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Choose Congress from the phone book

Posted by John Reed on

October 14th, 2010 by John T. Reed

William F. Buckley, Jr. famously said,

I would rather be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand people on the faculty of Harvard University.

I think he’s right. Although I would put it this way,

We would be better off with a Congress composed of citizens chosen randomly for single terms the way grand juries are chosen than the current professional-politician Congress.

Buckley was being a smart ass. I’m dead serious.

Congress chosen randomly from each district and state for six-month terms

Grand jurors are chosen randomly I’m guessing from the rolls of registered voters. For some grand juries that are expected to last a long time, they sometimes ask for volunteers.

In my concept, the Congressperson would be drafted randomly from a complete list of all the names of all the citizens in the district (House of Representatives) or state (Senate). Legally incompetent persons, like those who are insane, and convicted felons, would be excluded.

Operate in secret

Grand juries operate in secret. Regular trial juries deliberate in secret. That is also how the grand-jury style Congress should operate. They are chosen in secret and operate in secret for one term—perhaps six months rather than the current two years for the House of Representatives and six years for the Senate.

Why in secret? For some of the same reasons grand juries operate in secret and regular juries deliberate in secret. Why would anyone need to know who they are when they are selected or deliberating or voting or afterward? They are not running for re-election.

Having them chosen in secret and operate in secret would eliminate their being lobbied or pressured or their playing to the cameras or their making speeches or raising money for reelection or putting earmarks in laws or log-rolling deal making or committees or committee chairman or parties etc. Wouldn’t all that be a breath of fresh air? All they would do is be citizen legislators. After their six-month term, they would return to their normal lives.

Do their jobs from a federal building in their area

These grand jury Congress persons would not go to Washington, DC. They would have an office and staff in the federal building near their home. They would acquire pertinent information however they chose, not just through televised public circus hearings or in private meetings with lobbyists. They would vote from their home office electronically back to a vote counter in DC. There would be no group photo of the new freshmen or any of that. They would not become famous or rich as a result of being selected. All the money spent now on campaigns and smear ads and all that would be spent on better purposes.

Trash the rules

All the Congressional rules about chairmen and filibusters and reconciliation would be obliterated. Any of them could propose a law. Professional staff would advise on unavoidable technical details like conflicts with existing laws but not draft laws. We have had quite enough of congressional staffs drafting laws, thank you. The elected president could also propose laws, like his or her annual budget, and treaties to be ratified and nominees to appointed posts to be approved.

Would this result in far fewer laws being passed? You betcha. Would the laws that were passed be far simpler? You betcha. Are those good things? You betcha.

Is this nutty?

No. One of the current purposes of grand juries is to investigate the function of local governments. They often issue reports that are used to change policy and laws.

Regular juries decide the facts in tons of civil and criminal cases involving billions of dollars and life or death.

Current Congresspersons will scream that the grand jury style Congresspersons will “not be accountable to anyone.” They will be just as accountable as grand jurors and regular criminal and civil case jurors have been since the Constitution was adopted in 1787—orsince jurors have been since they began around 1166 in England.

In 2009 and 2010, our current Congress sure as hell is not accountable to anyone either.

In 2010, Democrats in Congress refused to pass a budget resolution. They are required by federal law to pass one each year by May 15.

How “accountable” are the retired, lost primary or election Congressmen and Senators who vote for sleazy bills when the voters cannot do anything to them?

Require amending the Constitution

The Buckley approach would require amending the Constitution. So amend it.

There have been many proposed balanced budget amendments to the U.S. Constitution over the years. You can read them at the Wikipedia entry on the subject: Adopt one.

That would mean no more deficit spending. Unlike the current politician Congress, the grand jury Congress would actually make the necessary cuts to stop the deficit spending. The national debt should also be amortized down to zero over a period of years. We need another constitutional amendment to accomplish that. It would simply say that some portion of the current national debt of $13 trillion must be paid off as part of the balanced budget each year.

Our financial problems are easy to solve with such a citizen Congress; impossible to solve with a politician Congress. The Founding Fathers did good in general, but they screwed up the way Congress is selected. Fix it.

Doesn’t select our best people?

Some would argue the current way is better because it lets the public choose the best people. If you believe that, you need a guardian appointed for your affairs. The current way selects the best politicians, the best liars. They are on the verge of destroying the country. I want to wipe federal politicians off the face of the earth except we’re probably stuck with an elected president. We could at least beef up the qualifications for president.

New qualifications for president

Raise the minimum age from 35 to 40. Require at least ten years experience in the for-profit sector, at least 2 years active duty military service or less if ended by line-of-duty disability, at least 8 years executive experience.

Whom would that eliminate? Obama. George W. Bush. Bill Clinton. Lyndon Johnson. John F. Kennedy. Eisenhower. Franklin D. Roosevelt—If the nation goes bankrupt, it will mainly be because of big-spending entitlement program creators, namely, FDR, Johnson, Bush (Medicare Plan D), and Obama. It would also eliminate, or cause to have chosen the needed resume career path, these recent candidates: McCain, Giuliani, Hillary, John Edwards, Al Gore, John Kerry, Mitt Romney, Wes Clark.

Whom would it allow? George H.W. Bush. Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter. George Washington. Abraham Lincoln.

In short, such criteria would bring out more candidates who were real people and real leaders who had experience in the real world and would mostly eliminate pure politicians like Obama, Gore, Kerry, and Hillary.

Here is an email I received from Australia, and my response:

Dear Mr Reed,

Hope all is well with you and yours, and that the printing of your newest book is going without difficulty.

I just wanted to offer some thoughts on your article about picking Congress from the phone book.  Caveats, of course, on the fact I’m not American nor entirely familiar with the Congressional system over on the far side of the pond, but there’s enough common ground (I think) to speak of between the US and Australian systems.

But first: it may already be apparent to you, but it seems to me what you’re talking about is democracy by draft.   Were you conscious of its similar theme to the draft article when you wrote it? (I’ve read your extensive article on the need for a draft in the military, and I’m persuaded by its points – the Australian military seems to have some problems in common with the US one, albeit I don’t think we have quite the same financial burdens arising from massive pension benefits.)  I just found the similarity striking.

And there’s something to be said for government by draft.  If I might paraphrase one of the quotes from the draft article: “A Congress elected by lot or draft might be a slave Congress, but a Congress comprised of those who want to be there is amercenary Congress.”  Arthur C. Clarke, incidentally, seems to agree with you: in his book The Memory of Distant Earth he wryly speculates about a future in which anyone who actually wants the job of high office can be excluded from ever getting it on psychological grounds, and therefore the only practical way of government is via random choice.  And  a Congress (or indeed a Parliament) surely is intended as the slave of the people: what the people want, a Congress should be carrying out, should it not?

I also realise you’re not intending the article as a complete treatise on how a “grand jury government” system would work, but there are possibly a couple of things to bear in mind. The main stumbling block to a “jury” government is that juries, at least under the Australian system and from what I understand of the US system, are completely unaccountable for their actions.  A judge can’t force a jury to find someone guilty no matter how overwhelming the evidence against the accused (although he can direct a verdict of not guilty).  He also can’t direct the level of penalty to be handed down by a jury, at least as I understand the system (in Australia we abolished juries deciding civil damages some decades ago.)  I sometimes suspect (albeit cynically) from years of being a criminal defence lawyer that the oath a juror takes together with their general ignorance that they can’t be held accountable is about the only thing that keeps the criminal justice system functioning.

More importantly, I had understood that juries are not required to give reasons for their decisions, and can’t be compelled to do so, either.  That right to silence more or less guarantees it’s impossible to punish a jury that decides to be cavalier about its decision making – simply because you can’t ask, and can’t compel an answer from them about what caused them to make the decision they did.  There was a system in place when the jury system was in its infancy that a judge could lock up a jury in prison until it came to a result, but that was abolished somewhere around the 1300s or so from what I can remember.

That being so, putting up a Congress that is chosen at random, is anonymous, and can’t be forced to advise as to the reasons for its decisions, or its deliberations, strikes me as a dangerous body to give lawmaking power to.  True, the term of such a body would only be about six months or so.

The other thing is that juries, at least here, tend to operate in a vacuum.  They’re directed to concentrate only on the facts of the case as given to them in court and are directed explicitly not to bring their outside prejudices and hangups into the jury room.  In my experience, they do their job best in such an environment.  I’m not a critic of the jury system – far from it.  I think in most cases they seem to get it right (and that includes cases where they found my clients guilty).  But I tend to think of the jury system as almost a miracle of bureaucratic evolution: it could not have evolved into the useful tool it is without being subject to a specific set of rules and a specific set of circumstances that are (a) hard for governments to mess with and (b) hard to apply to other situations.  It’s a delicate, elegant creature, a jury, but outside its rarefied environment I don’t know if it would perform as well as you might hope.

On the other hand, if the point you were making was that the current system is also practically unaccountable and that you would be just as well off with a randomised Congress as with an elected one, your point is well made.

Kind regards,

Michael Aulfrey

John T. Reed response:

Arthur C. Clarke’s idea is Catch-22ish, but not necessarily invalid.

The jury would be subject to the courts declaring their laws unconstitutional or impermissibly conflicting with more important laws. Also, the president would have the power to veto if the majority were not big enough. Current Congress is not accountable unless you rely on their Clarkeyan addiction to Congressional power and not winning re-election as punishment. If they choose not to run for re-election, how are they held accountable?

The Congressional grand jury would not hand out punishment. They just pass laws.

Congress often states the reason for the law in the law because courts take congressional intent into account when interpretting disputes. So the grand jury congress would probably do the same.

Your fear of the grand jury Congress should apply to the grand juries and regular juries we already have. You seem to be saying jurors cannot be trusted because they are “unaccountable.” But that is the way is long has been in courts so we already know the answer to that question. The current system almost guarantees 100% corruption. A random draft would have a few corrupt representatives, but no more than in society in general. Certainly there can be no doubt that would be far better than the current champion liars contest that selects congress.

Grand juries have more discretion to gather evidence than trial juries. That’s why I used the grand jury rather than regular jury model.

I think the military draft is another good model. Both grand jurors and military draftees have a number of laws they have to abide by that ordinary citizens do not. The draft worked quite well for close to 300 years and still is in many countries.
My wife told me she saw an article by P.J. O’Rourke in Weekly Standard in which he advocated choosing Congress the way grand juries are selected. I have had no contact with him but that’s a hell of a coincidence. Other than Buckley’s snide remark, I have never heard anyone advocate random selection of Congress rather than elections.

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