We live in a closely divided, ideologically sorted, and politically polarized nation. Despite these deep-seated differences, there is one view shared by nearly all Americans: “Congress isn’t working.” Many believe the dysfunction is structural – even permanent – and fear that America’s best days have passed. Despite years of reform, we have torrents of campaign money propelling toxic media into gerrymandered districts. It’s no wonder that many eligible voters stay home. But this despair is happily misplaced. Our focus on the “unholy trinity” of money, media, and “mandering” both misdiagnoses the problem and, worse yet, offers few practical solutions.
While many do not like recent US Supreme Court decisions, notions of constitutional amendments are a distraction, and legislative efforts to restrict money to political parties have on balance made things worse. Complaining about the media offers nothing by way of productive direction in a free society. Gerrymandering is a bit more complicated. While objectionable, the fact that political parties seek unfair advantage matters far less than many believe because of the way we have divided ourselves. Take a close look at the level of comity and collaboration in the district-free US Senate for a sense of the high-water mark that could be achieved via redistricting reform.
Rather than cursing these head winds, there is a different path of more pragmatic reforms that would enable our government to once again be both partisan and productive. The goal is not nostalgia for gentler times. Amid bitter political conflict ranging from a protracted shutdown to an impeachment, President Clinton and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia negotiated welfare reform, tax changes, and fiscal agreements that supported a roaring economy and a budget surplus. More telling, in the midst of the impeachment, members of both parties continued to develop legislation on issues from pesticide toxicity standards to Y2K. Mr. Clinton was again signing laws within weeks of being impeached.
Our greatest leaders were all fierce partisans who generally compromised out of necessity as opposed to desire. Their ability to meld competing interests was enabled by structures and settings for deliberation that encouraged collaboration and protected members’ ability to act in the national interest.
Here is a pragmatic reform agenda to consider:
Spend more time legislating in Washington. While we cannot re-create an era during which members spent weekends together watching kids play Little League, there is much we can do to diminish the alienation that rewards rigidity and discourages collaboration. Simple ideas such as a five-day workweek and aligning the Senate and House calendars would be a start. We should also reduce the amount of time members spend fundraising by eliminating leadership political-action committees and striking a compromise that would increase giving limits while requiring immediate disclosure.
Restore committees. Committees used to be a place where members forged personal bonds while crafting national policy. Today partisan leadership makes the decisions. Members should serve on fewer committees to be able to develop real expertise, and congressional leadership should guarantee floor time for committee-passed legislation.
Bring back earmarks. Targeted appropriations for local interests have enabled almost every major legislative accomplishment of the past century, and they do not increase overall government spending. Our 50-state union can only work if members of Congress occasionally take hard votes that upset some constituents. Earmarks are part of the essential balance between local and national imperatives that lies at the crux of our Constitution. They should be restored with reasonable expectations of public notice and legislative deliberation.
A little privacy, please. The opposite of transparency is privacy, not corruption. There are moments in the governing process when the imperative for deliberation trumps the need for access. C-SPAN is a wonderful institution, but Congress should turn the cameras off regularly. Last year, the full Senate met in private for a few hours in the old Senate chamber and worked through a challenging disagreement. While the glow of personal interaction wore off quickly, it might have been regained through regular monthly sessions.
The aura of Abramoff. Efforts to ensure that no members of Congress enjoy themselves at taxpayer or corporate expense have dramatically reduced congressional travel. Ask any former member where he or she forged real personal bonds and most of the time the answer is on fact-finding trips. Instead of reinforcing the misplaced public disdain for travel, committee chairs should establish a series of official trips and the clear expectation that every member participate. Moreover, restrictions such as the “toothpick rule,” which allows members of Congress to eat food standing up with a toothpick but not sitting down with a fork if the sponsoring institution employs a lobbyist, further an unnecessary – and silly – culture of disdain. A seated lunch during a policy discussion is not “gateway graft.” If we have so little trust in Congress, how can we expect those in Congress to trust one another?
Increase access to elections. The participation of just 1 of every 5 Americans in primaries has driven a system already divided culturally and politically further to the extremes. There are myriad opportunities to increase public engagement that over time will provide rational incentives for less-rigid leaders. These include automatic and online registration, a national primary day, increased early voting, allowing independents to vote in primaries, and bolder ideas such as the “top-two” primaries being experimented with in California and Washington State, in which all candidates, regardless of party, face off in an über-primary and the top two finishers advance to the general election.
Taken together, these modest steps could lead to a virtuous cycle in which trust enables progress – and members can run in future elections on achievements as opposed to against Washington.
Jason Grumet is the president of the Bipartisan Policy Center and author of the new book “City of Rivals: Restoring the Glorious Mess of American Democracy.”