Post-Dispatch Editorial on National Advisory Referendum, October 7, 1`978
A Biennial The Missouri Public Interest Research Group is advancing an idea that no doubt many Americans will find appealing. It is to establish a national referendum to be held every two years on a half dozen issues of great public interest, the purpose being to let Congress know what the people are thinking about on these topics. The referendum, says Tom Ryan, Mo-PIRG's attorney, "would allow people to have direct input in shaping public policy and the future of our country." What is wrong with that? What is wrong with that, in our opinion, is that it represents not a reaffirmation of democracy but a lack of confidence in the democratic process. It is true, as MoPIRG (and virtually everyone else) notes, that the record of public participation in the electoral process is abysmal. But it is far from clear that in either quantitative or qualitative terms that a biennial referendum, once its novelty has worn off, will improve the participation. What is more likely is that the referendums will become captives of Referendum? well- financed special interest groups. To the rejoinder that special interest groups already dominate many regular elections, the answer is to work to reduce that influence through improved campaign financing laws and related measures rather than invent another machine for carrying out the public will. ' MoPIRG's notion is that the referendum would be nonbinding. But if the purpose is to make government more responsive, why not let the people actually decide on policy issues, leaving to Congress only the function of drafting the technical language? And why restrict the process to biennial votes? In this age of instant communications, surely the pulse of the people could be tapped at any moment. Panama? Abortion? Taxes? Energy? SALT? Let the referendums roll. But in the process, will the quality of representation improve be more thoughtful, more courageous, more principled? Will a Congress that marches to the instant whim of the people remain a coequal branch of government? But that is another question.