Anytime a large, emergency spending bill makes its way through Congress, the potential for mischief is great.-Chris Chocola (Indiana Congressman, 2003-2007)
I've just finished listening to the lecture series, The medieval world. II, Society, economy, and culture. I've enjoyed the series during my commute and today's lecture on the origins of representative democracy and parliaments struck a chord.
The professor began by pointing out that true Democracies are very rare; the common example is Athens in ancient Greece where any of the 5000 free men in the city could propose law and vote on it. The US is actually not a democracy; its a Republic where we elect those who represent us and conduct government. Republics are also uncommon in world history with Rome as the classic example. The Roman Republic lasted for several hundred years until the 1st century AD. Then over a thousand years passed before a representative government reappeared with the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215.
The story behind the Magna Carta is revealing. King John of England was also Duke of Normandy in France which did not please the French King who fought long and hard to seize John's french lands. This constituted an "Emergency" for King John which allowed him to raise new taxes and fees on his top noblemen, the Barons, in order to pay for the long war. Apparently the Barons did not mind the taxes so much when John's brother, Richard the Lion Hearted, asked for it because Richard won his battles and could reward the Barons for their generosity. John however was terrible at war and kept losing his battles and had nothing to show or give away for the money spent. [I'm reminded of Obama and the Stimulus plan but I won't go there.]
Eventually the Barons had had enough and "forced" King John to sign the Magna Carta which required kings to "ask" the Barons for money by pleading the case before them. Barons now had the right to say no if the "emergency" was unjustified in their eyes. This led to a new dynamic of quid-pro-quo where the King with hat in hand would have to listen to the Baron's requests and make deals in order to receive the money to run his wars. There was greater fiscal responsibility because no Baron wanted to give up his money without good cause. It was their money!
The English Kings hated dealing with this new "parliament" of nobles and called it only as a last resort. But with the Hundred Year War the need for funds was great and so reluctantly Parliaments were called again and again and each time the Parliament attached more power to itself as it bargained with kings. As towns became wealthy the British king added town leaders to Parliament as additional sources of funding (and perhaps to influence the vote?). Hence Parliament became more representative.
Now interestingly, Royalty was right to fear Parliament. When in session they were a royal pain making demands. When not in session they got mad over being ignored. One cause of the English Civil War (1642–1651) was King Charles I's refusal to invoke a radically Protestant Parliament which was opposed to the king's Catholic wife. Parliament went to war against the King and won in 1651. Charles I was killed, his son, Charles II, exiled and the country ruled by Parliament as the Commonwealth of England (1649–53), and then as a Protectorate (1653–59), under Oliver Cromwell's personal rule. During this period Parliament was extremely puritanical and outlawed Christmas as well as Opera, Plays and just about any element of fun. At Cromwell's death the Parliament restored Charles II as King and there was much rejoicing.
The French Kings managed not to call a Parliament for centuries but when a funding crisis occurred in 1789, King Louis XVI invoked an Estates-General (i.e. parliament) as a last resort. The Estates-General used this rare opportunity to pass new laws, seize power, imprison and eventually kill the King, and begin the French Revolution.
The founding fathers of America established a constitution to balance Parliament (Congress) and King (President) against one another as history had shown the dangers of either side obtaining total power. However after learning about the history of Parliament I realized that we are lacking a key ingredient from parliamentary history. Our modern Congressmen and Senators have no skin in the game, it's NOT their personal money that they are managing. It's bad enough that they have an enormous slush fund from taxes, and fees, and social security to spend as they will. But they can also pass bills that are completely unfunded. When expenses exceed revenues (as they typically do), congress borrows money or raises taxes and fees.
Instead of sharing the pain of expenses, congressmen today try to grab all the Federal Pork they can for themselves and the folks back home. So let's make it personal. What if we replaced all federal tax with higher state taxes and Congressmen would have to fund the federal government out of the funds of their own states? Now each bill has a cost that is felt back home as there is less to spend on the state level. The nature of Pork might change - instead of "free money for us" from the slush fund, state residents might realize that their representative is taking their money and spending it on his supporters and friends.
The federal budget is a disaster in every country today with a Representative Democracy. There is no incentive for fiscal responsibility, no reward for saving money, no recognition for running a lean government with fewer workers. Instead people re-elect leaders who bring in the most Pork for local projects and businesses. Representatives can raise more funds by offering government jobs as rewards to friends. And they raise salary and benefits sky-high for government workers to win the union vote.
We need to change the system to encourage fiscal prudence over fiscal largess.
Labels: Common Sense, Government, History, National Debt, Politics