Better Congress in Three Easy Steps

Our new president set the table for big ideas. But there’s a problem. He needs big ideas that are understood and supported by “we the people.” Big ideas don’t fit easily into casual conversation or into short news articles. Big ideas are usually protected from regular people, hiding in books and other places where people seldom go.

If an idea is too small, it won’t make a difference. If the idea is too large, regular people won’t embrace it. We thought we solved this dilemma in 1787, when we crafted a bicameral legislature. The United States Senate was designed to be conservative and careful, deliberative and professional. But the United States House of Representatives was conceived as its wooly counterpart, a band of citizen legislators who could bring “the voice of the people” to governance.

We want to solve problems, but what if the problem-solvers are part of the problem?

A big idea crunched into a small space can look simplistic, bombastic or pollyanna — stripped of the nuanced intellectualism good readers expect from this page. So I will resist the temptation to offer here a big idea that can fix how Congress does its work. Instead, here are three.

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Repeal Public Law 62-5.

This law capped the size of the House of Representatives at 435 in 1911. Woodrow Wilson won the presidential election in 1912 with 6.3 million votes. Obama won last fall with 69.5 million votes. Article 1 Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution requires that “the Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand.” Peter Defazio represents nearly 700,000.

Expanding the House of Representatives to 9,000 members may pose seating chart problems, but keeping the number static has made it more like the U.S. Senate than was ever intended. If a person could win a seat in the House of Representatives by knocking on 12,000 doors, wouldn’t that change not only how they govern, but also how we feel governed?

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End gerrymandering.

Redistricting is mandated every ten years, so our representation moves when we do. Divvying up the districts must meet a set of standards; one of which is that the area must share a “community of interest.” This is the loophole language producing districts that are shaped like Rorschach inkblots across the landscape, each with an interpretation that always means the same thing: the incumbents and/or the current majorities are protected.

Computers have gotten so capable at predicting voter behavior that the shape of the district determines the outcome of more races than the candidates themselves. This can be fixed by eliminating “community of interest” and substituting a simpler and more tangible criterion. Geometry experts can refine this, but here’s a start: “No district may be more than twice as tall as it is wide, no matter how you spin it.” Then voters at least would be assured of proximity to the others who are voting for the same representative.

Coupled with smaller districts representing fewer people, most districts would be walkable from one end to the other on a sunny afternoon. If campaigning was more manageable, it would be more affordable.

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Document all tax breaks.

We can’t force money out of politics, but we can keep better track of it.

37 million individuals and couples claim a deduction on their tax return for mortgage interest. We know this number because the government keeps track of such things. It’s right there on Form 1040, Schedule A, line 10.

But how many owners of copper mines operating with federal land leases claim special deductions written just for them? Only a handful, but that information is not readily available. It should be.

We should have one complete tax form — call it the 1040-XL — that includes a line for every tax break given. The form would be thousands of pages long, but so what? If this form was available in every post office and for every news organization, we might begin to understand how complicated we’ve allowed our tax policies and governance rules to become.

Only after we begin to understand our problems will we find the resolve to fix them.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) invites readers to his blog (here), where the nuanced intellectualism of previous columns is archived. He writes for The Register-Guard each Friday.