Apr 162014

Will Technology Facilitate Direct Democracy?

Congressman Eric Swalwell’s proposal that Congress create an application to allow Members to vote remotely opens an interesting possibility.  There are two primary reasons for having a representative democracy.  One is practicality.  The type of direct democracy practiced in Greece required that citizens meet in person to cast votes.  This was difficult for those who lived in the countryside. Even for urban citizens, it was a cumbersome duty and enough citizens did not show up to vote that Athens had to experiment with inducements and punishments to get people to do it.

The second reason is the understanding that not every citizen can be an expert on every issue. Professional politicians,  on the other hand, can be expected to put their time and effort into carefully researching and deliberating each issue that comes before them.  Deliberation requires, of course, the exchange of ideas with others.

But if Congress members can participate in hearings and vote remotely, then so can ordinary citizens. If the application is secure enough to assure that a vote belongs to a Congress member (which I doubt it can be, given that the NSA seems to have complete control of our technology), then surely it is for the latter as well.  The practical need for a representative democracy is gone.

The knowledge need remains, at least theoretically.    But do Congress members actually vote based on the knowledge and careful deliberations we expect of them?  A look at Swalwell‘s own record suggests otherwise.   Since he was elected in 2012, he has spent most of his time campaigning.  He comes to the district almost every weekend so he can meet with constituents/voters.  Remote voting will help him to spend more time doing so.  As for voting, Swalwell, who was named an assistant minority whip, pretty much votes as he’s told to by the party leadership.  Only once or twice did he cast a vote different than Nancy Pelosi.  Surely citizens who want to vote as they’re told by their party, can do so just as well.

The question then becomes, do we really need Congress? If members are not meeting and deliberating, why have one person press the “vote” button in representation of many, rather than have the many do it for themselves?  Perhaps it’s this realization that has made Swalwell’s MOBILE proposal so unpopular among his Congressional colleagues.

While instituting direct vote-by-app democracy would require a constitutional amendment, and thus is unlikely to happen very quickly, there is no reason why states cannot start experimenting with it.   Given the corruption at the halls of our legislatures, it may not be that bad of an idea.

Oct 082013

Furloughed Federal Workers Protest Government Shutdown“In the general course of human nature, a power over a man’s subsistence amounts to a power over his will.”
Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 79

There is a growing movement of people who are clamoring for members of Congress to forgo their pay checks during the shutdown.  Some (mostly wealthy) Congress members have heeded this call, loudly proclaiming they’ll refuse their paychecks or give them to charity.  At first glance, this call makes sense.  Why should members of Congress get paid when so many federal employees are not?  And shouldn’t we punish Congress for putting us in this situation and not passing the budget?  Congressional challenger Ro Khanna put it succinctly:  “There ought to be consequences for Congress’s inability to do its job.”

I suppose that you can say that Congress, as a whole, is not doing its job.  We are experiencing a fundamental failure of democracy and I hope that the powers that be can devise changes in Congressional mechanisms to not put us here again.  But can we fairly accuse individual members of Congress of the same?  After all, if the job of a Congress member is defined as “pass a budget”, then our Democratic representatives could easily accomplish this by giving in to Republican demands to curtail the Affordable Care Act.  As a Democrat and a citizen, however, that’s not what I want.   What I want is for my Democratic Congress members to stand firm against Republican blackmail.  Sure, I might want the guys on the other side to “do their job” and pass this budget cleanly, but I want it to be because they listen to their own constituents and realize that’s what they want as well.  The job of a representative is to represent.  The consequences of not doing so are felt, every two years, at the ballot box.

I am particularly disturbed by the implication that we should be blackmailing our own Congress members into doing something other than what people have elected them to do.  Ultimately, what Khanna and others are asking is that we put Congress members in a position of choosing between their duties to their constituents and their needs to pay the mortgage, put food on the table and keep their kids in ballet lessons.  That is a horrible choice, one that harms our system at the very core.  In this case, it’ll be a choice that could lead to the demise of Obamacare.

It is also an unfair choice, one that will ultimately lead to only those who are independently wealthy – or who have well off spouses – to be elected, as they would be the only ones able to resist the economic blackmail we’d have introduced.    We already have too many very rich people in Congress, and the wealthier get wealthier while the poor get poorer.

While nothing stops our Representatives from donating their paychecks to charity (though Christian ethics would have them do their charity quietly, rather than announcing them to the world), the XXVII amendment does stop Congress from passing any legislation to reduce Congressional pay until a new Congress is elected.  This is exactly to prevent dangerous demagogy from winning the day in situations like this.  That said, the pressure to give up salaries is very strong, particularly when fueled by challengers like Khanna that see it as an easy way to score political points.  It is important that our Congress members resist that pressure, not just for themselves but for their less-wealthy colleagues.

I am proud of Barbara Lee, Mike Honda, George Miller, Mike Thompson, Jerry McNerney,  Anna Eshoo,  Zoe Lofgren and Sam Farr and many other Democratic members of Congress for holding strong on the Affordable Care Act.  I’m also proud of them for keeping their pay.  I urge them to continue to do so.