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Three political no-brainers

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Although it is not a flaw unique to the U.S. political system, if you happen to turn on C-SPAN for any length of time it is difficult to shake the feeling that replacing the House and Senate with a group of randomly selected junior high teachers, armed only with the mandate to govern by common sense, is anything but a good idea. They, at least, would understand the principle of compromise and have a grasp of our nation’s priorities, rather than governing by calculated dogma as both parties do today.

In this spirit, I have outlined three “no-brainer” solutions to a set of contemporary political problems that exemplify the degree to which common sense is absent from politics. Sadly, you are not likely to see any of these actions taken in the near future, possibly for no other reason than that they make too much sense.

Strip state legislatures of the power to draw electoral districts.

State legislatures, because they receive little media scrutiny and also because, frankly, voters rarely care what their states are doing, are significantly more partisan than Congress, and the parties exploit this lack of oversight to their political advantage. The use of statistical computer analysis on Census data and voting records has modernized the art of gerrymandering (originally conceived to disenfranchise black voters), allowing a party in control to draw electoral districts with a precision that almost ensures that party’s success. The effects of this cheating on the incumbency rate of the current Congress have already been dramatic.

In retrospect, the idea of permitting partisan state legislatures – with a vested interest in the outcome of elections – to draw districts is critically flawed. Steps should be taken immediately, either at the state level or nationally, to reassign this power to independent, nonpartisan bodies before further harm is done to the American political system.

Divide up NASA.

I do not pretend to be one of those shortsighted people who claim that all space exploration is a waste of time and money. However, it is quite plain that NASA, in its present form, has reached the end of its useful life, and needs to be radically re-envisioned.

Government funded space exploration exists, ostensibly, because it is beyond the economic reach of any other group, and because of legitimate defense interests. However, in the past decade, development of private, commercial low-earth space flight has flourished, with several major players and private investors willing to gamble on space travel. At the same time, mismanagement of the Shuttle, and the high-cost low-gain International Space Station (ISS) have shown that NASA’s current approach to space is broken.

The scientific and defense communities, as well as taxpayers, would be better served if NASA were split into several focused organizations, placing deep space exploration and smaller projects under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Aministration, the Defense Department or in universities through the National Science Foundation; creating a funding program to promote commercial space flight; and using money now given to the Shuttle program and the ISS to fund a leaner organization focused exclusively on long-term lunar or Martian exploration.

Reserve capital punishment exclusively to the federal government.

Granted, capital punishment is a complex and sensitive topic that cannot be fairly covered in 200 words. Nonetheless, I have become convinced that the death penalty it is not a power that can or should be entrusted to the states, but rather one that must be reserved to the federal government alone.

Given the disproportionate concentration of executions in a handful of states, it is plain that standards of prosecution and warrant for capital crimes are not uniform, nor do all states give equal financial resources and legal oversight to capital cases. Different states have different mindsets, standards and goals in their management and implementation of the death penalty.

It is patently ridiculous, and mocks any reasonable definition of equal protection, that the local biases of a particular community should be of significance in determining whether a person lives or dies. Likewise it is unjust that vastly different resources and legal protections are allocated to equivalent cases in accordance with local whim. Reserving the death penalty exclusively to the federal government would ensure uniform standards, make available the highest level of judicial oversight, raise all death penalty cases to national scrutiny and ensure that adequate financial resources are available for each case.

This only scratches the surface as far as political “no-brainers” are concerned. Space does not permit me to discuss creating uniform national privacy legislation, granting Hawaiian natives the same legal status as American Indians, banning prescription drug advertisements, renaming Columbus day, reforming the patent system, standards for electronic voting machines or any of the other obvious and necessary solutions to contemporary issues that are currently sitting in limbo.

All I can say is that it is a pity that our leaders lack the common sense to see them.

Lance Gallop is a 2005 graduate of Notre Dame. His column appears every other Wednesday. He can be contacted at comments@tidewaterblues.com

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.