Shifting responsibility to SILLs would eliminate the gridlock of the filibuster-plagued Senate and the polarized House of Representatives, Guerrero argues; SILLs would make pay-to-play scandals much less likely, and they’d allow representatives to spend more time legislating and less time campaigning and fund-raising. It’s true that their members wouldn’t necessarily be experienced in the areas they’re asked to govern, but neither are many of the lawmakers we elect.
SILLs would have other advantages as well. Guerrero explains that the single-issue focus of the SILLs would allow the country to work on a range of important policies simultaneously, in contrast with the current system where Congress typically only has the bandwidth to take up one or two big issues each term. “I worry,” Guerrero says, “that [campaigns] lead to a narrow focus on a few concerns and leave a lot of things that matter to people on the sidelines.”
Guerrero’s proposal would almost certainly produce a Congress that looks a lot more like America. John Adams wrote that the legislature “should be an exact portrait, in miniature, of the people at large,” and by that standard there’s no denying that our current Congress—which is whiter, wealthier, more male, and more Protestant than the population as a whole—falls short. “Rather than having the Senate which is more than half lawyers and more than half millionaires,” Guerrero says, “with this system, you would get a more diverse group of people involved in the process and you wouldn’t have these vested interests watching in the background.”
Even as a thought experiment, however, Guerrero’s lottocratic alternative doesn’t hold water with some political scientists. Susan Stokes, professor of political science at Yale University, agrees that more diversity in Congress would be a good thing, but she also worries that Guerrero ignores something important: Often we really do elect representatives because we believe they’re good at their jobs. “There are ways in which we want our elected officials to look like us and then there are other ways in which we want them to be better than us,” she says. “We actively try to select for some skills and talents when we choose politicians.”
The lottocratic alternative also triggers all the objections made by opponents of term limits—that by creating a revolving door of lawmakers, it effectively weakens the legislative branch relative to the other parts of government, and relative to the career lobbyists who prey on them. “Basically what would happen” in a lottocratic world, says Bruce Cain, professor of political science at Stanford University, “is that regular staff and the president would become more powerful.” He continues, “You really do need to know something to pass legislation. By the time these [lottocratic legislators] learn where the bathrooms are, they’d have to leave.”
We may never see an America where on the first Tuesday of every November Americans open their mail to find out if they’ve been chosen for Congress. But the debate around random selection shines a light on what we do get out of elections, as frustrating as they are.
One of the main purposes of elections is—or should be—to provide citizens with the opportunity to hold their representatives accountable for the decisions they’ve made in office. But political scientists broadly agree that electoral accountability works imperfectly in practice. They point to 50 years of research (much of it coming out of the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan) which shows that most voters have insufficient knowledge to really evaluate how well their representatives are performing, and they agree that we’d all be better off if campaigns were shorter and cost less money than they do.
But even in this degraded state, political scientists contend, elections still serve to educate and invigorate the electorate in ways that are not easily replaced.
“Overall, there’s a fair amount of information delivered even in this hostile type of campaign environment,” says Sam Issacharoff, professor of constitutional law at New York University. “Politics ennobles the population as a whole, and elections force officials to come to me and educate me.” While Guerrero’s model specifically includes a period of community consultation, Issacharoff thinks that absent the competitive energy created by elections, it would be hard to get people to pay attention to the relatively dull business of day-to-day legislating.
That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s no room for shaking things up in our policy-making. Guerrero argues that even if we don’t abandon an elected Congress altogether, we could still task ad-hoc lottocratic bodies with deciding the most intractable, electorally charged issues like how to handle the looming fiscal cliff.Continued...