Ideas 2011 July/August 2011

How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans

An insider’s six-step plan to fix Congress

The derivation of leadership in Congress from an internal version of the party primary or convention is an artificial construct. In every informal congressional subgroup—the Human Rights Caucus, the Rust Belt Caucus, the Flat Tax Caucus—leaders are chosen without regard to party affiliation. Imagine how different the congressional dynamic would be if that practice prevailed in committee assignments. If three seats became open on a committee and five members sought appointment, the House could fill the positions by lot, thereby appointing committee members who were not beholden to party leaders for their selection and therefore not fearful that crossing party lines would cost them their position. They would be freer to vote as they saw fit. After all, their constituents chose them not only for their policies but for their temperaments, knowledge, experience, and values. Eventually, entire committees would be formed without any party division at all—merely members of Congress drawn together to consider problems and potential solutions.

Choose committee staff solely on the basis of professional qualifications.

Congressional staff members, who provide the research that senators and representatives use in their deliberations, are chosen to reflect the preferences of the individual members they serve. On the other hand, committee staff members, who schedule the hearings, invite witnesses to testify, prepare background materials for committee members, and negotiate with staff members from other committees in the House and Senate, are generally selected by the committee chair and the senior member of the minority. In effect, they are party appointees. But if the goal is to legislate for the country, not for a party, then committee staff members should be selected by a nonpartisan House or Senate administrator and obligated to serve all members equally without regard to party agenda.

If we really want change—change that will yield a Congress that is more representative and more functional, change that can be replicated in state and local governments—we need to rethink the party-driven structures we have so casually accepted for decades. This change would produce another important effect: it would strengthen Congress’s ability to discharge its constitutional role. The Constitution grants Congress most of the federal government’s real powers—to spend, tax, create federal programs, declare war, approve treaties, confirm federal court appointments. By thinking of the House and Senate in constitutional rather than partisan terms, we would eliminate party-driven links between Congress and the president and avoid the spectacle of legislative leaders acting as though they were either members of the president’s staff or his sworn enemies. The Constitution intended the legislative branch to be separate, independent, and equal; to be the people’s voice; and to exercise, when necessary, a check on the executive, an obligation rendered moot in the context of party-versus-party governance.

In a democracy that is open to intelligent and civil debate about competing ideas rather than programmed for automatic opposition to another party’s proposals, we might yet find ourselves able to manage the task of self-government. Our current political dysfunction is not inevitable; it results from deliberate decisions that have backfired and left us mired in the trenches of hyper-partisan warfare. Political parties will not disappear; as a free people, we will continue to honor freedom of association. The goal is not to destroy parties but to transcend them; to welcome their contributions but end their dominance; and to take back from these private clubs control of our own elections and our own Congress.

Presented by

Mickey Edwards is a vice president of the Aspen Institute and the author of Reclaiming Conservatism. More

Mickey Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years and a chairman of the House Republican leadership's policy committee. After leaving Congress, he taught at Harvard for 11 years, where he was voted the Kennedy School's most outstanding teacher, and at Princeton for five years. He currently runs a political leadership program for elected officials as Vice President of the Aspen Institute and teaches defense policy and foreign policy at George Washington University. He has been a weekly columnist for The L.A. Times and The Chicago Tribune and is a weekly commentator on National Public Radio. Edwards served for five years as national chairman of the American Conservative Union and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He was one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation. In 1980, he directed more than a dozen joint House-Senate policy advisory task forces for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. He is a director of The Constitution Project and has chaired task forces for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. He served on the American Bar Association task force that condemned President George W. Bush, and his most recent book, Reclaiming Conservatism, was published in 2008.

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