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Tinkering with the system

| Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014, 8:55 p.m.

Days before the November election I was listening to a radio talk show whose topic of discussion was a prominent Democrat who suggested that congressional terms should be made longer. Specifically, he suggested having U.S. senators serve for eight years rather than six and members of the U.S. House of Representatives serve four years instead of two.

The reasoning behind such a change was to limit the number of opportunities voters have to impact the system to ensure more stability in the federal government. Prompting the discussion was voter propensity to deal President Obama midterm electoral setbacks compromising his ability to enact his agenda.

Interestingly, when someone dislikes the verdict of voters or an elected official misbehaves, the search goes on for a systemic weakness to blame. Inevitably, the “solution” is to remove from those rascally voters the ability to express their will through the electoral process.

Such is the case in Pennsylvania, where recent episodes of elected officials behaving badly have prompted calls for change that would erode the power of voters and diminish the ability of “We the People” to impact the composition of our government. Structural “reforms” that would enhance the power of elites to the detriment of grassroots voters include reducing the size of the Legislature and enacting merit selection of judges.

The recent forced retirement of state Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffrey for excessive use of the send button on his computer has re-energized the merit selection movement. Presumably, a merit selection committee would have asked McCaffrey if he liked to forward pornographic emails, and he would have admitted such and been eliminated from consideration. Likewise, the last justice to be impeached, Rolf Larsen, would have admitted his addictions to the merit selection committee and informed it of his plan to use staff to acquire prescription drugs illegally.

It is folly to believe a merit selection committee would be error free in its choices. The only sure outcome of merit selection is that the selectors and those who select the selectors would gain incredible influence over one-third of state government with no voter oversight or recourse.

Reducing the size of the General Assembly is another “reform” that would diminish the impact of voters while giving leaders greater control. A smaller Legislature would mean larger districts, and candidates must spend more to be elected in larger districts. Thus the role of campaign cash would grow while the ability of less-well-financed candidates to compete through grassroots campaigning would be lessened.

At the national level, lengthening the terms of congressmen and senators would severely curtail the ability of voters to express their will. The Framers of the Constitution intended for the House to be volatile, representing the momentary views of the people. Senators were granted six-year terms to be the “cooling saucer” of those who could take a longer-term view.

Constitutions are written and systems are established so the framework of government is timeless and not whipsawed by the winds of current events. Any system is only as good as the men and women who serve within it. The key to better government lies not in changing the system, but in being more vigilant on whom we select to represent us.

Lowman Henry is chairman and CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly “Lincoln Radio Journal.”

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