Angry and frustrated, American voters went to the polls in November 2010 to “take back” their country. Just as they had done in 2008. And 2006. And repeatedly for decades, whether it was Republicans or Democrats from whom they were taking the country back. No matter who was put in charge, things didn’t get better. They won’t this time, either; spending levels may go down, taxes may go up, budgets will change, but American government will go on the way it has, not as a collective enterprise but as a battle between warring tribes.
If we are truly a democracy—if voters get to size up candidates for a public office and choose the one they want—why don’t the elections seem to change anything? Because we elect our leaders, and they then govern, in a system that makes cooperation almost impossible and incivility nearly inevitable, a system in which the campaign season never ends and the struggle for party advantage trumps all other considerations. When Democrat Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the House, the leader of the lawmaking branch of government, she said her priority was to … elect more Democrats. After Republican victories in 2010, the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said his goal was to … prevent the Democratic president’s reelection. With the country at war and the economy in recession, our government leaders’ first thoughts have been of party advantage.
This is not an accident. Ours is a system focused not on collective problem-solving but on a struggle for power between two private organizations. Party activists control access to the ballot through closed party primaries and conventions; partisan leaders design congressional districts. Once elected to Congress, our representatives are divided into warring camps. Partisans decide what bills to take up, what witnesses to hear, what amendments to allow.
Many Americans assume that’s just how democracy works, that this is how it’s always been, that it’s the system the Founders created. But what we have today is a far cry from what the Founders intended. George Washington and James Madison both warned of the dangers posed by political parties. Defenders of the party system argue that parties—including Madison’s own—arose almost immediately after the nation was founded. But those were not parties in the modern sense: they were factions uniting on a few major issues, not marching in lockstep on every issue, large and small. And while some defend the party system as a necessary provider of cues to voters who otherwise might not know how to vote, the Internet and mass media now make it possible for voters to educate themselves about candidates for office.
What we have today is not a legacy of 1789 but an outdated relic of the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Progressives pushed for the adoption of primary elections. By 1916, all but a handful of states had instituted the “direct primary” system, under which a party candidate was selected by a public vote, rather than by party leaders in backroom deals. But the primaries, and the nominating conventions, were open only to party members. This reform was supposed to give citizens a bigger role in the election process. Instead, the influence of party leaders has been supplanted by that of a subset of party activists who are often highly ideological and largely uninterested in finding common ground. In Delaware in 2010, a mere 30,000 of that state’s nearly 1 million people kept Mike Castle, a popular congressman and former governor, off the general-election ballot. In Utah, 3,500 people meeting in a closed convention deprived the rest of the state’s 3 million residents of an opportunity to consider reelecting their longtime senator Robert Bennett. For most of the voters who go to the polls in November, the names on the ballot have been reduced to only those candidates the political parties will allow them to choose between. Americans demand a multiplicity of options in almost every other aspect of our lives. And yet we allow small bands of activists to limit our choices of people to represent us in making the nation’s laws.
I am not calling for a magical political “center”: many of the most important steps forward in our history have not come from the center at all, including women’s suffrage and the civil-rights movement, and even our founding rebellion against the British crown. Nor am I pleading for consensus: consensus is not possible in a diverse nation of 300 million people (compromise is the essential ingredient in legislative decision-making). And I’m not pushing for harmony: democracy depends on vigorous debate among competing views. The problem is not division but partisanship—advantage-seeking by private clubs whose central goal is to win political power. There are different ways to conduct elections and manage our government—and strengthen the democratic process. Here are some suggestions designed to turn our political system on its head, so that people, not parties, control our government.
Break the power of partisans to keep candidates off the general-election ballot.
State and local governments have abdicated their responsibility to oversee America’s election process. Not only have they turned the job over to political parties, but they take money from taxpayers to pay for these party functions. Because activists who demand loyalty and see compromising as selling out dominate party primaries and conventions, candidates who seek their permission to be on the November ballot find themselves under great pressure to take hard-line positions. This tendency toward rigidity—and the party system that enables it—is at the root of today’s political dysfunction.
More and more, voters are opting out of that system. In some national surveys, nearly 40 percent of voters describe themselves as “independent.” In Massachusetts, where the Republican senator Scott Brown won the seat previously held by the Democrat Edward Kennedy, the largest numbers of voters are not Democrats or Republicans but “unenrolled.” In 2010, Californians voted to create an “open primary” system in which every candidate for a particular office, regardless of party, will appear on the same ballot, and every voter who wishes to participate, also regardless of party, will be able to choose among them. The top two will advance to the general election, even if they belong to the same party. Louisiana has long had a top-two, everybody-runs primary system, and Washington State adopted a similar one in 2004. Their voters have a much wider range of options—Republicans, Democrats, independents, third- or fourth-party candidates. If all candidates could get their messages out through free mailings or free television time, minor-party candidates would have a better chance of finishing in the top two in an open primary than on a general-election ballot that pits two major-party giants against each other and discourages supporters of other parties from voting for long-shot candidates.
Just the act of establishing an open primary would break the partisan and ideological chokehold on the general-election ballot and create a much truer system of democratic self-government. As a result, members of Congress would have greater freedom to base their legislative decisions on their constituents’ concerns and on their own independent evaluations of a proposal’s merits. They would be our representatives, not representatives of their political clubs.
Turn over the process of redrawing congressional districts to independent, nonpartisan commissions.
In 1976, I became the first Republican elected to Congress in my Oklahoma district in 48 years. Nearly three-quarters of the voters were Democrats. Because I easily won my next two races, Democrats were pessimistic about their ability to recapture the seat, and they used their majorities in the state legislature to redraw the district’s borders. Instead of encompassing a single urban county (Oklahoma City, in the center of the state), my new district stretched north to Kansas and east nearly to Arkansas, in a huge upside-down L. The goal was to put as many Republicans as possible in my district in order to make neighboring districts, from which those Republicans had been removed, safer for Democrats. My new district was much more rural, embracing five new counties filled with wheat farms and cattle ranches. Rather than being represented by a member of their own community, familiar with their concerns (which is why the Constitution requires that senators and representatives be inhabitants of the states that elect them), these voters were “represented” by a congressman unfamiliar with the agricultural issues on which their livelihoods depended. And the urban and diverse communities I had represented in Oklahoma City were now served by a congressman who simultaneously had to represent a very different constituency.
In the end, the strategy failed; the state became more conservative, and in addition to my own district remaining Republican, adjoining districts also began electing Republicans. And the attempt to lock in party advantage had sacrificed the important constitutional guarantee that a legislator serve as the voice of a community; community interests had been subordinated to the interests of a political party.
Things don’t have to be this way. Although legislative majorities continue to draw district lines in most states, 13 states (most recently, California) have established nonpartisan or bipartisan redistricting commissions, and two additional states have created merely “advisory” commissions. The systems vary—some use commissions to propose plans that legislatures must approve; others strip the legislature of all redistricting authority—but each of the 13 recognizes that the partisan drawing of congressional-district boundaries has hurt the democratic process, leaving elected officials dependent on, and beholden to, the party bosses who draw their districts.
Allow members of any party to offer amendments to any House bill and—with rare exceptions—put those amendments to a vote.
On the day I was sworn in as a member of Congress, all of us “newbies”—including Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, Dan Quayle, David Stockman, and Jim Leach—were a single band. But moments after taking the oath of office, we were divided into rival teams: first came the vote to elect a new speaker, then to adopt House rules written by the majority, then to consider the membership of committees, with party ratios decided by the majority. From that moment on, during the 16 years I served in Congress, and every day since my last term ended, I have seen the United States Congress as it actually functions, not as a gathering of America’s chosen leaders to confront, together, the problems we face, but as competing armies—on the floor, in committees, in subcommittees—determined to dominate or destroy.
One need not deny the majority the chance to lead in agenda-shaping (electoral victory, whether by margins large or small, does matter), but before Jim Wright ascended to the speakership, in 1987, most debates, even under the decidedly partisan Tip O’Neill, allowed ample opportunity for dissent and amendment. In recent years, however, to be in the minority is essentially to be made a nonfactor in the legislative process. Leaders of both chambers have embraced the strategy of precluding minority amendments, out of fear that even members of the majority party might vote for them, because they believe either that it is the right thing to do or that it is what the people they represent prefer. Such “closed” rules, preventing members from offering amendments, simply tell citizens their preferences don’t matter.
Speaker John Boehner deserves credit for promising greater opportunities for the minority party to have its amendments considered. Under his speakership, the Republican-dominated House has actually accepted some Democratic amendments. The House now has fewer closed rules and more “modified open” rules (which permit at least some challenges to the leadership’s agenda). But whether the procedure will be open or closed on any particular matter remains at the discretion of the majority leadership, and in cases where the political commitment is particularly strong (for example, on the Republican challenge to health-care legislation passed during Democratic control), the promises of openness have been quickly abandoned. The House should adopt rules guaranteeing that any proposal receiving a significant level of support—say, 100 co-sponsors—would automatically be allowed a committee hearing, an up-or-down vote in committee, and then, even if it fails in committee, a vote on the House floor. Some majority members may abandon the team and vote with their constituents (or their own consciences), but isn’t that what we elect representatives for? And since the rules for House floor debate are determined not by parliamentary procedure but by a Rules Committee constituted anew for each session of Congress, equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats should sit on that committee (as opposed to the current practice of conferring a big advantage on the majority).
Change the leadership structure of congressional committees.
In our current system, in which a small majority may have all the power and a large minority none, the chair of a congressional committee or subcommittee (always a majority-party member) decides whether a proposal will be considered and whose views will be solicited. We should change congressional rules to provide for a chairman from the majority party and a vice chairman from the minority (no such position exists in today’s Congress, except on certain special non-legislating committees); the vice chairman need not ascend to the chairmanship in the chairman’s absence, but each would have the authority to bring a bill forward and to invite expert witnesses to offer testimony. The process might be slower, but consideration of alternatives would be more thorough.
Whichever party holds the majority will resist these changes. Party leaders see committee hearings not as a means to evaluate proposals, but as tools to advance predetermined agendas. The current committee process is transactional, not deliberative. But using committees to bypass true deliberation undercuts the very purpose of a people’s legislature.
Fill committee vacancies by lot.
When I served on the Republican committee that decided other members’ committee assignments, I watched as party leaders sometimes refused to grant a slot to a member who was seen as unlikely to “go along,” or too inclined to exercise independent judgment, or “too nice” to spearhead the combat that had come to characterize committee “deliberations.” I was reminded of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta H.M.S. Pinafore, in which Sir Joseph, a former member of Parliament who has been appointed Lord Admiral of the Queen’s Navy, recalls how he achieved such great success: “I always voted at my party’s call,” he sings, “and I never thought of thinking for myself at all.”
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.