The greatest care should be employed in constituting this Representative Assembly. It should be in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them.– John Adams 1776
For Founding Father John Adams, a representative body should “think, feel, reason and act” like the people they represent. In other words, he believed that all representation should actually be representative. Since 2014, CRI has investigated ways to better accomplish his singular vision. Based out of the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, CRI is an independently financed think tank focused exclusively on the problems of representation. The principle researchers are Harvard professor David King, ex-NASA scientist James D’Angelo and Harvard historian Brent Ranalli.
Put the lobbyists back in the lobby
The core focus of CRI is an investigation into the problems of increased transparency and accountability in legislatures, particularly the US Congress (see The Transparency Problem). Surprisingly, this notion that transparency can degrade the quality of a democracy is something we are finding broad support for. Central to this work are the powerful transparency amendments of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, which allowed lobbyists, for the first time in history, to come in from the lobby. Suddenly they could attend the vast majority of sensitive committee markup sessions and monitor committee votes. For the previous two hundred years, dating back to the Constitutional Convention, these committee proceedings were conducted in secret as a way of avoiding the outside pressures (which included lobbyists, Presidents, foreign entities and even, as JFK suggested
, the people). But with the LRA, signed by President Nixon on October 26th, 1970, the floodgates were opened.
Consistent with the theory, this vast increase in transparency dramatically changed the intra-member dynamics of lawmaking and enormously enhanced the ability of ‘outside’ lobbyists and powerful entities to influence the legislative process. This work has culminated in our claim that all legislative transparency overwhelmingly benefits special interests and the powerful. Indeed, all of the central assumptions of transparency, pushed and supported by transparency groups, are based on myths and function in the exact opposite way of how they are intended to work. This has seismic repercussions on our understanding of accountability, transparency and representative democracy. And one of our core conclusions for improving American democracy is that we need to, once again, relegate the lobbyists to the lobby – giving them no access to markup sessions and no access to committee votes.
Representatives should be representative
A CRI we are working on two other research projects as well, both related to the question of representation. In particular, these ideas focus on the skewed representative make up of real world legislative bodies, both in the areas of wealth (see The Representative Ratio) and minority makeup (see The Senate Problem). As such we have proposed a new metric for democracies called the Representative Ratio (RR) which we expect will not only help in analyzing world democracies but may likely lead to solutions, as many developing countries have an RR that exceeds 1,000 and correlatates strongly with institutional corruption and inequality.
Finally, by changing the way Americans vote for their Senators (and likely for members of the House as well), we can not only eliminate gerrymandering but also significantly increase the voice of all minorities, both political and racial.
In theory, democracy is a bulwark against socially harmful policies, but in practice it gives them a safe harbor.– Caplan 2006 - Paradox of Democracy
A democracy should abhor inequality. Through voting, the impoverished masses should have near absolute control over the rules of the economy. They should control the redistribution of wealth, the rules of trade, health care, labor etc. But while democracies have produced many of the most egalitarian economies in history, their record is far from perfect. Indeed, this theoretical hegemony of the poor often appears as just an illusion, or worse, non-existent. When this occurs, however, we are convinced that this is a problem with representation and democracy, and our mission at CRI is to address this problem at its root.
The notion that inequality should be at least partially self-correcting in a democracy has a long pedigree in economic theory. In the canonical model of Meltzer and Richard, increased inequality leads the median voter to demand more redistribution.– Bonica, McCarty, Poole & Rosenthal 2013
Ironically, however, when wealth inequality shoots up and destabilizes (as it has over the past fifty years in the United States) the media turns almost exclusively to economists for answers. It is a bit like calling in a tailor to solve a problem with obesity. Sure, a good suit may make the patient look and feel better, but it doesn't address the underlying problem. Democratic governments, through voting, have provided the only occasional check on the accumulation of power in history. And government, not an invisible hand, defines the rules of the economy. And so, while inequality might appear to be a problem for economists (who readily write books on the subject), it is more accurately a problem of the institutions of democracy.
We believe that legislatures can and should reflect the will of the people. As Adams said, a representative assembly should “be in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large.” This is our goal. And we believe that this can be accomplished only by investigating and improving the design of the only institution that has ever put a check on power – democracy.