Why not Campaign Finance Reform? Or Term Limits? Or…

When I explain how the current mess with Congress has developed over the last century, I often get as a reply, “What we really need is campaign finance reform,” or, “What we really need is redistricting reform,” or, “What we really need are term limits,” or, “What we really need are more principled candidates, “or, “What we really need is (fill in the blank).”

I have no doubts that we could make things better than they are through campaign finance reform, or with any of the other proposed fixes. (Indeed, it would be hard to make things much worse.) But are these the better choice of reform? They would take a lot of work for one thing. These are all complicated issues with lots of moving pieces, and there are a lot of divergent ideas on how the rules should be changed.  Those differing opinions would need to reconciled, compromises reached, laws changed. Once enacted, would the laws work the way we want them to work? There is always the risk of unintended consequences, especially with complex changes to large systems. And people are very clever at finding exceptions and loopholes. More rules would be required to patch the loopholes that themselves have loopholes that then need patching.  To manage all of this, people and institutions would be needed to practice oversight of compliance. The perfect Department of Redundancy Department.

The Constitution spells out a much easier method – Have a census every ten years and add or subtract Representatives to match changes in population.

Why wouldn’t people want such a simple and effective means of managing government?

One reason is that the problems have been so slow in developing that we don’t associate the current situation with changes made a hundred years ago.  We see and respond only to the results that we are experiencing now, not to the wheels that were put in motion long ago.

And when it comes to problem solving, all of us are inclined to fix the immediate problem in front of us and not address the underlying causes. When we have a cold, we are all accustomed to seeking relief from symptoms, the things that bother us – the fevers, the chills, the aches and pains. We treat the symptoms and we feel better, but we are not cured until our bodies fight off the root causes of the symptoms – the viruses that have taken hold. It is no different with the way we approach solving the problems with Congress. Too much money at work in elections? Take a tablet of Campaign Finance Reform. Gerrymandered districts? Swallow some syrup of Redistricting Reform. Elected Representatives too long in office? Pop a capsule of Term Limits. These essentially are over-the-counter treatments to ease the symptoms caused by systemic dysfunction. They don’t touch the underlying cause.

There is also an appeal to taking an aspirin or two. It gives a sense of activity, that we are doing something and are in control of the situation.  The advice to “rest, drink lots of water, get plenty of sleep, and in a couple of days you’ll feel better,” doesn’t  fit well with our can-do, make things happen culture. But going back to the pre-1910 administration of the House is just like that simple advice – do the right things and the system will regain its balance.


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