Neil Tambe

Husband, Father, Citizen, Professional.

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Why we need legislative responsiveness (and dunk tanks)

After the government shutdown, I was furious and hopeless. Furious because, well, how did this happen? More importantly, I was hopeless because I felt like I (nor any other citizens) had real recourse against legislators after the shutdown occurred. After all, we can't fire legislators, nor can we dock their pay, nor can we easily protest outside of their offices in Washington. In other words, we can't change their behavior by immediately making them feel the pain of their decisions. [For more discussion on response tactics like voting and campaign contributions (and why they don't work in this case), scroll to the bottom of this page.]

So with this in mind, I'd like to propose some radical (read: wacky) alternatives which might actually make legislators "feel the pain" when they make decisions that are bad or "feel the love" when they make decisions that are good.

How to make legislators feel the pain and love One easy translation from the private sector is to have variable compensation or "pay-for-performance". In such a scheme you could have citizens judge legislators on a number of criteria indicating good performance. Then, you could have a bonus pool for legislators who do well and no bonuses for those who don't. This would be difficult because you'd have to design the incentives correctly, but it's possible. This isn't radical, however.

Campaign contributions aren't a great lever to use, but I think campaign spending could be. What if we limited campaign spending by legislators based on how pools of constituents viewed their performance? Say you had three pools of constituents, people in your district, people in your state, and a national group of non-partisan political elites. After every session of congress, each pool of constituents would be able to allocate points to whichever members they wanted. Then, based on those point allocations on a session-by-session basis, legislators would have different spending ceilings for their campaigns down the road. This would give an incentive for legislators to be responsive to constituents, immediately, beyond vocal minorities.

Another lever one could use to punish misbehaving legislators is to control access to the chamber floor or the media. In this scheme, legislators who get more done or better represent the country would have easier access to make remarks publicly. If a legislator was being wholly unproductive, they'd have their time to speak capped. You could perhaps evaluate this based on a constituent voting scheme or by legislators policing themselves.

Finally, here's a funny one that might actually work. Below I discuss why shaming might not be good enough. But, if we're going to shame legislators let's REALLY shame legislators. Let's do a gong show. In this scheme, maybe we put a big dunk tank on the Capitol steps. Let's put a legislator above that aforementioned dunk tank. Then, we have a game show on a regular basis where a legislator gets grilled by a moderator. Then, people on social media vote as to whether that legislator should get dunked or not. If they get off the tank without a dunking, we'd make a big deal about it to really make them feel good about it. If they get dunked, we'd make them wear a "dunked" cap until the next dunking show. They'd look really, really foolish if they were dunked. We'd do say, 10 or 20 legislators during each show so that over the course of a term everyone would have to face the dunk tank.

Anyway, some of these are crazy, some are hard, and others are simple. Overall, though, I think there's many better ways to have immediate responsiveness of government. Surely, all these ideas are not ready for implementation. I merely want to provide a vision of alternatives that we might use. If there's big demand, I'll flesh one of them out. If not, I hope they help the readers of this post realize that responsiveness in government is difficult, but very important.

Extended Discussion on Voting and Campaign Contributions (and why they don't work): The two mechanisms we seem to have are voting and campaign contributions. Unfortunately, though, these happen every two, four, or six years which diffuses the effectiveness of those feedback mechanisms - if you vote for a congressperson every two years, they'll have no idea what the basis of your decision is. It could be because of the government shutdown or because you like their views on pet adoption. A vote isn't a great feedback mechanism if a legislator doesn't know why you vote and you vote very infrequently.

You could also communicate your viewpoint after an event by making campaign contributions for a particular candidate. But that runs into the same problems of diffusion above: no legislator can really know exactly why you contribute to them. They probably shouldn't anyway, because if you contribute for a specific purpose the legislator is running into a gray moral area (potential bribery).

Moreover, both these mechanisms don't actually impose a direct cost on a legislator...by not giving a vote or a contribution, you're simply withholding a future benefit. Legislators don't "feel the pain", so to speak. Also, I don't think shaming - for example through letter writing or social media - does enough because it's also diffused. On average, any legislator will probably get lots of different written feedback from constituents but they plusses will probably cancel out the minuses. Moreover, constituent letters and tweets are very easy to ignore, especially when media channels are already saturated with information.