I Served in Congress Longer Than Anyone. Here’s How to Fix It.
A December 2017 study by the Pew Research Center found that just 18 percent of Americans trusted the federal government “to do the right thing almost always or most of the time.” After his six decades of public service, John D. Dingell has some ideas for restoring this lost confidence. In a recent piece on TheAtlantic.com, he provided suggestions, including calls to abolish the Senate and publicly fund elections.
The most important point that Dingell makes is an abstract one: Americans need to believe that government can do good if we are going to fix our politics. I have just returned to the United States after living in Brazil, where voting is mandatory. Dingell proposes automatic voter registration as one way to improve our politics here in the U.S., and I endorse his view. But followers of Brazilian politics know that mandatory voting did not prevent an anti-democratic, right-wing zealot from winning the presidency. That is because Brazilians’ faith in government (and democracy) is low, as a result of corruption, a poor economy, and security concerns. Senate or no Senate, campaign donations or no campaign donations, the key to healthier politics in America (and the world) is faith in democratic government.
I read Mr. Dingell’s article with great interest, and appreciate the service he’s given our country and his continuing care and devotion toward its institutions. I do, however, respectfully disagree with some of his recommendations.
The distribution of representation in Congress, generally, and the Electoral College, specifically, is not the problem; participation, or rather, a lack of it, is. I do fully agree that we need to make voting much easier, though I’d stop short of making it compulsory. (Full disclosure: I’m an American now living abroad in Australia, where voting is compulsory.) When enough voters participate, the system—including the Electoral College—works quite well. But the system is designed to yield a clear decision, one way or another. Where there is insufficient participation, the decision will still be decisive; it will reflect the candidate Congress would pick. I can sympathize with the frustration Mr. Dingell expresses regarding House bills coming to nothing when they reach the Senate. This is not a new problem. Thomas Jefferson complained of this to George Washington during the latter’s presidency.
“Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?” George Washington asked.
“To cool it,” Jefferson replied.
“Even so,” Washington said, “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”
The true failure lies not in the system, then, but in the failure of the electorate to appreciate how it works, and to participate—by voting, at the very least. I was born the same year Mr. Dingell was first elected to Congress. Growing up, we were taught how our government works, and that we don’t elect a president; we elect representatives for our legislature and electors who, in turn, elect the president. Voters in succeeding generations have lost sight of this, and think their government is nothing more than the one or two people they vote for every four years. In fact, we need to wake up and realize that congressional elections are more important, and who we elect to those seats can have the more significant, longer-lasting impact.
The other point on which I would disagree with Mr. Dingell, at least in practice, is getting money out of politics. It’s a nice idea—or ideal—but that’s never happened in human history, and it won’t happen anytime soon. I would propose going the other way and removing all restrictions on spending except one: No money can be given directly to a candidate or political-action committee. Instead, anyone may contribute as much as they like to an “election trust fund,” which is then parceled out to qualified candidates and organizations. This allows everyone to participate, keeps the system healthy and robust, but also keeps the playing field level.
One final point: I think anyone seeking public office should be required to spend some significant amount of time (one to 12 months) either in prison or living homeless on the street. The one critical, human element missing from too many elected officials is empathy. They don’t seem to know (or care) what it means to have no means, to be poor, penniless, or destitute. They need that experience to inform their work, to ensure they are representing all Americans.
I agree with Congressman Dingell’s idea to remove big money from politics in order to ensure politicians’ independence, but I think that same idea needs to be applied to the press. As long as the press is controlled by for-profit organizations, journalists’ independence will be subject to influence just like politicians taking money from big donors. The explosion of hundreds of cable-TV news stations in the 1980s and the creation of the 24/7 news cycle opened the gates to undermine the legitimate, in-depth print and television journalists who created and cared for the Fourth Estate.
Chapel Hill, N.C.
There are, of course, many things wrong with Congress, but former Representative John Dingell puts his finger on the two most salient problems with his call to abolish the Senate and publicly finance elections.
The first is a heavier lift, one I’ve wrestled with, but I think Dingell has hit on a solution to cut the Gordian Knot: Combine the two houses into one.
Combining the two houses—effectively shifting the Electoral College system to a unicameral legislature—would lessen the danger that each house poses to interests of big-state or small-state residents. Giving each state two at-large representatives, elected statewide, would somewhat diminish the ability of the larger states to dictate the workings of the House, honoring the federal character of our government without maintaining the massive insult to democracy that the Senate is fast becoming.
The other issue he identifies is the corrupting influence of campaign money on our legislature. Several jurisdictions are experimenting with different models for public campaign finance. In Montgomery County, Maryland, we just elected a publicly financed candidate as our county executive, a progressive who could never have competed against well-heeled opponents in the primary and general election without public matching. There are still a few kinks that we need to work out, but our first experience with publicly financed campaigns has been positive and delivered better, more competitive campaigns than we would have seen using traditional, big-donor-dominated campaign financing. One lesson is that there is no substitute for investing years in efforts to make connections and build support. A system that does a better job of leveling the playing field, though, is still needed.
Chair, Our Revolution Montgomery County
Mr. Dingell’s proposal to abolish the Senate is part of a recent trend decrying the various obstacles to pure majority rule in the national government. While some of these have merit (elimination of the Electoral College coming to mind), abolition of the Senate would be misguided. Mr. Dingell points to the fact that high-population states like California have the same number of Senate votes as low-population states like Wyoming, and uses this to argue that the current system is a vehicle for minority rule. But, of course, Wyoming’s small population and low representation in the House of Representatives prevents it, and other small states, from passing laws to which California might object. What Mr. Dingell finds objectionable about the Senate is that California is prevented from passing laws affecting policies that California finds desirable. But Mr. Dingell ignores that residents of California have a perfectly good way to effect policies that they find desirable—pass laws within the state of California.
Under the Constitution as it was originally understood, the national government had power over a relatively small set of policy areas, and the states ruled when it came to the vast majority of them. Since the country’s founding, the national government has seized more and more power for itself, whether through taxing and spending (the national government’s ability to condition disbursements of funding on the states’ adoption of certain laws), complex regulatory schemes preempting contradictory state legislation, or the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution so as to bar the states from passing legislation in certain areas (interstate commerce and the Dormant Commerce Clause first and foremost).
If not for this steady accretion of power to the federal government, Mr. Dingell’s concern that a minority of states might prevent the residents of California from governing themselves would be completely unfounded—California would have nearly unfettered power to pass the laws it wanted. Even as is, if California desires a higher minimum wage, to bar discrimination based on gender identity, or other legislation that is stalled at the federal level, it can pass those policies regardless of Wyoming’s opinion on the subject. The structure of the Senate only bars California from wielding its disproportionate population to impose policies upon other states.
Mr. Dingell points to a decline in the trust in federal government over the past 50 years. Respectfully, I disagree with his hypothesized cause. While he attributes the majority of that decline to a “Trumpist mind-set” (Mr. Trump appeared on the national political stage three years ago—the vast, vast majority of the decline Mr. Dingell identifies had already occurred by then), I believe a greater contributor is that more and more power has gone to the federal government, creating more distance between citizens and those who truly rule them. Mr. Dingell would do more to create trust in the government—at all levels—if he advocated for a release of power by the federal government and devolution to the states. Then, California’s 40 million—and Wyoming’s 575,000—can pass whatever laws they see fit.
Thomas A. Bridges
New York, N.Y.
Quite a remarkable bit of gall by John Dingell to suggest that the way to preserve the precious gift given to us by the Founding Fathers and to restore the integrity of government institutions is to abolish the Senate while dismissing the Supreme Court’s interpretation of what is protected speech. In fixing government, he manages to erase Article I, Section 3 effective First Amendment safeguards and dismiss Marbury v. Madison all at the same time.
Charles B. Wallace
Mt. Pleasant, S.C.
There is no way small states will relinquish their votes in the Senate, or the power of the Senate. The compromise Dingell mentions is purposeful, and protects us from a tyranny of the majority. We in small states do not wish to be ruled by those in New York City or Los Angeles, who have no clue about our lives in flyover country.
Ralph S. Hoefelmeyer
John Dingell’s comments are simple, straightforward, and on point. One item is missing: a meaningful congressional vote for the more than 700,000 residents of the District of Columbia.
Arthur R. Hessel