The airwaves and newsprint are again full of polling reports that indicate Congress is not, in erstwhile congressman John McCormack’s famous descriptor, held in a minimum high regard by the American public. According to Public Policy Polling, Congress’s favorability rating has dropped to 9%, while Gallup polls report the approval rating has recently bumped up to 18% from 10% earlier in the year. Suffice to say, Americans are not happy with a polarized Congress that has become dysfunctional, and something needs to be done.
I have an idea for reforming the system by restoring functionality. Although they are several reforms currently percolating through the system the will reduce the polarization (such as top-two primaries and the elimination of gerrymandering), my idea for reform directly attacks the dysfunction by creating a strong incentive in favor of functioning. And in the words of economics professor Henry N. Butler, “Incentives matter.”
Most economists will stipulate that the best incentive is money. So, although congressmen may claim that their service is altruistic and selfless, voters know intuitively that public servants are just like other workers in that their compensation is important to them and that it motivates them to perform. The problem is that the current system provides many incentives to pontificate and few to produce. American voters are well-known for hating Congress and loving their congressman, and their votes in November continually reflect that, with incumbents rarely voted out of office. If the voters were given an opportunity to evaluate their Congress as well as their congressman, then perhaps this collection of polarized individual would learn to operate more like a team.
To reform the current system, I suggest that every congressional election should include a referendum on the previous Congress’s performance. If a voter is pleased with that performance, congressional pay should be increased by 10%. A neutral vote would leave pay as it is, and a negative vote would result in pay being decreased by 10%. There is no doubt that the voters in November 2012 would have imposed a 10% pay cut on the 2013-2014 Congress, but more importantly, I believe that if such a referendum were in place, Congress would have acted much earlier in resolving the Fiscal Cliff problem. And we wouldn’t be facing another Debt Ceiling debacle.
There is something quintessentially American for a congressman to be rated, not just as an individual, but as a part of a team. As is commonly declared by football coaches, there is no “I” in “team.” Perhaps “good government” can again become a staple of American politics.