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Brams: Let Congress Select Super Committees

• December 27, 2011 • 5:19 PM

Instead of party leaders selecting members of Congress to form a super committee to hash out problems, Steven J. Brahms suggests full houses of Congress make the picks using the minimax procedure.

Following the failure of the budgetary super committee to come to an agreement in the fall, members of Congress admitted to being ashamed of the institution and the implacable partisanship that stymies it.

As part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling, the 12-member super committee of six Democrats and six Republicans from both houses of Congress set about trying to identify $1.5 trillion in budgets cuts for the next 10 years. Compromise had little chance, even though failure to compromise triggers $1.2 trillion in across-the-board budget cuts — an outcome few in either party publicly desire.

It’s possible that all six Republicans on the committee may have signed a pledge to oppose any new taxes. And none of the selected Democrats was likely to support deep cuts in Social Security or Medicare. But what is known is that party leaders — and not the full houses of Congress — chose all members of the committee last summer.

Now suppose the budget accord deal creating the committee had called for its members to be elected by Congress.

Then suppose they used the technique Steven J. Brams calls the “minimax procedure,” a variant of approval voting where voters can cast ballots for more than one candidate in a field of at least three.

Instead of selecting candidates that receive the most votes, writes Brams, the minimax procedure helps to ensure the representation of different factions by aligning the committee members very closely with those who chose them.

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Peace, Fairness Through Game Theory

Peace, Fairness Through Game Theory
Prolific political scientist Steven J. Brams has devoted his career to the application of mathematics and game theory to elections, politics, property, international disputes, and law.
Click the image to read more.

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Minimax is one of several ways to vary how ballots for multiple candidates are counted. A way to picture it is this: Say you are choosing cards from a full deck and five of the cards will serve on a committee. One of the most common choices turns out to be Queen, Jack, 7 and 4, so you decide that the Jack and the 7 are selected for the committee, even though they don’t get as many votes as the Queen or some other very popular top choices from the deck. Because the Jack and the 7 appear as frequent second and third choices for enough voters, and will fill out the committee in a way that will satisfy those who chose the Jack and 7 but not the Queen, you end up with a committee that is more representative overall.

The idea may at first seem undemocratic, because we are so accustomed to election winners being those who receive the most votes. But getting some representation, even if not getting top choice, for a broader swath of constituents, may actually produce a more representative outcome. Brams argues that those with the most votes are not necessarily “well connected to other voters,” and, by extension, not tied to the voters’ wishes. You don’t get a John Boehner or a Nancy Pelosi, but you do get people that more than 51 percent of those affected can live with.

In the case of the super committee, the voters and Congress likely wanted Congress to reach compromises on divisive budget cuts, clarify the situation, and keep the government functioning smoothly.

Committee members tried to bridge the party divide, dining together and meeting in private. But stalemate resulted and, as the Los Angeles Times noted, even the basic task of paying the government’s bills continues to consume much of Congress’s time and energy.

As one lawmaker put it, the culture of legislating as a political “team sport” prevails.

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Richard Korman
Richard Korman is an award-winning journalist, Web site manager and an author. His freelance writing has appeared in Business Week, The New York Times, and Newsday, while the Library Journal selected his biography of inventor Charles Goodyear as one of the best business-related books of 2002. Korman's career has included ghostwriting advice about sex and relationships and a CD called Write to Influence, about improving everything from e-mails to essays. He has a son and a daughter, both college students, and claims to be the loudest rock 'n' roll keyboard player in the Hudson River Valley, north of New York City, where he lives.

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