Fix the Senate III: Stochastic Gong Show

American government has an obvious problem. The only elected official held accountable for whether the government as a whole is effective is the President. But the President, under our checked-and-balanced system, cannot govern effectively without the active cooperation of Congress.

For members of Congress, how effectively we are governed during their tenure is basically a non-issue. Representatives are held accountable not for how the country is doing, but for the bills they personally sponsor and for how they individually vote. They have every incentive to pander pointlessly to key constituencies and to avoid contentious votes that might anger people, regardless of how essential the issue. Ultimately, the public interest is bound to the portfolio of legislation a Congress produces, while a legislator’s interest is bound to the popularity of individual bills and votes they become identified with. And to the unpopularity of votes they can avoid becoming identified with — much of why we have an “imperial” Presidency is because, on matters like war and peace for which Congress is Constitutionally responsible, our representatives rationally abdicate. They prefer to cede hard calls to the executive, so they cannot be blamed for whatever happens.

This helps explain a stylized fact of American politics: The public detests Congress as a whole, but loves their own representatives. Each member of Congress tailors her actions to keep the love of her own constituency, and usually succeeds. But all that preening and ducking of controversy fails to compose to an intelligent portfolio of legislation, conducive of high-quality government. Even when a single party controls Congress and the Presidency, for most representatives, the electoral cost or benefit of how well the country is governed under their party’s “brand” is modest compared to the personalized costs of a vote that might upset important constituents.

We would be better governed if Congresspeople had a stronger stake in the success of their legislative bodies as a whole than they had in their personal popularity with constituents. But we have no institutions that reward elected officials for the collective successes, or punish for the collective failures, of the bodies they constitute. We should create such institutions.

Suppose that at every Federal election, a yes/no question were placed on the ballot. “Do you approve of the job the US Congress is doing?” The result would be aggregated, one person one vote, into a national approval rating. Senators are ordinarily guaranteed six-year terms. But suppose (following the Constitutional amendment that would be required to enact this) each just-reelected or two-year-in Senator stood in jeopardy of losing their protracted terms, and being forced to stand again for election in just two years. For each such Senator, we’d perform a lottery in which the probability of having their terms abruptly shortened would be (1 - approval_rating). If Congress had a 100% approval rating, then senators could be as secure in their jobs as they are today. If Congress has only a 33% approval rating, however, then two-thirds of incumbent senators who might have looked forward to four or six years of job security would find themselves thrown untimely before the tribunal of the people. This would create a strong incentive for Senators to govern in ways that not only endear them to their own constituents, but also persuades the national public that Congress as a whole is discharging its duty of representation and governance well. [*]

I call this idea a “Stochastic Gong Show”, after the television variety show during which judges would cut poor performances short by banging on a gong. We would all stand in judgment of Congress, as we should. But rather than deterministically ending bad numbers with a bonk, we’d decide the risk our players face if they fail to choreograph a dance that delights the public.

An objection might be that it would only apply to senators, who would be judged for the performance of Congress as a whole. But maybe that’s okay. The Senate in practice is the more powerful house of Congress, populated by the more senior members of each party who are not without influence over their colleagues in the other chamber. If Senators really need Congress to work, they can go a long way towards making it happen.

A practical objection is that, under the only Constitutional amendment process ever thus far used, a supermajority of the Senate would have to approve adoption of this proposal, whose function and intent is to make senators uncomfortable, for the good of the nation. However, anything is possible if the public is sufficiently convinced it’s a good idea. “Stochastic Gong Show” sounds like a dorky thing attractive to people like me (and not just) who think injecting some randomness into democracy could do a lot of good. But the basic idea of a mechanism that automatically throws the bums out when, overall, we agree they’re doing a crappy job, strikes me as one that could be popular.

Notes: I first presented this idea a couple of years ago. It owes something to this proposal by Robert Merkle, who similarly proposes using an approval rating to drive political institutions, though he goes well beyond that, proposing (after Robin Hanson’s “futarchy“) that policy choices should be driven by market-predicted approval ratings conditional upon adoption.

[*] If this level of risk seems too strong, the formula could be generalized to 1-(k+approval_rating)/(k+1), for a chosen value of k. If k is zero, we have the original formula. If k were 1 and Congress’ approval rating was 33%, each senator’s risk of a shortened term would be 1-(1+1/3)/2, 1/3 rather than 2/3.

Office Hours: I’ve taken to doing Zoom office hours on Friday afternoons, 12pm Pacific / 3pm Eastern / 8pm. If you’d like to join, let me know by e-mail or Twitter DM or in the comments here and I’ll send you an invite. (If you use your real email when leaving a comment, I’ll have it but it won’t be published.)

Update History:

  • 21-Dec-2021, 4:15 p.m. PST: “But we have no institutions that rewards reward elected officials for the collective successes, or punishes punish for the collective failures…”

4 Responses to “Fix the Senate III: Stochastic Gong Show”

  1. Detroit Dan writes:

    Another good idea. Thanks. Funny thing is I never realized the problem about being accountable for the government as a whole, but it makes a lot sense. Hopefully ideas such as this will be discussed far and wide and our leaders will do more than point fingers at the other side. The constitution has served us well, but may be in need of an update. Perhaps it’s time for a Second Constitutional Convention as provided for in Article V of the original constitution.

  2. Greg Slepak writes:

    I’ve taken to doing Zoom office hours on Friday afternoons, 12pm Pacific / 3pm Eastern / 8pm. If you’d like to join, let me know by e-mail or Twitter DM or in the comments here

    Hey Steve, it’s Greg! I’ve got a question for you (see Twitter DM), and I’d be happy to discuss it there or during your office hours, whichever is convenient for you. Might want to drop by to say hi anyway. Hope you are well.

  3. Unanimous writes:

    A similar idea would be to let people vote for both a party (including no party as one of the party options) and the individual candidate in each district. The party votes tallied up across the nation as a percent would add to the individual votes as a percent to decide the winner. All terms can stay as they are.

    I presume you are also aware of the German and NZ electoral systems in which addition party members of parliament are added to the district elected members to make the parliament representative as a whole of the overall party vote.

  4. albatross writes:

    It seems like this proposal runs up against a tragedy of the commons: I’m Senator Blowhard (R-Exxon). I would prefer to have a better chance of serving a full term in the Senate without a surprise election, but my actions have only a very dilute effect on that outcome. Suppose I act just like we wish our senators acted: I carefully consider the likely consequences of each bill before voting on it, I take public stands on matters of importance to keeping the government functioning well, I make painful compromises when that’s needed to get important things done, etc. All that helps the government function better, and very slightly decreases my chances of facing another election early.

    By contrast, visibly taking controversial positions, voting in favor of easily-attacked-but-sensible bills, voting against popular-but-ill-conceived bills, compromising (“betraying my base”) to get things done, etc., all cost me directly. Whenever my next election happens, I’m likely to end up losing it if I do too much of that stuff.

    It seems like I will fervently hope that the *other* senators do those risky-but-beneficial-to-all things, while I personally make sure to make a lot of stirring speeches during pointless hearings, sponsor and vote for bills that my base will like even if they don’t make sense as policy or will obviously get thrown out by the Supreme Court, and do my damndest to dodge any personal responsibility on anything risky by trying to avoid going on the record or having to vote for stuff like wars or bailouts unless *everyone* is voting for them.

    Is there some other way we could incentivize congressmen to care about the functionality of government? It seems like the current system we have kinda-sorta works when the same party controls Congress and the White House, since the party leadership usually does care about the administration succeeding then. But when there’s divided government, or weak leadership, or a big split in one of the big parties, that all falls apart and there’s nobody but the president who has an incentive to keep the whole system functioning properly, and half the time, even the president is term-limited out and won’t ever stand for election again.