How to Really, Really reform Congress: Sanity House

Jon Stewart's "Sanity" gathering is on October 30th. Here's what I would say if I got my 3 minutes of "fame."
Note: see Leslie Stahl interview below

A lady in California is dipping into her purse for over 100 million bucks to buy a franchise in that Bad Boys Club down the Mall. If I had $100 million to blow, I’d go in another direction.

Remember how bad American cars were fifty years ago? Japan began to sell us cars and each year they got better and better. Pretty soon, even GM admitted that the imports were eating Detroit's lunch.

If we want to end a dysfunctional Congress, we need a repeat. A bit of Yankee ingenuity and competition will make Congress either obsolete or force a make-over.

A $100 million could jump start an upside down, alternative Congress. Let's call it “Sanity House.”
Think about everything you know about Congress - Sanity House would be opposite.

A congressional candidate will spend months of 12-hour days running for office. Half the time will be spent raising money. The rest will be split between self-congratulatory speeches and meeting with image mechanics. A candidate for Sanity House will do none of the above – they may even continue their day job.

A new member of Congress joins a team, and then takes a seat on the bench while the stars control the game. Each Sanity House member is a player from day one. Joining a team is an option, not a requirement. Ever hear of the "rugged individual?" Sanity House has em'.

Congress has members sitting in hearings, endless hearings controlled by some guy who’s automatically elected by folks who may appear yokels, but who are smart enough to understand that a lifetime representative is money in the bank – money stolen from states that have competitive elections.

Sanity House members do their own research. They know how to Google. And if they take a few minutes off to watch a YouTube piano-playing big fat cat or even a little pussy, nobody cares. For the anti-politicians of this Sanity world, it really is a free country.

Congress has 535 members but Sanity House has ten thousand because it’s a part-time job and you mostly work out of your house. The individual senator is puffed-up important. A Sanity House member is just one of the people, though a little smarter and a little harder working than the average bear.

To get into the Senate you may spend north of $100 million. You get into Sanity House without spending a dime. You take a test on American history and economy. A lottery selects new members on a routine basis. A Senator will tell you he has a wise and unique vision. Members of Sanity House have demonstrated some excellence, but nobody has to strut. You're just an involved American.
America has labored for years to get more women into office. The Sanity House is roughly fifty percent female without any notion of a quota.

A senator heading up healthcare can take bales of cash from companies like Aetna and Blue Cross. A Sanity House member chairing such a committee would be sent packing. 

Representatives are under scrutiny, so candor is rare. Because they profit from slogans, courage is rare. Because they raise car loads of money, honesty is rare. Because they’re asked to vote without reading, reflection is rare. Now, if a legislature is light on candor, courage, honesty and reflection, what good is it?

Image both the Congress and Sanity House existing side by side. One staid and comporting itself, so it says, to the ideals of 1787. The other, Sanity House, yeasty and willing to take chances because it consists of Americans who are not happy with the status quo.

Now, I ask you to indicate which legislature you’d like. If you like the current Congress put your hand on your head. If the Sanity House sounds more adult and useful, raise your hand.

Now, in my fantasy 100,000 hands wave as the crowd shouts SANITY HOUSE, SANITY HOUSE, SANITY HOUSE!
After some brief interviews, "Sixty Minutes" asks for a ten minute video.
Lesley Stahl: What would happen if we had two competing congresses? One would come up with one scheme for healthcare and the other would come up with something quite different. Then what?
Dietrich: Competition is the only way to reform Congress. We ended slavery by violence, not appeal to morality. Sanity House is evolution, bloodless but demonstrably superior to America's kleptocratic and gutless legislatures.
Lesley Stahl: Name something that Sanity House could do better than Congress.
Dietrich: I’d say the world’s biggest problem is jobs. Our model has been broken for a century. In Washington’s time 9 out of 10 worked on the farm. Franklin pleaded with Europeans to “remove” to America.
The dysfunction was papered over by great wars and, in America, by a 25 year window when the rest of the world repaired itself from WWII. Congress, if we’re generous, is built to resolve 19th century problems. Sanity House could host a great conversation on how jobs should look in the 21st century and beyond. It's obvious that corporations have little interest in commonweal, which sometimes takes great courage and personal sacrifice. We're always talking about terrorism or the drug war in Mexico. The major cause of each is joblessness.
Lesley Stahl: What might they conclude?
Dietrich: To my thinking, 14 year-olds should have a job in the family or community. I know a common family where the kids have a PS3, an Xbox and a Wii. They also watch television for 4 hours a day. If you were trying to destroy a civilization, this is what a smart terrorist would do.
Our work life should be a succession of jobs, from teens to 75. Universities would work better if the minimum entry age was 25. Many professors have told me that the vets coming back from WWII were the best class they ever had.
Now, I’m not saying that Sanity House would agree with me – only that a legislature founded on merit and somewhat immune from the human desire for easy solutions would think and act differently and could demonstrate a willingness to tackle issues which all modern politicians shy away from.
Lesley Stahl: Don’t we define a “democracy” as “a government forged by elections?” How could a lottery improve on elections?
Dietrich: What if you tutored your kids and they became successful geniuses, would that be the answer to education? Obviously your “solution” isn’t scalable, practical. Elections are a technique that also has scaling problems. I think it was Thomas Jefferson who suspected elections above the county level – which was about 10,000 in early Virginia. Washington only got a presidential vote of 39,000 out of a total population of 750,000. Madison worried about the wealthy hosting feasts of ham and beer to bring out voters. If he was around today this beef would be small potatoes.
Sixty years ago the Dean of American political scientists* said that the “only democratic thing about a presidential election is the honest tabulation of the ballots.” So, saying democracy is built on mass elections is the same as saying democracy is best built by anti-democratic practices. Pass a test – get randomly selected: There you have equality, merit, variety and a barrier against purchased public policy.
Can we reform elections? For Sanity House we just do an end-around, as they say in football.
*Robert H. Dahl
Lesley Stahl: For the sake of argument, let’s say that the Sanity House works and gradually Congress is ditched. Fifty years later, what do we have?
Dietrich: Let’s look at Fred who is interested in political office and how he might act if elected and how the public might view him. In the current system he has to join a party, raise money, bow to state leaders and, of course, make myriad promises. If Fred became a member of Sanity House, he wouldn’t have to raise any money, join a party, bow to anyone or make a single promise, except to do his best.
Once in office, Fred claims he has a mandate. He talks personal pronouns – lots of “I” made this law and “she” will ruin the nation. Fred has a special interests drip tube, from Wall Street to unions to oil companies.
If Fred were in Sanity House he wouldn’t be a household name because he’s just one guy among ten thousand, working mostly out of his house. A minority couldn’t blackmail him regarding his take on illegal immigration or Israel or abortion. No reason to quit work because of an upcoming election. His interests in budget matters wouldn’t be focused on stealing money for his state. Fred doesn’t represent a state, just his own judgment. Thousands of Freds and Janes and Joses and Christines - that’s how you balance power, not with party, but with variety.
When the people aren’t bombarded with party scat, they’ll see their representatives in a different light. They may even come to respect them.
Lesley Stahl: If you have overly popular government - isn’t this how you get a welfare state and ruinous deficits?
Dietrich: Our current system is a contest between great wealth (oligarchy) and extreme populism (propositions.) A Sanity House belongs to a different breed of democracy – I call it “adult democracy.” Representatives aren’t heroes, they’re worker bees. We’re always praising the guys and gals fighting wars, which is great. Let’s praise our representatives in a similar fashion, for helping nation without regard to their own ego or wallet. In reality, national politics is like a war: Do badly in Washington and it’s the equivalent to losing a war, as other nations pass us by. We’ve been blowing our wealth and our good standing.
Lesley Stahl: What would happen to the Democratic and Republican parties if Sanity House became our new Congress?
Dietrich: They couldn’t survive in their current condition. They would either change radically or die. It’s that simple.
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