Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Budget Idol

House Republicans have launched a new project called "You Cut" that lets citizens rank which federal programs they feel should be trimmed in an effort to cut federal spending. Each week, the members of the House Economic Recovery Working Group will post five spending targets, then collect votes online or by cell phone (because imitating "American Idol" is clearly the best approach for fomenting enlightened democracy). They will then attempt to force Congress to eliminate the target that received the most votes the following week.

Problems I see with this:

1) Who chooses the programs? (Corollary: guess whose pet programs will never make it onto that list of five?)

2) There is no way this would ever reveal the reviews of a representative selection of the electorate.

3) I'm not an expert on public policy. How many of those voting will be?


This is, no doubt, largely an election-year gimmick. It draws upon some interesting questions, though, from a historical perspective. Small-government conservatives tend to draw upon a legacy of fealty to the Founding Fathers and their putative Constitutional intentions. The Founding Fathers were extremely preoccupied with the concept of enlightened representation. They did NOT trust in the ability of the common people to make decision in the best interests of the nation as a whole. That is why they originally instated property requirements for voting. That is why the House of Representatives was the only directly-elected national institution. The Senate was chosen by state legislatures, providing a layer of insulation from the craven impulses of the rabble. The Electoral College performed a similar service.

Since then, we have determined that even the "enlightened" are not always that enlightened, and in the early twentieth century Progressive movement citizens mobilized to change, for example, the way the Senate is elected, removing the undue influence of what turned out to be some pretty corrupt state legislatures. Accountability to the people was the catch phrase of the day. Oregon was a particular leader in this movement, as adept political organizing by reformers like William Simon U'Ren and the spectacularly corrupt example of politicians like Senator John Mitchell (see old posts for more information on him) resulted in the development of the "Oregon System," a set of political institutions that includes, among other things, the referendum. Which was meant to forestall corruption by giving everyday people a voice in their government. Unfortunately, U'Ren, et. al. did not foresee the development of special interest organizations who could in turn corrupt their reforms. Oops.

In short, the Founding Fathers to whom these House Republicans no doubt appeal on a regular basis would be absolutely mortified by "You Cut." Second, the reforming efforts that have led Americans to appeal to everyday citizens have themselves proven less than ideal. This does not mean ordinary citizens cannot play a thoughtful and important role in government; it does mean, however, that citizen involvement is NOT in itself a path to better government.

There is a reason why people study policy questions for years. We may not always agree with their policy prescriptions, but doesn't it make a lot more sense to work toward a better enlightened discussion than to abandon all claims to informed debate? An up-or-down vote on a (no doubt not truly random) list of five programs is nothing more than the governmental equivalent of a Facebook quiz. Our representatives owe us more than that. The Founders were wrong about the capacity of citizens from all walks of life to play a role in the governmental process, but they were absolutely right to fear uninformed decision-making by the government.

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