McClaughry: Holding legislators accountable

By John McClaughry

Next January the General Assembly will address its decennial responsibility for redistricting both houses of the Legislature. The first step in that process is receiving the recommendations of the Legislative Apportionment Board, which has been at work for several months.

That board will — again — recommend a very important change in how representatives are elected. It proposes to establish single-member House districts. Fifty-eight representatives are presently elected from single-member districts; 92 are elected from 46 two-member districts.

John McClaughry

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

The change is championed by an odd-fellow combination of a former state Republican chair, Rob Roper, and a former Progressive House candidate, Jeremy Hansen. Curiously, the left-wing Vermont Public Interest Research Group, chronically doing battle with Roper’s conservative Ethan Allen Institute, spoke in support of the single-member House district plan during board testimony.

All districts, in accordance with the one-person-one-vote principle, are required to have a population within plus or minus 10 percent of the state average. What would be gained by going to single member House districts?

For one thing, multimember districts have been used elsewhere to prevent a minority — such as black voters in the South — from ever having the opportunity to elect their own candidate in a multimember district designed (by whites) to favor whites. There’s no evidence of this ever being done in Vermont.

Arguments for single-member districts are often made on the basis of “equity,” “fairness” and “common sense.” These tend to be vague and debatable concepts. There is, however, one powerful argument for single-member districts: accountability. Citizens have a constitutional right to hold their representatives accountable. They can’t effectively do this in a multimember district.

The curse of multimember districts is that only rarely will any candidate do battle with any other candidate.

A one-on-one contest gives voters a clear opportunity to hold incumbents accountable. It’s “Reelect Smith!” vs. “Dump Smith, Elect Jones.” Challenger Jones will naturally focus his or her campaign on Smith’s performance, voting record, laziness, falsehoods, and so on. The voters choose.

But in a two-member district, challenger Jones is tempted to avoid attacking Smith’s performance, because Jones might be able to get enough second votes from voters who like Smith to put them both into office, at the expense of the other candidates. By the same thinking, incumbent Smith will keep mum about Jones’ inadequate experience, probity and wrong ideas, so as not to lose possible second votes from Jones backers. This makes for appallingly issue-free elections.

This may seem confusing to people who haven’t been involved in campaigns in multimember districts, but it certainly happens. The voters get four (or more) candidates touting their own merits, but assiduously avoiding doing battle over the incumbents’ performance.

Having a motivated challenger in a single-member district doesn’t allow an incumbent to squirm out of being accountable for his or her record. That’s why incumbents usually favor insipid name recognition and popularity contests among a bunch of lesser known challengers.

Every reform aimed at increasing elected officials’ accountability to the voters, the essence of democracy, soon runs head on into a huge obstacle: incumbents. It will happen again. Incumbents will petition their party leaders — of both parties — to scrap the board’s single-member district recommendation, to maximize their chances of worry-free reelection.

When this happens, as it always has, there’s still a constructive fallback position: Elect the district’s two members in separate positions — say St. Johnsbury-1 and St. Johnsbury-2. That would force two one-on-one races, instead of one two-on-two race. That would keep some multimember districts, but eliminate candidate jockeying in them to attract second votes, and still make each incumbent accountable.

The board has yet to approve a Senate redistricting plan. According to the Constitution, Senate districts can have any number of senators — 27 of the 30 senators in Vermont are now elected from multimember districts. Ideally, each single-member Senate district would include five single-member House districts.

Unfortunately the Vermont Constitution requires that those districts “adhere to boundaries of counties.” That totally nonsensical requirement was slipped into the Constitution in 1974 by a senator who thought his chances for staying in office were better in a three-on-three member district. Electing senators one-on-one in designated positions within a multimember district would be a marked improvement.

Assuring legislators’ accountability to the people is a fundamental principle of our republican form of government. It far outweighs the urge of incumbents to protect their own political fortunes.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Artaxerxes and John McClaughry

2 thoughts on “McClaughry: Holding legislators accountable

  1. The US people have a Constitutional right to hold Legislators accountable.

    Legislators, such as Pelosi, Schumer and Sanders, are hell-bent to foist a $1.75 TRILLION socialist-style sham onto the US People, regardless of what it does to:

    2) The already outrageously high US NATIONAL DEBT, and
    3) The already outrageously high US TRADE DEFICIT

    The cost of the BERNIE, et al., SOCIALIST-STYLE SHAM would be at least TWO TIMES the $1.75 TRILLION, if all its provisions would be run the full ten years, says Senator Manchin.

    Manchin has been consistent for MONTHS, saying the SHAM had to be fully paid for with revenues from taxes, and savings from other government programs.

    However, the Wharton School of Business, the best business school in the US, claims the revenues/savings assumed by SHAM bill proponents are $450 BILLION short of the $1.75 TRILLION COST.

    Such chicanery by LEGISLATORS is intolerable and should be impeachable, as determined by the STILL-FREE, UNCOWED US PEOPLE.

    Legislators should be held to ACCOUNT, and not be allowed to hide behind MASKS, and SMOKE AND MIRRORS.


    Senator Manchin calls Biden’s $1.75 TRILLION spending proposal a “shell game”

    Watch the Manchin video regarding Pelosi’s revenue sham of the so-called RECONCILIATION bill.
    Manchin states, the cost will be at least DOUBLE the $1.75 TRILLION.

    • See URL

      Efforts to pressure Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to express support for President Biden’s massive social safety net expansion prompted him to make his two dramatic declarations: don’t rush the package, and don’t link it to the separate infrastructure bill.

      Why it matters:

      Manchin’s surprise press statement Monday didn’t just disrupt the glide path to a vote envisioned by House leaders; it created a PR nightmare for the White House. He said the $1.75 trillion package was financed by “shell games” — Manchin believes it will cost closer to $3.9 trillion.

      That estimate comes from the Penn Wharton Budget model, which has been helping Manchin sort through how much each program costs. It includes easily digestible tables, showing the costs per year and over the usual 10-year window.

      The same experts estimated last week that the revenue increases Biden proposes to finance the spending — which the White House put at $1.9 trillion — may only generate closer to $1.5 trillion.

      Manchin has been consulting with Penn Wharton experts throughout the process and trusts the model.

      By the numbers:

      For example, the White House puts the cost of day care subsidies and universal preschool at $400 billion; Penn Wharton estimates it at $700 billion over 10 years.

      The White House wants to spend $200 billion to extend the child tax credit for one year at the enhanced $3,600-per-year level, and make it fully refundable for its duration. Penn Wharton calculates the total cost, over 10 years, at $1.8 trillion.

      Drafters of the bill have taken to using an array of different program durations to make the total spending number digestible for wavering Democrats.

      Between the lines:

      Manchin’s opposition to the current reconciliation package also is bigger than whether it’s voted upon before a tandem infrastructure bill.

      He continues to negotiate over substantive concerns — from climate provisions to total costs — and hints he could eventually vote for it.

      “I’m open to supporting a final bill that helps move our country forward,” he said Monday. “But I’m equally open to voting against a bill that hurts our country.”

      The big picture: Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have been at the center of talks for passing the two massive bills because they’ve challenged their fellow Democrats over their cost and scope.

      House progressives have targeted the two senators and said they wouldn’t pass the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill unless Manchin, Sinema and their fellow Democrats pass it or, more recently, publicly declare their support for it.

      Congressional leaders pressed Manchin over the weekend to publicly declare his support for the reconciliation package, hoping that would convince progressives to vote for the infrastructure bill.

      That approach backfired — spectacularly — in the Senate briefing room.

      What they’re saying: “Holding this bill hostage is not going to work in getting my support,” Manchin told reporters.

      The senator said he was concerned he couldn’t accurately determine the reconciliation bill’s true cost or scope without final legislative language.

      “As more of the real details of the basic framework [for the reconciliation bill] are released, what I see are shell games — budget gimmicks that make the real cost of the so-called $1.75 trillion bill estimated to be almost twice that amount … if you extended it permanently,” Manchin said.

      Go deeper:

      Sinema has had similar concerns about how much each program costs over 10 years.
      She’s taken to carrying her own spreadsheets to keep track of the true price tag.

Comments are closed.