A Moderate Proposal

With both parties captured by their extremes, a bipartisan bloc could set the Senate’s agenda—and even save democracy.

An illustration of blue, purple, and red dots superimposed on a photo of the U.S. Senate
Library of Congress; The Atlantic

About the authors: Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. Steven M. Teles is a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.

Moderates are suddenly on everyone’s mind. Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have dominated the conversation about the Democratic Party’s reconciliation bill. A few years back, moderate Republicans blocked the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. And polls show that a chunk of the American public finds the choice between a populist-nationalist Republican Party and an ever -more progressive Democratic Party unappealing.

But despite being decisive for both electoral outcomes and legislative-vote totals, moderates exert much less influence over the political system than they could. If they worked together, they could set the system’s agenda, make our political institutions more functional, and maybe save democracy itself. But to accomplish big things, they will have to recognize what more ideological members of Congress have long known: Politics is fundamentally a team sport.

Consider the current balance of power in the Senate. Several senators have significant problems with the leadership of their party. On the Democratic side, that includes Sinema, Manchin, Jon Tester, and perhaps Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper. On the Republican side, the same is true of Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, and Susan Collins. Individually, the senators have some power, mainly of a negative sort—in a Senate with a one-vote margin, Manchin or Sinema or any other Democrat can effectively say “no” or “not so much” to just about anything.

But what no individual senator has is the ability to shape the Senate’s overall conduct. The Senate’s majority and minority leaders not only make the initial bids on legislation; they decide what topics get discussed. Manchin can limit the extent of Democratic tax increases to fund investment in an expanded welfare state, but he has little opportunity to suggest that this might not be the most important priority. If a cross-party group of moderate senators worked together, however, it could dominate the Senate, and with it the operation of the entire political system.

Imagine, as a start, that somewhere from six to nine senators agreed to work together, either as a formally separate party or through an agreement of factions in either party. The moderate bloc would enter into a coalition with whichever party’s leaders offered it the best deal to change the rules under which the body operates. Today, the majority party makes sure that Senate floor time is consumed with proposals that unite its coalition. Various bills with bipartisan groups of co-sponsors get written all the time, but this kind of legislation gets a hearing only when it serves the majority leader’s designs.

A moderate bloc could demand rules that prioritize bipartisan bills. The lack of space for this kind of legislation is a primary complaint of a huge share of senators, including fairly ideological ones. But the bulk of members prioritize partisan solidarity over dreams of a more open Senate.

The standard solution to party leadership’s monopoly control of the agenda is freer use of “discharge petitions,” which allow members to force bills out of committee and onto the floor of Congress. One risk of that approach is that Congress could become very difficult to manage. But in a Congress in which moderates held the pivot of control, discharge petitions would not be necessary. The agenda would still be set by leaders, but (unless their majority was very large) in consultation with the moderate bloc. The majority party would have strong incentives to support at least a vote on the bills supported by the moderate bloc, because its control of Congress would depend on keeping the moderates in the fold. And if a concerted bloc of moderates forced a more open process onto party leaders, many members would be quietly happy.

There’s more to life than the U.S. Senate. But if moderates can reform the rules there, they can do the same in the House and in closely divided state legislatures, where they could insist on a share of agenda control in exchange for supporting the majority.

Reforming the legislative process, however, is a means to an end. A moderate bloc that exerted agenda-setting power could shift legislative time and attention away from the hobbyhorses of each party’s activist class and onto the most fundamental problems faced by the country. With a more open legislative process, Congress could begin to address these issues—not with proposals that would generate unanimous support within either caucus but with bills that could garner majorities in both the House and the Senate, even as they violated the pieties of one party or another.

What would that look like in practice? It’s hard to say, because it hasn’t been tried. But there’s no shortage of problems waiting to be addressed. Take, for example, our “kludgeocracy”—the enormously complex, impenetrable structure of American public policy. The reconciliation bill being discussed in Congress is full of new kludges—a child-care program whose benefits are based on a complicated formula, a preschool proposal set up as a doomed partnership with state governments, an enhancement to the child tax credit (CTC) that partially (but not entirely!) expires in one year.

To solve any of our problems, and to make government more comprehensible and legitimate, we really need a massive exercise in de-kludging, but the current proposal helps explain why that’s so hard to achieve. Romney has advanced his own plan for a permanent child benefit, which is similar in intention to the Democrats’ CTC but far simpler in design. In order to fund a permanent credit, it would eliminate the regressive state-and-local-tax (SALT) deduction and fold in a few existing income-support programs. This plan is more favorable to the poor (and to most American parents) than the Democratic proposal. But in a Senate governed by party-line votes, it would be impossible to pass, because a relatively small minority of Democrats remain attached to the SALT deduction.

Our existing systems paying for health care, higher education, and retirement security—not to mention the tax code—are also ripe for simplification. They’re not priorities for either party, but they could be key to the brand of a moderate bloc.

Then there are the huge obstacles to economic dynamism and growth that drive up the costs of living. The Biden White House is the third in a row to officially acknowledge that local government zoning and other land-use rules are significant barriers to expanding housing supply, which in turn reduces productivity, employment, and incomes. Here the problem may be less intransigence than inattention. As housing accounts for nearly a third of household consumption, this issue ought to loom very large in Washington. But land-use law doesn’t map cleanly onto our current ideological debates or culture-war fights, and so it is largely neglected.

Similarly, America is cursed with an unusually low number of doctors per capita, and those we have are unusually highly paid. Ideas to address this imbalance—creating more residency slots, widening the scope of practice for nurse practitioners, providing an easier path to practice for foreign-trained doctors, and giving a clearer route to international trade in medical services—abound. But, again, although the merits of these ideas are widely appreciated, they’re not priorities for either ideological bloc.

Most important of all, moderates have the power—if they choose to use it—to protect the future of American democracy. They could start by shutting down spurious claims of election fraud and insisting on professional election administration and broad access to the ballot for all eligible voters. A moderate faction could also commit itself to blocking any slate of presidential electors not chosen by a state’s voters.

But more than that, moderate control of the legislative process would by itself lower the stakes of our periodic elections. Democratic norms are crumbling not just under the specific pressure of Donald Trump but under the conception of politics as a total war, in which each side believes that the country is one electoral defeat away from crisis. A strong moderate bloc might ensure that wild policy swings would take place only as a result of large, clear swings in public sentiment. That could halt the cycle of procedural hardball we’ve seen in the 21st century.

Moderate members of Congress hold immense power. But today, they use that power mostly to veto elements of the agenda advanced by their own party’s activists. They could and should instead use that power constructively to tear down the institutional obstacles to legislative creativity and to refocus the political system on practical ways to improve people’s lives rather than culture-war posturing. To accomplish that, though, they will need to stop pursuing their own agendas and instead work together toward a common goal.