There is an under-appreciated gap in our representative democracy: the fact that there is very likely no news source that covers the week-to-week activity of your Congressman. Local newspapers tend to cover the week-to-week activity of local government (at best, hard-hitting investigations of the mayor, but rarely the Congressman) and national newspapers tend to cover the big players, ignoring your run-of-the-mill representative. Occasionally, when there is a big issue — Obamacare, a war vote, etc. — we find out what our Congressman’s position is on something, but this is rare.
This means that there are only two ways we find out about our Congressman: (1) from his or her opponent in the few months before an election, usually in over-dramatic television ads (and this only when he or she has a serious opponent, which is increasingly rare); and (2) from the Congressman himself!
The result: Congressmen are not really accountable to their week-to-week, month-to-month actions, inactions, positions, co-sponsorships, votes, etc. They are not only partially unaccountable in the sense that everybody back home knows but nobody back home cares, but more deeply unaccountable: nobody back home even knows!
I am facing this in my push to raise the federal minimum wage: there are six GOP congressmen who are in deep pro-minimum wage districts and have signed passionate pro-minimum wage pleas in the past, but are now refusing to act. They can keep ignoring our questions, because they know that their constituents will never find out, in the moment, about their inaction. If it’s brought up in the election six months from now by the digging of an opposition researcher, they can fudge the message in a campaign ad.
How do we solve this? I have an idea. We need an entity in each district, independent of the Congressman and his staff, that is responsible for mediating the representation between a district and its Congressman. This can be a creative two-way institution: (1) Congressman-to-District: reporting on the actions of the Congressman to the constituents, putting it into context by explaining bills, policies and initiatives, hosting forums for the Congressman and national policy experts, etc.; (2) District-to-Congressman: commissioning polls of the district, commissioning district forums for constituents to ask questions and share thoughts (currently Congressmen run their own forums!), hosting district debates for the Congressman to sit in on, publicizing insurgent constituent opinions and demands, etc.
Even better would be to not have only one of these “Congressional District Leagues” in each district, but to have many wards per district, which could facilitate this two way conversation: informing ward members of Congressional action and forcing Congressman to hear ward members. It would add a new layer to Congressional politics. You could imagine: aspiring Congresswomen not rising through party establishment or big donors, but rather through ward activity and leadership; campaigns being facilitated not through ads but through forums hosted by wards (With this new layer of democratic institutions, we could achieve something even deeper than campaign finance reform: not just democratizing financial access to running campaign ads, but ending the reign of campaign ads altogether!); causes not starting with random hodge-podge letters and calls and petitions, but rather through “Go to your Congressional ward meetings and get a resolution passed to ask your Congressman about X or Y issue.”
It’s not that hard of an idea to make happen: less than 10 people could get make this happen in their Congressional district and fill this gap in our representative democracy!