A Political Reform Cleisthenes Could Get Behind

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Back in 1999, when everybody from Stephen Jay Gould to Arthur C. Clarke were arguing over whether the 21st Century began in 2000 or 2001, a great deal of discussion was had over what to call the new decade, whichever year kicked it off. But nobody could agree. The Aughts?  The Oughts? The Naughts? The Naught-ies? The Zeroes? Personally, I liked the idea of calling it the “ut-oh” decade. I think I have pretty good grounds for claiming that, so far, it’s lived up to that name beyond a progressive’s worst nightmares.

Being a Gouldian in this affair, it’s my view that since we’ve now just about completed 100 months in the parade of “ut-oh” years, we’re not likely ever to get anybody to agree on a name for this decade. But how about a signature reform before the second decade of this century gets underway?

Ever since the railroad scandals of 140 years ago, Americans have been periodically encouraged to believe that one more round of reformist tinkering will shield elected officials from the bankable temptations of high office and make them all more accountable to us hoi polloi. Fruitless as these attempts to marry politicians and ethics have been, we keep trying. Tinker here. Tinker there.

They’re so clever. Reforms this morning? Loopholes by noon. And before you can say Credit Mobilier or The Keating 5 or Enron or Tom DeLay, some cheeky new crusader is spurring yet another sure-fire reform into the political arena.

Financial disclosure. Contributor ceilings. Conflict of interest prohibitions. Speaking fee limits. With each new adjustment comes a burst of enthusiasm. Then the inevitable letdown. Nothing seems to keep the politicians’ snouts out of the sugar. And nothing seems to bring back the 35-40 percent of Americans who have abandoned the ballot.

In 1867, the first reform barred government employees from soliciting contributions from U.S. Navy yard workers. At the turn of century, the Progressives and some men and women who wore the perjorative “muckraker” proudly pushed for standardized secret ballots. In 1907 came the Tillman Act, which barred direct corporate contributions to candidates.

A few years ago the trendy saviors were legislative term limits and another stab at campaign spending controls. Chuck the legislative lifers into the street and elect new blood, leaders with talent for something besides getting bought. Cut the power of the big donors by introducing public campaign money. Limit the amount that can be spent to get elected. Limit the amount any one person can give to any candidate. Five years ago it was McCain-Feingold. Three years ago we were pushing for a standardized secret ballot and trying to figure out how to pass a reform that enforced both the letter and spirit of the 15th Amendment and Voting Rights Act.

OK. A hurrah and a half for toothless nibbling on the edges of our predicament. But isn’t there something better on the reform menu for 2009-2010?

Perhaps an outside consultant can assist.

I recommend Cleisthenes.

Cleisthenes never got to see America because he was a Greek and he’s been dead for twenty-four-and-a-half centuries. Not an ordinary Greek, though, an Athenian. The very fellow, in fact, who first nudged Athens into a 180-year experiment in governing which we honor today by calling Greece “the cradle of democracy.”

It was 508 BC and the Athenian city-state had been shriveling in the clutches of incumbent plutocrats for decades. Corruption was rampant. Athenians fumed over wasteful government spending of revenue raised from unfair taxes. Cleisthenes said enough already and, in the words of the Greek historian Herodotus, “brought the mass of people into politics.”

His chief reform was to establish a powerful, agenda-setting body, the Council of 500, sort of an upper-house legislature. The wage was subsistence. A term was one year. Nobody could serve more than twice in his lifetime. And every member was chosen by lot from all citizens of Athens (which, of course, excluded women and slaves). In other words, leadership by lottery. All free-born adult men with short straws step forward. All right, they didn’t use straws, but the system worked rather well until the decidedly undemocratic Macedonians brought it down in 321 BC.

We could celebrate the 2516th birthday of the Cleisthenes plan by reintroducing it now. I imagine we’re not likely to get much in this effort from the jelly-spines running the national Democratic Party, but perhaps a state or two could be persuaded to try it out. California loves to start trends, so let us be first. But, hey, if you North Carolinians or Oklahomans or Nebraskans want to be on the leading edge of, please, have at it.

Just think. No campaign spending. No campaign smears. No campaign promises. No hand-picked candidates. Every adult is in the running. On Selection Day, a computer randomly chooses new legislators from among every citizen eligible to vote, registered or not. Your number comes up and you’re the new representative from Cucamonga for, say, two years.

Before they know the whole story, some Cucamongans and other Californians might bristle at being netted for a stint in Sacramento. They might even try to flee to Nevada, thinking they’d been called for jury duty. No problem. Because not only would the newly chosen get a seat in government, they would also collect, say, $250,000 on their last day in office. No show. No dough. (This may seem a little high given current salaries, not to mention Athens’ subsistence pay, but think of all the money we’ll be saving without elections.)

However, a lottery that guarantees two years of public service with a virtual 100 percent turnover every term still might not be enough to protect us from the worst scourge of legislators – legislation. As the Roman historian Tacitus complained: “The more corrupt the state, the more numerous its laws.”

The California legislature has passed, on average since 1966, four-and-a-half new laws a day, every day it was in session – 63,000 in all. So precise most of the time, Tacitus never actually put forth a specific number of laws it would take before the decay became irreversible. So maybe four new laws a day, piling up year after year, aren’t what Tacitus would have called numerous. We might have nothing to worry about.

Or maybe what’s needed to sink us into societal oblivion is just one more amendment, one more joint resolution. We may already be but a single law away from one too many.

Still, even a lottery legislature has to pass laws. So, for every law the legislators pass from now on, they should repeal one. A new law goes on the books, an old one gets erased. You want to pass Assembly Bill 660, you have to get rid of California Penal Code HS 11359. In a couple of years, maybe, if this system works well, we can up the stakes to: pass a law, repeal two.

If nothing else, the constant change-around of our merely-by-chance legislators and the enact-repeal ratio should speed each session to adjournment. That, after all, as Gideon Tucker noted in 1866, is when we’re safest.


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    • pfiore8 on April 28, 2008 at 7:09 am

    laws are supposed to fix human behavior, right? keep us from driving drunk, stealing, murdering, extorting, et al

    our laws… god’s laws… what’s the diff, really?

    or are laws supposed to control human behavior? i always get it mixed up.

    • Edger on April 28, 2008 at 5:52 pm

    Good ideas, but you sound like some kind of idealist to me…

  1. Of course, if I understand what you are saying, you are advocating overthrowing the current totally corrupted government of the United States of America…..

    As I said, I like it a lot!

    But how about instead of as the government, we impanel it as a Citizens Oversight Committee? Anyone can petition it with a grievance re the federal government. With a investigative arm. With it’s ultimate power to be shutting down all non-essential (there’s a debate!) government functions until Congress resolves the problems it brigs up.

    As to your proposal for laws…. as much as I hate the idea of a Constitutional Convention and the thought of what slimy Republican lawyers would try to pull, we need to somehow get back to the meat and potatoes of the simplicity and clarity the Constitution had. Our founding principles have been drowned in lawyerese.

    Shakespeare and Jefferson, Kill all the lawyers and a revolution every twenty years, lol.

    But with Congress and the DOJ so far out of whack with what they are supposed to be, Citizens Oversight Committee…starting out as a Truth and Justice Commission, is EXACTLY the kind of thing we need.

    Once we get through with illegal wars, war profiteering and torture, we can talk about stuff like McCain circumventing the law that he wrote!!!

    • OPOL on April 29, 2008 at 4:01 pm

    Just think. No campaign spending. No campaign smears. No campaign promises. No hand-picked candidates.


    If only we had the common sense to implement such a plan.

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