25 March, 2008

What does Change Congress need to do?

I really like the idea of Change Congress. Public policy should get the easy questions right. But the system is set up to do exactly the opposite.

Right now, everyone choosing to get the easy questions wrong because it brings personal gain--in donations for re-election or actual money/jobs/favors from people who have a lot of those to give away. So Change Congress needs to do two things:

1. Change incentives so that when everyone else is being corrupt, it is personally better to be good.
2. Change incentives so that when everyone else is being good, it is personally better to be good.

As I understand it, what Change Congress wants to do in the short-term is to redirect funds toward those politicians who pledge (and follow through on their pledge) to be good. Okay, that's step one. (Assuming they can get enough people to pledge donations and enough politicians to sign on with their principles and that the geography of these donations is sufficiently diverse.) Politicians will be rewarded for not taking PAC money.

Step two is a bit more elusive, however. Even if 10% or 20% of Congress signs on to their pledge, there will still be PAC money and even if some people have benefited from signing the pledge, not everyone can. Politics is a zero-sum game and not everyone can benefit from any particular perturbation of the system.

Some other change of this form must occur.

1 comment:

Elliot said...

Right, from what I understand of the idea of the pledge it is exactly to make those gains at the margin - get that 10 or 20 percent in Congress - that will allow for the passage of laws that enshrine more structural progress. Lessig is fond of saying that there is very close to being a tipping point towards things like campaign finance reform, so the pledge should be seen as an impulse towards that tipping point, rather than a solution in and of itself.

After that, though, there seems to be honest disagreement about what those structural reforms (laws) should look like. One interesting idea is to prohibit incumbents from raising any money at all. Instead, you take whatever amount their challenger(s) raise and cut them a check from the US Treasury for 80% of that. Thus, from their first day in Congress, a representative will be relieved of having to calculate the effects of a certain political position on her ability to fundraise - and the incumbent will lose the incentive to use legislation (earmarks) or other general political clout in order to attract funding. Lessig makes an interesting point when he says that this dynamic should lead small government conservatives to support Change Congress because it will mitigate the incentive to increase government spending as an electoral tactic.

Another interesting idea is to create a system such that there are no limitations to political donations, but the source of that money is "hidden" from candidates and incumbents alike. Various interests could still donate to their candidate of choice, but that donation would be effectively decoupled from an expectation of political reciprocity.

All of these have potentially serious logistical and legal complications. But whatever the reforms look like, the underlying philosophy is to break the clientelism of Congress: that is, you (some special interest) make it possible for me to be competitive by funding me, and so I am obligated to carry out your wishes or at least constricted in the extent that I can defy your particular interests in the service of the public good. Its not that people are bad, or corrupt, or tempted away from their honesty. Its that they face structural limitations such that their electoral survival mandates behavior that is clientelistic.

The only way to change that in the long term is to sever the dependence of our elected officials on special interests, which I agree will take more than a grassroots movement clamoring for it. At this point I think public financing in some form is really the only way to do that.