Essay: Change That Would Fix America
Robert A. Hall
Massachusetts Senate 1973-83
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Candidates for Public office, even incumbents, often promise “change,” without specific details that might cost them votes. This essay is intended to lay out some suggested radical changes that would, in my opinion, greatly improve our Republic, the electoral process and how our government functions. Nothing lasts forever, and I believe that without a radical and painfully restructuring the American Republic will collapse in the not-to-distant-future, following Europe into the chaos and tyranny of collectivism.
Given that these changes would gore a lot of oxen, I think there is almost zero chance of most of them coming into being. The affected special interests will fight them to the death, and it’s easier to defeat a change than enact it, especially when the proposed change does not have a committed advocacy base.
In addition, each party would analyze how the recommended changes would have affected its fortunes in the past few and the next few elections, and the party that would do worse would fight the change, regardless if it was good for the country. (I have not attempted to make such an analysis, wanting only to lay out what I thought would be positive for the Republic, absent political calculations).
Unfortunately, there is not a strong constituency for reform. The groups that battle the hardest in the political arena do so for power, money or, usually, both, not the future good of the Republic.
That said, here are my views of how we could greatly improve the functioning of our Republic and preserve a future for freedom in America.
Nominating Candidates for President
Since the Presidency is a national office, our current system of nominating candidates certainly does not provide “equal protection under the law.” A voter in Dixville Notch, NH, has ten thousand times the power in this process of picking a president as a voter in California. That is neither reasonable nor democratic. Since elections for President are national, and elections for the House and Senate are for a national body that impacts every American, the rules for getting elected should be uniform across all states, by constitutional amendment, to guarantee equal protection of the law.
Presidential Primary Elections
We need what is called the Graduated Random Presidential Primary System, or The American Plan (sometimes known as the California Plan), which is designed to begin with contests in small-population states, where candidates do not need tens of millions of dollars in order to compete. You can read more about it here: http://fixtheprimaries.com/solutions/americanplan/
This would introduce greater fairness and competition into the system, and mitigate the power of name recognition and big money, giving other candidates a chance to impress voters.
Only members of a party should be allowed to vote in that party’s primary. I don’t believe that Democrats or Republicans should be allowed to vote in the other’s primary, where they are likely to make mischief by voting for “poison pill” candidates. Independents could vote in a Party Primary by registering as a member of that party—but they couldn’t vote in the other party’s primary for at least four years.
Unfortunately, ignorant voters do not understand why they cannot votes for some Republicans and some Democrats at primary time, as civics is no longer taught, and they do not understand that a primary is for members of a party to select the party’s candidate. People who are not members of a party have no more right to tell the party who its candidates should be than people who are not members of a church have to tell the church who its pastor should be.
Delegates should be elected by Congressional District, rather than winner take all in each state. This gives unknown candidates or local favorites a change to garner delegates and get national attention. Delegates should be required to be residents of the congressional district. Delegates would be legally bound to the candidate on the first vote at the party’s convention. After the first vote, if no candidate received a majority of the votes and was nominated, they would be released to vote for any candidate they chose.
Any party which received, say, 5% of the national popular vote in the last presidential election would automatically be included on the ballot in the Primary System, unless they failed to run delegates in 75% of the Congressional Districts. Other parties which wished to run in the November election would need to file signatures in each state equal to, say, 1% of the votes cast in that state in the last election. I’m not locked into those percentages, but there needs to be a way for third parties to have access to the ballot, though with a high enough threshold that you don’t have 500 kooks putting their name on the ballot for President in every election.
Alternatively, independent or minor party candidates could gain ballot access by putting up a reasonably large deposit, which would be forfeited if they didn’t receive 5% of the vote. This system is used in some countries to allow ballot access, but not clutter the ballot with non-serious candidates.
I would not do away with the much maligned Electoral College. Without it, corrupt city machines (yes, I’m thinking of Chicago) could control the entire election, rather than just the votes of one state. Without it, close elections like 1960 and 2000 could mean nationwide recounts, lawsuits and leave the presidency in doubt for months or even years, to the detriment of the country.
But I would make two changes to the Electoral College. First, I’d do away with electors. A state’s electoral vote would be certified by its Secretary of State or chief elections officer just like any other vote. This eliminates the specter of a rogue or corrupt elector changing the outcome.
Secondly, I would award two electoral votes to the candidate who won the state, and I would award the others to the winner of each Congressional District, as Maine and Nebraska do now. This would put every state in play and mean that the parties couldn’t write off any state. Republicans could win votes in California, Democrats in Texas. Campaigns would be much more national.
All voting should be done on computers, and every election should require a candidate to receive 50% plus 1 of the vote in order to win. This can be done by what’s known as the “Hare” system, which I understand is used in Australia.
In this system, it doesn’t mater how many candidates there are. You vote with a number one for your first choice, two for your second choice and so on. If no candidate is the first choice of 50% of the voters, the candidate with the fewest number of first place votes is eliminated, and those votes are automatically apportioned to the other candidates based on who received the number two vote. And so on, until one candidate has a majority.
This ensures that a candidate despised by a majority does not get elected with 30% of the vote. It stops the political game of one candidate putting in straw candidates of the same race, ethnicity or gender of the main opponent to split the vote. It allows voters to vote first for their preferred candidate, even if she or he is behind in the polls, because doing so doesn’t help a candidate you really dislike. As I write we just had a primary for governor in Illinois, with something like six candidates in my party. The winner had around 21% of the vote. One of the candidates I thought was really bad was high in the polls. A couple of candidates I really liked were low. In that situation, do I vote for the person I think would be the best governor, or for the least worse of the leaders? On the Democrat side, a candidate for Lt. Governor won with 26% of the vote. He is a Chicago pawnbroker with a domestic violence arrest in his past, and was forced to withdraw, meaning party insiders, not the voters, choose the candidate. (The guy who came in number two is a black state Representative, and the Democrats don’t want another black on the ticket.).
This change also gives third parties and independents a chance (meaning both the Democrat and Republican Party establishments will hate it). If you like the Conservative party candidate or the Green Party candidate, you can vote that way without thinking you are helping the hated Democrats/Republicans, because the winner will need 50%, so your second choice will still count if your first choice is eliminated.
I have had trouble explaining this system over the years, though it seems dead simple to me. If you don’t understand it, e-mail me and I’ll write out an example, rather than take the space here. Trust me, it works fine.
We should require every state to set congressional districts by an independent commission, using a computer model which does not take party registration or voting history into account. I understand Iowa does a pretty good job on this, so there are models that consider the people, not the parties. Gerrymandering is one of the curses of our democracy. This will result in better representative and more competitive elections.
I’ve come around to the view, advocated by many including my brother Tom, that we should limit Presidents to one six-year term. Than Presidents can spend six years fighting for things they believe are right for the country, without an eye on re-election, and not spend tax dollars buying votes for their next campaign.
I also believe we need term limits for members of Congress. The power they have to raise fund and the creation of a permanent political class are not good for the country. There are many possibilities. I’d favor changing both senators and house members to having four-year terms, half elected every two years, with a limit of four terms in each body. Thus if the voters really like you, you can spend 32 years in Washington. That would be pretty generous, but would increase turnover, and competition as House members ran for the Senate.
I’d increase the restriction on lobbying by both former members and by former staff members to four years, making them spend a term outside Washington.
There is probably no observer who doesn’t think that our system is broken, or that the amount of money poured into campaigns isn’t a national disgrace. The bitter joke is that we have the best politicians that money can buy. Members of Congress spend a large part of their limited time in Washington raising money for the next election, because if they don’t, they will lose to a challenger who is out there doing the same thing. I ran successfully five times for the Massachusetts Senate, and the most I spent on a campaign was $19,000 in 1974—and $4,000 of that went to the caterers for a couple of fund-raising functions, leaving $15,000 for ads, buttons and signs.
Every effort to fix the system runs up against the rock of the First Amendment, because buying a political ad is certainly an act of free speech. Years ago I thought we might control costs by forbidding TV stations from selling political ads, as we do with cigarette ads, since the airways belong to the people. But cable TV and the Internet have made that pipedream moot.
Worse, when we pass campaign finance restrictions, we disadvantage the honest candidate who tries to play by the rules running against a sleaze ball who is willing to circumvent them. Restricting the money that goes to candidates only means that it goes to outside groups that the candidate can disavow, that have even fewer inhibitions about running ads that lie and smear, since the candidate they are supporting has deniability.
Some have argued that candidates should not be able to take funds from outside their district or state. But, again, that restriction only diverts funds to outside groups.
Since I want to uphold the First Amendment, already under assault on university campuses and by groups who want to outlaw anything they decide is “hate speech,” here’s where I am now:
Any person or organization, including a union or corporation, should be allowed to give as much money as they want to any candidate to spend on the campaign. BUT before the money can be deposited in the account, the amount and source must be entered on line into a database accessible by anyone, so we can see where a candidate’s funding comes from. The same rule should apply to all groups attacking or supporting candidates, if we can make that stick against a constitutional challenge. If the money goes to the candidate, it makes the candidate responsible, not some attack group like MoveOn.org or a conservative 527 group.
Hiding the source of a campaign contribution should be a corrupt practice with stringent penalties. No more non-English speaking Chinese immigrants reported as “giving” 20% of their annual income in some bundled contribution.
Since they are going to find a way to spend it anyway, let’s smoke them out in the open. Then the voters can decide if they like who is buying the candidates, and vote accordingly.
And we can think of campaigns as economic stimulus programs, as really rich folks like George Soros spread their wealth around the economy.
Is this a perfect solution? Not even close. It’s just the best I can think of.
A few years ago, a book entitled The Broken Branch (which I recommend) detailed the deterioration of the legislative process in Congress, which started under the 40-year Democrat majority and was acerbated by the Republican Majority starting in 1995. Since then, the new Democrat majority starting in 2007 has only made the situation worse.
Here are some changes needed to improve the process:
--The President must be given a line item veto on budgets. No more should he or she be able to avoid responsibility for earmarks, pork projects and excessive spending by claiming a need to sign the budget as a whole, even with bad things in it.
--A list of all earmarks for individual House and Senate should be circulated to every member, and each member would be required to sign off supporting or opposing each earmark and that signoff list should be public record. An earmark that doesn’t get 50% approval in the process could not be included in the budget except by a roll call vote in both branches. No longer would a member in New York be able to duck responsibility for a pork project in California. The same process should be required for each line item which increased spending over the previous year by a percentage greater than the CPI increase for the year. If a politician agrees to let a colleague buy votes through spending, the constituents should know it.
--Bills should be required to be published on the Internet, with full public access, three days before they are voted on or amendments offered. Once the amendment process is completed, they should be on the Internet three days before final passage. No more “vapor bills.”
--Congress should not be allowed to exempt itself from laws it passes that apply to the country or citizens at large.
--We should prohibit bills that have not had public hearings from being substituted for other bills to avoid the regular process.
--We should require that amendments must be germane to the legislation. That is, they should not be able to attach an amendment on abortion or guns to a bill on National Parks, avoiding the process. Nor should they be able to use a bill as a “shell,” wiping out everything in it and substituting a completely bill that has not gone through the legislative process with hearings.
--Let’s have real transparency. No excluding the press, the public or members of the other party from meetings between legislators or legislators and executive branch officials about the contents or details of legislation.
--We need to find a way to tie spending to taxes. Right now, politicians are rewarded for spending money, but punished for raising taxes to pay for it. I knew a long-serving member of the Massachusetts Senate who never voted for a tax increase, or voted against a spending increase—except for judges’ and legislators’ pay raises. Then she would make a big deal over these small cost items in the press, and saving the taxpayers money. (But she always took the pay raises!) A lazy press let her get away with it and she was re-elected for years. Tying them together would require a much-needed simplification of the tax code along the lines of a flat tax or the “fair tax” proposal.
And, yes there should be an exemption for war—if Congress declares war. And there is no reason Congress cannot declare war against non-state actors, such as Islamic Jihadists or Mexican Dug Cartels.
The Size of Government and the Deficit
We need to reduce the size of government, if our government is going to survive. It is almost impossible to do, because of the political clout of government unions, particularly with the Democrats. But unless we do, we will be Greece in a decade or two at the most. Here are the painful solutions:
--It should be made illegal for government employees to unionize. All such unions are conspiracies against the taxpayers and fiscal stability. In the end, they will destroy themselves by destroying the government, the way a morbidly obese person destroys himself by eating.
--The number of employees of the Federal Government should be reduced by 2% per year until the total is reduced by 20%. Only combat troops would be exempt as long as we are at war. (And Congress should declare war against Islamic jihadists who want to destroy us and our freedoms.)
--Federal spending should be limited to 15% of GDP by constitutional amendment, being reduced 1% a year until we hit that target. This is going to mean cutting, rather than increasing entitlements. And, yes, there will be cuts I won’t like either, given that I’m close to Medicare and Social Security. But the country must survive.
This will produce perhaps-violent protests, heavy lobbying and howls of out rages from those affected, which will be a majority. Everyone wants lower deficits and lower taxes—but not spending cuts that impact them! But the alternative is eventual fiscal collapse.
Unfortunately, any member of Congress who really votes to balance the budget has to face the voters with his opponent saying the Congressman is for higher taxes and against the poor, children, education, women, defense, public safety, teachers, scientific research…..so you cannot get re-elected by the public that says it wants balanced budgets if you are really for them.
The Courts and Crime
We need to pass comprehensive tort reform, including caps on non-economic damages, which will bring down the cost of healthcare, bringing drugs to market, and almost everything else. A system that creates multi-millionaire trail lawyers like John Edwards while spending ever-increasing parts of our GDP on the Litigation Industry favors only the lawyers. We lead the world on the % of GDP spent on litigation—this is not sustainable. Read this report: http://www.triallawyersinc.com/kstreet/kstr01.html
We need a system where in civil actions the loser pays, to reduce frivolous legislation.
Lawyers should be paid at an hourly rate, as I understand is the case in most countries. Taking a percentage of the “take,” which leads to lottery lawsuits, should be outlawed.
Attorneys who bring cases ruled to be frivolous should have their licenses suspended.
In criminal cases, expert witnesses should be selected by the court, not by the opposing parties. Currently the testimony tends to favor the side paying the bills, leading to dueling witnesses and confusion for the jury. Every defense attorney knows a psychiatrist who thinks everyone is crazy, every prosecutor knows one who thinks no one is nuts. It is the system that is nuts.
Lawyers should be licensed by the state, like every other professional, not by their union, the Bar Association.
We badly need sentencing reform. Recently a corrupt politician in Chicago was sentenced to a year and a day. If the sentence was just a year, he’d have had to serve more before being eligible for parole. And, yes, it makes no sense to sentence a black person using crack cocaine to ten times the sentence given a white person using powder cocaine.
No one hates drugs worse that I do. I’ve never even tried marijuana or any other recreational drug except alcohol and I’ve seen up close and personal the destruction druggies bring to themselves and their families. If I could push a button and kill every drug dealer in the world and destroy the drugs, I would. But I can’t and must deal with reality. We need to decriminalize the use of drugs, and have the government license sellers. The vast sums spent on courts, police and prisons could be diverted to treatment programs. But along with this reform should go draconian penalties for unlicensed sale of drugs (other than marijuana), perhaps as sever as the death penalty for a third offense—three strikes and you are really out! This reform would break the back of organized crime, from the mob, to the Mexican cartels to the Crips, Bloods and Latin Kings.
Life in prison for three felonies—the current version of “three strikes” laws—often results in ridiculous situations, like the taxpayers paying to keep a guy who swiped a pizza. But I’d keep it for three violent crimes, or crimes involving use of a fire arm. And for a gun crime, I’d make the first offense punishable by five years, no parole.
We have the worst of all worlds in energy policy, as the Right and Left create energy gridlock that only favors Saudi Arabia. Energy policy is held hostage by all the lobbyists, from the Seirra Club to the Oil Companies.
Here’s what we need to do:
--We need to invest in research and development of both new and renewable sources like wind, thermal and solar power, and in abundant existing sources, like making coal clean, and mining it safely. As energy costs rise, all these start to make economic sense.
--We need to stop supporting things like ethanol, despite the farm lobby, as it’s a poor net gain on energy, and starves poor people around the world by raising the cost of food.
--We need to fast track new nuclear plants so that 30 years from now we get as much of our power from nuke plants as France does today.
--We need to fast track development of domestic refineries, so a storm in the Gulf of Mexico doesn’t put us at the mercy of foreign producers for weeks.
--Oil will be necessary to the world’s economies for many decades to come, whatever the fantasies of dreamers who think we can go back to a per capita energy usage of the 1880s. We need to explore for and develop domestic oil supplies, including drilling off the coasts and in ANWR and develop the technologies to reach things like shale oil. The US loaning money to companies for offshore drilling in Brazil, so they can then join the countries milking us, is nuts. So is watching China drill off the Florida coast on leases from Cuba, so we can wreck our economy sending them dollars for energy, then borrowing them back to fund domestic spending. (Though China is growing so fast, they may not sell us any of that oil they get in the future from off our shores.)
Almost none of this has any chance of being adopted. The opposition would be fierce, and the support tepid for most of these changes. So the next generation or three will, I believe, have to go through the pain of a fiscal collapse and loss of freedom as an increasingly-powerful government tries to hold things together by forcing people to “do the right thing” against their wishes.
Robert A. Hall is a Marine Vietnam Veteran who served five terms in the Massachusetts State Senate. He blogs at www.tartanmaqrine.blogspot.com.