polarization:

Gerrymandering of congressional districts is an old skill that has been perfected with the advent of computers. Technology allows the drawing of increasing numbers of increasingly safe House seats after each decennial census. The problem has been exacerbated by moves in several states — most notoriously Texas — to engage in midcycle redistricting.

Safe districts tend to drive candidates to the extremes, since their biggest worries come from primary challengers, not the general election.Hence, polarization and gridlock, since compromise and moderation can be hazardous to lawmakers' political health. Incumbents of both parties protect themselves.

Even in turbulent 2006, only 14 percent of House seats were decided by fewer than 10 percentage points.

The remedy would be to put redistricting in independent hands; to require that districts be drawn without regard to partisan concerns; and to prohibit redrawing between censuses. A dozen states have some form of nonpartisan commission or other process to draw district lines; nearly half ban mid-cycle redistricting.

More here:
Gerrymandered districts are one of the most detrimental diseases afflicting modern politics.

Instead of giving voters a real choice in competitive districts, politicians of both parties draw lines to serve their partisan interests by packing districts and giving voters less reason to participate in the democratic process.

Packed districts also allow the extremes in both political parties to gain more control over the legislative process at all levels and disenfranchise middle-of the-road Americans whose main goal is effective government.
A fifth idea to increase political competition would be to reform the filing requirements for new political parties. But that post will have to await another day.

1 comment:

Nelson Lee Walker said...

There may be reasons for it, but I fail to understand why no one has proposed a purely software-based system of honest-to-goodness random redistricting based only on population and the contiguity of population polygons which nest snugly with one another? No party, no race, no economic class, no tentacles, no nuthin’, to bias the resulting voter distribution. Computer experts have told me this would be perfectly feasible.

For example: Currently, a typical Congressional representative district has a population of roughly 690,000 people (= nat’l pop of 300M / 435 districts). Thus, if a state has 6,900,000 people, it will have 10 congressional districts. This formula is fixed nation-wide.

Almost every state has its population distributed in a few heavily populated cities, with the rest of the people spread out in suburbs, towns, and in low density rural areas. The computer program would start out by fitting the map of a 10 district state with 10 equal-area polygons (mostly square-like, with no tentacles) within the state’s boundaries.Those polygons, or cells, located over cities would immediately shrink, in place, to encompass a space populated by 690,00 people, creating a district. The cells adjacent to that first district would pickup the spillover of people and shrink or expand in place accordingly, until they each met the target of 650,000 people, to form districts. The algorithm would tend to optimize compactness.

This process would continue until all 10 districts shared equally the total population of the state, and all districts were roughly compact polygons, with no significant tentacles.

I am sure this feasible software-wise. Why doesn’t some truly independent organization take this idea and run with it?

Nelson Lee Walker, Saratoga, CA