October 19, 2012

If their representatives don’t bring home the bacon, Americans are free to fire them on Election Day. But what if members of Congress didn’t run for reelection in their home districts but were randomly assigned to run somewhere else? A 2011 paper, “Randomizing Districts for Reelections: A Thought Experiment,” tried to find benefits in a legislature divorced from geography.

Under such a system, “legislators cannot focus their attention upon pleasing a geographically-concentrated special interest while neglecting the broader national interest,” write Scott Wentland, an economist at Longwood University in Virginia, and Peter Stone, a political scientist then at Tulane University.

In small ways, randomness already plays a part in local politics. In the District, for example, five members of the 13-member D.C. Council are elected “at-large,” with no ties to a specific ward. Trying this at the federal level might be unworkable — imagine California Democrat Nancy Pelosi representing, say, Ohio Republican John Boehner’s district — but Wentland and Stone argue that it would let legislators operate behind a “veil of randomness,” allowing them to be more moderate.

“Random selection incorporates into decision-making a process that is unpredictable,” Wentland and Stone write. In other words, Pelosi would have to consider interests beyond those of her California district when casting her vote in Congress. “This unpredictability renders it impossible for agents to act upon bad reasons,” according to the paper.

The professors think all sorts of good would come from this system: Gridlock would end, big issues would get settled (fiscal cliff and debt reduction, anyone?), and Congress’s approval ratings would soar.

“I wanted to get some sort of discussion started about changing the incentives of our representatives in a way that would have their interests more aligned with the national interest,” Wentland said in an interview. “I’m not sure our current system has that.”

Inventive solution, but it prompts a skeptic to ask: Why bother to have congressional districts at all? Isn’t a House with random districts like a Senate without state lines?

Rather than upend the entire system, Wentland says, the paper was looking for “an incremental change.”

“We have districts because there are efficiencies in terms of campaigning,” he said. “I wanted to get some sort of discussion started about changing the incentives of our congressmen.”

Justin Moyer, Outlook editorial aide

moyerj@washpost.com

Justin Moyer is the deputy editor of the Morning Mix.