Nancho Advisory: Before "We the People" can ever begin to challenge Big Body rule, we unfortunately have to reawaken to the fact we are fit to rule ourselves. We have been brainwashed to distrust our basic civil competence for so long that it takes a "radical" book like this to remind us what democracy and our revolution were really all about.



by Ernest Callenbach & Michael Phillips

Citizen Legislature cover

By ERNEST CALLENBACH, author of the Ecotopia trilogy and many other extraordinary works, and MICHAEL PHILLIPS, author of The Seven Laws of Money, Honest Business and Simple Living Investments.

Americans are worried about Congress, and they are right to worry. The founding fathers intended Congress to be representative of all Americans - "a portrait of the people in miniature." But today 95% of its members are still white male property-owners, almost half of them lawyers. Congress members receive over $300,000,000 in campaign contributions and their votes follow the demands of the wealthy sources that provide these funds. As one observer in Washington puts it, we now live in a "special interest state." Congress is not doing the job it was established to do.

Many reformers recognize this threat, but solutions that only deal with campaign spending have failed to reach the root of the problem. Now there is a scientific way to select legislators so they will be truly representative. This process worked for the ancient Greeks over more than two centuries. We can make it work in our society today. We can vote it in, using the people's initiative powers on the state level as a start.

This book tells how our new system will operate, how it will fit into the existing American governmental structure, and how it will restore a direct, powerful voice in Washington to the whole of America.


  1. The Founders' Ideal: The Legislature as a Transcript of the People.
  2. The Present Electoral System Is Both Unrepresentative and Corrupt.
  3. The Democracy of Athens Offers a Better Model: Selection by Lot.
  4. Direct Representation Is Scientifically Reliable.
  5. A Cross-Section of the People Would Be Selected.
  6. A Representative House Would Frame Political Issues in Unique New Ways.
  7. The Representative House Would Restore the Difference Between the House and Senate.
  8. The Representative House Would Develop Its Own Organization.
  9. The Representative House Would Better Serve the General Welfare.
  10. The Representative House Would Be Equivalent to the Nation as a Whole.
  11. The Representative House Would Be at Least as Competent as the Present House.
  12. The New House Would Be No More Easily Manipulated Than the Present House.
  13. The New House Would Be Less Corruptible Than the Present House.
  14. Members of the New House Will Be Representative Even When Absent.
  15. Campaign Funding Reforms Will Not Solve the Problems of the Electoral System.
  16. Electronic Technology Cannot Solve the Current Problems of Proper Representation.
  17. The New House Would Save Taxpayers Money.
  18. The New House Would Offer Exciting Benefits to Chosen Representatives.
  19. The Representative House Would Encourage Cooperation Among Members.
  20. Democratic Representation Would Strengthen the Republic.
  21. The Representative House Would Not Disturb the Balance of Power.
  22. The Senate Would Remain and Represent State and Party Interests.
  23. The Representative House Would Respond More Rapidly to New Problems.
  24. The Representative House Would Restore a Sense of Citizenship.
  25. Practical Implementation Is Possible, Beginning on the State Level.
  26. Responses


At the birth of the American republic, as James Madison noted, members of the constitutional convention "wished for vigor in the government, but ... wished that vigorous authority to flow immediately from the legitimate source of all authority. The government ought to possess not only, first, the force, but secondly, the mind or sense of the people at large. The legislature ought to be the most exact transcript of the whole society." And John Adams argued that a legislature "should be an exact portrait, in miniature, of the people at large, as it should think, feel, reason, and act like them."

This concept of a popular legislature has a deep and lasting appeal. It offers a durable standard by which to judge the composition (and the actions) of any legislature in a country which professes to live by democratic principles.

Under the conditions of mass industrial societies, however, supposedly representative bodies have diverged strikingly from this ideal. Indeed, we now take it for granted that legislative bodies are inevitably dominated by powerful interest groups. We assume without a second thought that the voice of the public at large will be heard faintly, if at all, in the jostling for power and privilege which occupies most of the time and energies of our legislatures. It is considered normal for a democracy that the attention of legislators can only be gained by careful organizing and devoted commitment by thousands of people who manage to obtain massive financing and mobilize expensive lobbying and public relations expose-even when they are pressing views that command lasting majorities in public opinion.

Accepting such a situation as permanent is both too pessimistic and a betrayal of democratic ideals. The voice of the people ought not to be one small and financially disadvantaged voice in the national political dialogue. It should be heard in its natural majesty - clearly, forcefully, continually and automatically. This book proposes a simple, straightforward means to achieve this, within the American system of constitutional checks and balances, in one branch of our government. Grasping this possibility requires us to dare to conceive, with the founders, that a people may indeed be directly self-governing.

As it happens, we can now provide, through scientific statistical methods, a precise operational method for carrying out the founders' ideal. It is based on the earliest democratic practices evolved in Western civilization. It avoids vexing problems posed by geographic notions of representation. And it gives promise of lasting redress against abuses of the electoral process that are chronic in a society dominated by money.

The founders knew no way to achieve a "transcript' of the people except through elections. They seem not to have known of the Greek use of random selection, or "sortition," in choosing representatives, and in any case statistical procedures did not yet exist that would permit reliably representative selection by lot in a society even as populous as the original thirteen states. It is open to doubt, of course, whether so cautiously elitist a group as the founders would have seriously entertained the possibility that a legislative body could literally be drawn directly from the people at large; when they thought of "the whole society," they tended to mean propertied white males, and much of Federalist doctrine speaks to the desirability of a government's reflecting the stabilizing role of "influential persons." Our circumstances today, however, make it not only possible but essential to rethink the foundations of our electoral system, and to contemplate the possibility of achieving a transcript that would enhance democratic representation.

Our present legislatures certainly cannot be described in terms of a "transcript of the whole society"; by that test they are hopelessly unrepresentative. Women, to take the most striking disparity first, constitute 51% of the adult population but comprise only 4.8% of the present House of Representatives. Blacks, 12% of the population, comprise only 4.5% of the House; Spanish-speaking persons, 6% of the population, are similarly under-represented with 2.5% of the House. About half of ' the electorate, which does not vote, cannot readily be considered to be represented at all, and this group, of course, includes a vast mass of relatively disadvantaged people (something like a sixth of our population) who bear the brunt of our poverty and unemployment. Our House is comprised almost entirely of white, well-to-do males-an enormous disproportion of them lawyers (46% in 1983, though lawyers make up only a tiny fraction of our population). We thus have our own form of "taxation without representation." Taxation heavy enough to support not only the machinery of the welfare state but also a massive war machine and extensive internal and foreign police and intelligence agencies is ratified by an electoral body which represents the people at large only in a formalistic sense.

The fiction that this narrow and exclusive body "represents" the American people rests on the implicit assumption that the electorate is politically identical with the citizenry. This assumption, however, does not fit the conditions of modern American life. A small and diminishing fraction of the citizenry has real representation, for a variety of reasons we will explore below. The result is a persistent and growing gulf between the views of the people at large and the actions of their supposed representatives. In recent years, for example, though stable popular majorities have existed in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment, can- and bottle-recycling, heavier expenditures on clean air and clean water, avoidance of foreign military involvement, and many other issues, our legislatures have remained unresponsive.

There is no consensus among either social scientists or politicians as to why only about half of the American eligible electorate actually votes. In any event, we fill offices in this country by the votes of surprisingly small sectors of the population, even in hotly contested presidential elections. And in non-presidential election years, voter turnouts are markedly smaller, often below 45%, with turnouts generally smaller the further down toward the local level. (The exceptions tend to be hard-fought mayoral elections and elections focused on tax issues-which seem to concern us as passionately as they did the rebellious colonists.) Thus it is not only the President and Congress, but all legislative bodies in the country, which are continued in office with the voting support of small minorities of the population at large. The fate of the country, and of its collective purse, routinely turns upon the decisions of officials who have received votes from only some 20% to 30% of the people.

This narrow political base in turn has a precarious logical base. Recent theories of representation tend to hold that an ideal representative acts in his constituents' real and long-term interest (which may sometimes be different from their expressed wishes) and deploys his accumulated political wisdom on their behalf. However, a geographic constituency has no simple or uniform interests, but rather a welter of conflicting interests. Representing all or even a sizable proportion of them is a logically impossible task; no representative-however noble or intelligent, can argue, deliberate, bargain or vote as if he were several hundred thousand people.

The current usual escape from this dilemma is to argue that the representative then must seek to serve national interests - even if at the cost of a majority of his immediate constituents. What this generally means in practice, 'however, is that unless there is overwhelming popular pressure for some measure, a legislator's acts tend to be influenced primarily by his campaign funding sources; on a wide range of questions our actual non-ideal representatives ignore the known wishes (not to mention interests) of both their constituencies and the rational population, on substantial issues and for substantial periods of time.


The representativeness of the Congress has surfaced as an acute and immediate issue in recent years because of the immense inflation of campaign expenditures. As Elizabeth Drew showed in her book Politics and Money: The New Road to Corruption (New York: Macmillan, 1983), the influence of campaign contributions in our national politics has become all-pervasive. Legislators are not visibly for sale, in the old nineteenth-century way, though they do hold fund-raising events at which it is made clear that they are open to the influence of money. But a kind of arms race for contributions has arisen, leading to what Rep. Jim Leach (R., Iowa) calls "a breakdown in citizen access." Or, in the fine distinction Rep. Tony Coelho (D., Calif .) attempted to make for Drew, "We don't sell legislation, we sell the opportunity to be heard." Justin Dart, presidential confidant and major fund-raiser, put it more bluntly: dialogue with politicians "is a fine thing, but with a little money they hear you better. " In a long and carefully documented section of her book, Drew shows how party position-taking and Congressional maneuvering are handled with an eye to fund-raising - even on bills of critical national importance, such as the 1981 tax bill, over which an open contribution "bidding war" took place. Ex-Congress members, when surveyed by the Center for Responsive Politics, were equally critical; according to Alvin O'Konsky (formerly R., Wisconsin), lawmakers "are bought, sold, signed, sealed and delivered by contributions before election, making them immobile to act on anything."

It is not only that the campaign funding system causes representatives to tilt toward the particular interests of major contributors, and to operate, more subtly and generally, as the representatives of the moneyed elite as a whole. Lobbyists do come into Congressional offices directly asking for votes for "little technical provisions" which could gain their clients millions of dollars. In many such cases the effects may be concealed. Sometimes, however, they are blatant. In 1982, the used-car dealers turned around a law requiring the listing of known defects in cars by the judicious distribution of only $675,000. In 1983, the dairy interests managed to sustain a subsidy program through votes that, in non-dairy districts, had clearly been bought by extensive campaign contributions. As an analysis by the organization Congress Watch recently showed, representatives who received large sums from chemical-company PACs favored a mild version of the Superfund toxics clean-up bill, while representatives who had received less money favored a stronger bill. Bills with backing from big contributors routinely sail through Congress with virtually no discussion, much less challenge. The shipping industry got itself largely exempted from antitrust laws in 1982, by a House vote of 350-33 (this bill was blocked in the Senate). Bills to give monopolies to brewers, bills to treat bankrupt citizens more harshly, and many other narrowly special-interest bills are adopted without scruple. On the other hand, as Drew also shows, moneyed interests can paralyze Congress into inaction on bills they dislike. "If you raise enough money, you can keep [Congress] from doing anything," one lobbyist concludes.

The influence of Washington's 20,000 lobbyists (most of them employed by corporate groups) has become so blatant that they now line up outside the House and Senate chambers giving thumbs-up or thumbs-down signals on bills as Congress members rush in for quick roll-call votes. (This spectacle, as Gregg Easterbrook notes in his thoughtful article "What's Wrong with Congress?" [The Atlantic, December 1984], is kept from the national eye by forbidding photographers to take pictures near the chamber doors.)

The result is what Drew calls a "special interest state." She is a cautious critic, but she summarizes the situation thus: "A candidate entering politics now must systematically make the rounds of the interest groups and win their approval, and their money, by declaring himself, usually in very specific terms, in favor of the legislative goals they seek. He is therefore imprisoned before he even reaches Congress. Once there, he must worry about maintaining the groups' support or about finding other groups to support him, or about casting some vote that might cause monetary retaliation. He must measure every action in terms of what the financial consequences to himself might be, The difference between that and corruption is unclear." Or, as Easterbrook concludes, "Congressmen now owe their first loyalty to PAC interests rather than to party or public interests."

The precise terminology is debatable. What is not debatable is that the present American Congress is directly controlled by moneyed interests, and that it represents, in both the political and statistical senses, only a small and shrinking segment of American society. (A similar pattern prevails in state elections, and at the county level, where contributions from developers are an overwhelming force.) This is not what Madison, Hamilton and Jay and their Federalist friends had in mind.

The founders could not have foreseen the growth of enormous concentrations of corporate wealth and power, and the parallel growth of a huge federal establishment ostensibly serving to regulate the corporate sector but in fact mostly coordinating, subsidizing, and administering it, supported by taxes on personal as well as business income. In our times, Congress has steadily shifted the tax burden from an approximately 50/50 share between corporations and individuals at the end of World War 11 to the present situation where, as a result of both general policy and generous provision of loopholes, only some 10% of total taxes weigh on corporations. Moreover, though in theory high incomes are taxed more heavily, compensating features of the tax code create the surprising result that in fact almost all citizens pay close to the same percentage of taxes - the millionaire and the average wage earner alike.

The conclusion is hardly far-fetched, then, whether corporate influence is being exercised through direct or indirect means: our existing Congress is not showing the concern for the interests of the citizenry upon which the founders counted to provide justice and stability for the republic. Congress is, instead, exercising the power of the public purse - which the Federalists correctly considered the fundamental power of the people, upon which all other rights depend - irresponsibly and unfairly. Almost half the people are being taxed, regulated, policed, and subjected to the possibility of nuclear annihilation without representation.

In such a serious situation, serious remedies deserve consideration. If our representatives as presently chosen are not serving their intended function, citizens must begin thinking about alternative institutions.

- End of Chapter II -

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