Sunday, May 01, 2011

Literacy Tests for Legislators?

I recently went through a literacy test on the Constitution that had been used in a southern state for voter qualification. It was a difficult test, and I thought poorly constructed. Recalling that many of the people who framed the Constitution wanted voting restricted to property holders and that the Constitution called for Senators to be selected by state legislatures rather than by popular voting, they might have thought a serious test of relevant knowledge would not be inappropriate before allowing someone to vote. Of course, the literacy tests were misused to restrict voting in the south to whites, and were properly abolished.

Still I was thinking that it would be interesting to have a test of mastery of the subject of legislation that would be required of people before they were allowed to run for Congress or which might be required to be taken periodically for those already in Congress. Such a test might include:

  • The law (to be waived for people who have passed the bar exam within the previous ten years)
  • History of the United States
  • Geography of the United States
  • Economics
  • Basics of health, science, agricultural and industrial policy
  • International relations
One might expect a level of competence in each of these subjects for a candidate for the House comparable to that of a successful applicant for a masters program in graduate school in that topic, and comparable for someone seeking to advance to doctoral candidacy for candidates for the Senate. Perhaps such tests could be administered by state land-grant colleges as a public service.

We have just seen the NFL draft for 2011, and it occurs to me that no team would begin to select players to be drafted without a detailed idea of the skills needed by the team for the coming season and scouting reports on the players most seriously in contention for those positions. Yet we expect voters to chose among candidates for the Congress without either independent quality assessments of their knowledge and legislative skills, and without serious assessment of the skills most needed to complement those of the incumbents likely to be returned to office to conduct the nation's business.

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