Let’s Take Tom Steyer’s Worst Idea Seriously for a Minute

(Bloomberg) What’s the worst idea in presidential politics this cycle? 

I’m not sure, but it’s almost certainly one of several that Tom Steyer is pushing. I’ve been mostly ignoring him, but since he’s going to be one of only six candidates in the Democratic debate Tuesday night in Des Moines, Iowa, I suppose it’s time to take his policy positions seriously.

He’s for Congressional term limits. That’s a solution in search of a problem. As the scholar of Congress Josh Huder notes, “65% of the Senate and 70% of the House have served 10 years or less.” Today’s Congress is historically weak, and one reason is the relatively short tenure of many members. As it is, short-timers allow themselves to be bossed around by experienced leaders or by the White House. That’s bad enough, but if experienced leaders were eliminated, Congress would find itself bossed by the White House and by large organized interest groups. That’s not just the logic of the situation; it’s also what political scientists who have studied term limits in state legislatures have found.

Politicians who want long careers in Congress tend to work hard to represent their constituents. Politicians who know they’ll be seeking a different job soon won’t have any incentive to care about the people who voted for them — and won’t develop the skills needed to represent them even if they want to try.

It gets worse. Steyer is also for instituting regular national policy referendums. As anyone who has been following U.K. politics or California politics surely knows, asking people to vote directly on policy just seems like a way to empower them. In fact, it’s just like Congressional term limits: It’s a way to transfer influence away from regular voters and toward organized interests. 

Yes, the normal policymaking process is long and complicated. Yes, organized groups do have advantages over the general public when it comes to influencing that process — in Congress, in executive branch agencies, and in the courts. But still, the central role of politicians gives voters real representation. The idea that national direct democracy would do a better job of protecting voters is an illusion. Large organized interests would inevitably dominate which questions get asked, how they get asked, and how the campaign over them would be framed. 

All of this is true regardless of what one’s policy preference might be. But it’s particularly the case for people who support an active role for government. Steyer’s policy priority is climate change, which is an inherently complex issue, and will be addressed only with complex policies. That leaves two possibilities. Either submit a complex policy package to a mass electorate that won’t understand it — or submit a simplistic bumper-sticker of a referendum and leave all the serious work to whoever gets to implement it should it pass. Neither method is very democratic.

The art of democracy is all about bargaining and compromise. That’s frustrating for everyone. But it’s also the only way to have the kind of robust representative system that democracy demands. Outsiders such as Steyer — or President Donald Trump — who have no experience as elected officials tend to think that democratic frustration is a flaw of the system. But those who have learned how to govern are more likely to realize it’s a necessary virtue. 

1. Christopher Clary and Caitlin Talmadge at the Monkey Cage on the consequences (so far) of the Iran crisis.

2. Also at the Monkey Cage: Steven S. Smith on Senate impeachment rules.

3. Mark Blumenthal on what we want election polls to do — and what they actually can do.

4. Barry Friedman and Dahlia Lithwick on how the courts are helping Trump by not acting

5. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Julian Lee on the U.S. and imported oil


More Articles