April 06, 2005

Best and Brightest?

Reading over the various DeLay scandals being exposed today, I don't have much to add except this: "God, the House of Representatives is a fucked up way of doing things!" The whole thing is set up so that the brightest and best qualified people are, from the get-go, excluded from running. Instead, we have a place filled with DeLays.

For instance, I could almost certainly never be elected to the House. But why not? After all, I'm reasonably well-educated, know a bit about politics, care about people, am decently outgoing, etc. etc. Nonetheless, facts are facts: I was born in upstate New York, moved to Tokyo when I was three, came back to attend college in backwoods New Hampshire for four years, and have since bounced around between Boston and San Francisco, and will probably bounce around some more. Where's my local constituency? Oh, that's right, I have none. No district would take me; no district would take more than three seconds before running me out of town as an upscale carpetbagger. And yet, many of the country's best and brightest have done what I've done—went off to far, far away to get educated, bounced around many a locale to find jobs, and have no "local roots." You don't see many academics, or think tank stars, or intellectuals in the House. Why? Because they're all a bunch of roving wild-eyed leftists? No.

So how can any of these folks get into politics? They could run for the Senate, but jobs are pretty limited, and even the Senate is somewhat bound by location, and you mostly have to have a lot of money, which isn't necessarily an indication of brains and talent. As a result, the best and brightest have all become political staffers, while the actual leaders of our country are picked from a pool of well-meaning but basically lesser-qualified people who happen to have nifty local connections. (The statistic about 60 percent of Congress not owning a passport is no accident!) So the political "handlers" have become political "minders," and the politicians mainly become, well, faces. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule, and certainly Congresspeople aren't stupid, but too many are.

It's a real problem, I think. My preferred solution would be to tack on 100 extra "at-large" seats to the House, which would be elected via proportional representation. Then intellectuals and visionaries and policy technocrats or whatever else you could think of could all run for office.

If this sounds elitist, it is. Sorry! Nevertheless, it's not as if the current House is a marvelous little throng of working-class populism. Meanwhile, there's another far more serious problem with the single-voter district structure of the House that has nothing at all to do with elitism. Namely, minorities who are geographically dispersed have no way of pooling their votes together to elect a representative. Gay Americans, for instance, can't combine their collective power all across the country, ala Captain Planet, and select someone to carry water for them. By rights, this bloc should be able to elect some 7-10 percent of Congress if they so chose. But obviously, under the current system, they can't. Nor can Hispanics, or African-Americans, or other dispersed minorities. So 100 extra "at-large" seats is what we need, at minimum.

UPDATE: Also, to be clear, since the above sounds like a bit of unudue whining, I'm not thinking about running for Congress, ever. (Believe me, I'd have no chance, even with "at-large" seats.) And I agree, there's a time and place for politicians who rise through the ranks by working closely with their local communities, connecting with the neighbors and the mailman and the guy who runs FamilyMart and whatnot. It's beautiful. In practice, though, "building local contacts" usually means "building business contacts" which tends to degenerate into "lining up favors redeemable in pork." The main point is that there's no prima facie reason why folks who travel around a lot or go off to work abroad or in the big city or in D.C. or whatnot can't run for Congress. But in practice, many of these folks can't, it seems. Actually, no, that was the secondary point. The main point's the one about minorities. But still.
-- Brad Plumer 4:16 PM || ||