Bill Clinton coined a new phrase a few weeks ago that resonated with me.
“You’re all here because, in one way or another, you intuitively know this. You believe that multiplication is a superior strategy to division. You believe that addition is the superior strategy to subtraction in economics, social inclusion and politics. You believe that there are severe limits on the ability of rising separatist tribalism to solve the problems that [threaten] the opportunities of the modern world.”
Politics used to be about compromise, about balancing interests and solving problems. Partisan animosity flared up occasionally, but now it’s the new norm.
Congressional dysfunction is especially destructive today. Extreme polarization between parties makes governing in our constitutional system tough for the majority. I don’t see the U.S. adopting a parliamentary system anytime soon. But there are a few possible reforms that would make government more effective.
I see four main problem areas that need to be addressed.
- The modern media
- Money in politics
- Structural issues in the Senate
- Extreme partisanship and polarization
And there are three main areas where I think we could make substantial progress.
- Fixing our party system
- Reforms in Congress
- Changing our political culture
TL;DR: Enlarge our voter base to include more moderates, repair a few issues with Senate rules, and encourage the media and the public to hold politicians more accountable.
- The Modern Media
The 19th century was the Dark Age of Partisan Journalism. Parties subsidized newspapers and shaped both the news and editorials. Eventually ad revenue freed the press from partisan influence. In the 20th century, most people got their news from the big three broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) or from local newspapers. Editorials were often partisan, but news reporting corps did a good job of reporting only facts.
Today, partisan coverage has proven to be the most profitable model by far, only with a much larger reach than newspapers in the 19th century. Audiences are more fragmented, and with the advent of cable news and the internet, so is their attention span. Fox News and MSNBC maintain their conservative and liberal audiences by reporting the same partisan messages over and over again. CNN pits left- and right-leaning pundits against each other in attack shows. And they rake in the cash. Fox’s profits dwarf those of MSNBC and CNN, which in turn are well above ABC, CBS, and NBC.
Infotainment has replaced facts and debate. Sensationalism reinforces the message that extreme partisanship is the new norm. And this extremism pays. The lack of fact checking in reporting corps lets pundits gain celebrity status while lying through their teeth. Politicians can piggyback on manufactured scandals for massive fundraising advantages. Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Donald Trump, among many others, spent months stoking rumors that President Obama was born in Kenya. The damage of falsehoods perpetrated by the news media is long-reaching, and the public has become immune to factual information. As recently as September 2015, a survey in Iowa showed that 35% of voters think Obama was born outside the U.S., and 24% don’t know. Put another way, 3/5 of voters think that the President of the United States, in office for seven years, is illegitimate.
2. Money in Politics
Politicians today are on a permanent fundraising campaign. Candidates of course need money to reach voters. But by the 1990s, corporations and individuals were spending huge sums of soft money on political ads and other lobbying efforts. These efforts include direct and indirect bribes, favors, and paid positions for ex-lawmakers on K Street. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 addressed soft money and issue ads, and worked as intended for many years. The Supreme Court case McConnell v. Federal Election Commissionin 2003 challenged parts of the BCRA, but it was mostly upheld.
In 2010, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission upended a few decades of judicial precedent. The activism of the Roberts court opened the door for huge amounts of new political spending. A lax FEC has further allowed egregious evasion of disclosure requirements for donors.
A quick recap. Citizens United, a conservative group, put out a film called Hillary: The Movie. It was designed to undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Citizens United wanted an exception from the BCRA’s limit on corporate advertising funding. They claimed that the film was not “electioneering communications.” There was no mention of addressing the overall ban on corporate spending in presidential campaigns.
Roberts demanded a rehearing to address the question of whether the ban was constitutional. The controversial 5–4 decision, only a few years after McConnell v. FEC, threw campaign finance into disarray. The only thing that had changed was the political makeup of the court due to Sandra Day O’Connor’s retirement in 2005. The decision equated money with speech and corporations with citizens. Never mind that corporations’ goal is to make money, while citizens’ goals are much broader.
The scope of the court’s new willingness to legislate is alarming given Roberts’ statement at his confirmation hearing. “Judges and justices are servants of the law, not the other way around…they operate within a system of precedents…they’re not to legislate.”
Fundraising is now a part of presidential, congressional, and even judicial elections. Independent political groups file as 501(c)4 social welfare nonprofits to avoid disclosing donors. Karl Rove was famous for starting this trend with his American Crossroads organization. Democrats have predictably followed suit.
In the new spirit of drastic deregulation, SpeechNow v. Federal Election Commission in the DC Court of Appeals applied the precedent set by Citizens United v. FEC to independent expenditure committees, allowing SpeechNow to accept unlimited contributions. These new “Super PACS,” banned from coordinating with candidates, are in fact run by their closest advisers and colleagues. Sham corporations are created and then disbanded after only a few months, with the sole purpose of donating to candidates. Even long-time congressional incumbents now spend many hours a week fundraising instead of legislating. They are intent on building protective war chests to fight negative ad campaigns by mystery organizations. Just the threat of negative ads can now garner influence for lobbyists, without ever spending a dollar.
It’s worth noting that Democrats attempted to address these issues with the DISCLOSE Act in 2010. Republicans killed the bill with a filibuster. Despite a 59–39 vote, not a single Republican was willing to join the majority to achieve cloture.
These changes in campaign finance do nothing but reinforce political polarization. Party leaders are all-star fundraisers. Campaign chairs go to those who excel at dialing for dollars. Legislative and negotiation skills take a backseat. Politicians realize that voters don’t know too much about them, and thus negative ads can be brutally effective. Instead of spending time with their colleagues, lawmakers now raise money to attack each other covertly.
3. Structural issues in the Senate
It might seem weird to follow up “Media” and “Money” with “Senate Rules”. The first two are pretty broad, and there’s a general consensus that they often have a negative impact on the general population’s interests. But how can the Senate rulebook cause so much trouble?
If you try to remember the last time you heard about the Senate messing with things, you probably think back to the spate of recent debt ceiling fights, or maybe how Obamacare finally passed with 60 votes in late 2009. But other than that, it’s always been contentious, right?
It’s true that Congress has been getting more adversarial since the 1970s as measured by ideological gap between parties, but it really ramped up with Obama, when essentially no Republican votes were available for any action. The thinking for decades has been that any progress on the majority’s legislative agenda is bad for the minority, so obstruction is the name of the game. You could be forgiven for thinking that’s just the political process and that fights across branches are inevitable, but that hasn’t always been the case, especially not with the ferocity and venom of the last few terms.
Here are a few examples of how standoffs can impact your day-to-day life. The Senate failed to pass relief funding for Hurricane Irene in 2011, because for the first time Republicans called for cuts in social programs to offset emergency disaster relief spending. Also in 2011, the Senate delayed reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration because Congressman John Mica wanted to deny FAA employees bargaining rights and stop subsidies to small airports. This ultimately led to weeks of airport delays, 24,000 lost construction jobs, and cost the government an estimated $300M in lost airfare taxes. It’s worth noting that Mica’s main reason for the bill was to hurt his negotiating partners on the other side of the table, whose constituents were some of those small airports and were severely impacted by the FAA delay. Obviously the collateral damage this hostage-taking tact caused was counter-productive to the allegedly pure cause of fiscal conservatism and waste reduction.
The novel use of Holds and Filibusters in the Senate as permanent vetoes exacerbates this collateral damage. Whereas the House has rules to facilitate collective action, the Senate caters to individual action and in many ways encourages unanimous consent. The filibuster was initially a last resort, a safety valve the minority could use as a last ditch effort to halt proceedings and draw attention to an issue on which they held particularly strong beliefs.
Unlimited debate was not intended by the founding fathers, but was in fact introduced inadvertently by a rule change in 1805. It was not taken advantage of for several decades, and even then only rarely. The ability to stop the debate via Cloture was established in 1917, requiring a 2/3 vote, which was reduced to 60/100 in the 1970s. Nowadays one could be forgiven for assuming that use of the filibuster is a normal part of the Senate’s day to day activity. Routine procedural motions, nominations, and bills are all now the subject of filibusters. The idea is that obstruction will slow the majority’s legislative agenda and lower Congress’s approval rating, and the party most associated with lambasting government in general will come out ahead.
Holds have evolved to delay the Senate’s routine business even more. In general, the Senate assumes unanimous consent is appropriate to schedule and execute its business. Traditionally, senators used the Hold to prepare themselves for floor debate, but now a Senator simply needs to inform the leadership of their intent to delay, and the majority then needs to jump through many hoops to continue, taking several weeks to move the process forward. What’s more, Holds can be submitted anonymously, so stealth obstructionism is now the norm for all types of Senate business. Cloture is now invoked almost immediately on all bills, preventing the minority from offering amendments to legislation when they might in fact be warranted, further hindering the ability for back-and-forth negotiation and compromise. In the late 1970s there were fewer than 2 clotures per month, jumping to around 4 per month in the Clinton and Bush years. The number has now jumped to 2 per week under Obama.
Routine bills that should take 1–2 days now take 2–4 weeks to pass. Blanket holds on everything from White House nominations to Air Force promotions are now the norm. Bills that end up passing with overwhelming majorities are now the subject of holds and filibusters, bills such as extending unemployment benefits during the recession, the Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights, and the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act, all of which ended up passing with over 90 votes after cloture. Even after these bills pass, the filibuster rule allows for 30 hours of debate after cloture, which the minority routinely takes advantage of even though they’re not required to be present, so often there is just a roll call repeated over and over for 30 hours.
Even more alarming than the delay of routine business is the New Nullification — the intentional obstruction of executive and judicial nominations, even those of candidates deemed universally competent and appropriate, and that are necessary for the government to effectively implement laws already on the books. This amounts to Senators challenging their oath to carry out existing laws, whether they like them or not. Nominations that used to take weeks now take up to six months. Critical positions in Obama’s cabinet went unfilled for almost his entire first year in office.
In late 2009 in the thick of the financial crisis, for example, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner had to operate without a deputy secretary, undersecretary for international affairs, undersecretary for domestic finance, assistant secretary for tax policy, assistant secretary for financial markets, and assistant secretary for financial stability, and assistant secretary for legislative affairs. After the worst of the recession abated, a number of key players in the crisis testified before Congress that significant fundamental risk to the financial system was artificially introduced by lack of candidates for posts at Treasury, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.
The confirmation rate of presidential appointments has dropped from over 90% in the 1970s to around 50% today, with experience and qualifications taking a second seat to blanket opposition and ideological interrogation by the minority. The issue has become much more pronounced since Obama took office. In May 2002 there were 13 pending nominations. In May 2010 there were 108. While tough to measure at the moment, the greatest fear should now be that talented people will shy away from government service, as they become understandably more and more unwilling to subject themselves and their families to up to a year of stress, indignity, and political limbo.
4. Extreme Partisanship and Polarization
The fourth and most pervasive problem with politics today is growing partisan polarization. Throughout history there have been bouts of intense partisanship over certain key issues such as federalism and slavery. For most of the 20th century, however, the parties were less internally unified than they are today, require more deal making and compromise across the aisle. In 2009, however, we hit an ideological turning point: the most conservative Democrat was for the first time more liberal than the most liberal Republican. Put another way, there is now zero ideological overlap between our two political parties.
Our constitutional system, characterized by checks and balances and separation of powers, is not structured well to deal with our new rabidly polarized parties. Inaction is the easiest path given the easy methods of obstruction outlined above. The dysfunction is amplified by the uncomfortable truth that this polarization is asymmetric between the parties. The Republican Party is less ideologically centered, disdainful of negotiation and compromise and of government in general, and more prone to perfectionist, take-no-prisoners tactics.
This truth isn’t universally accepted, and is glossed over by the modern media’s tendency to favor “balance” and “fairness” over “truth” and “facts.” Many may disagree with this, but I’ll summarize the asymmetry with one graph, showing that as Democrats hold at around -0.4 on a Liberal-Conservative voting spectrum, Republications are approaching +0.8.
From here I’ll go forward with the assumption that reining in the insurgency within the Republican Party is as critical to reform as is addressing issues with the media, money in politics, and Senate proceedings, which I’ll turn to in the next post.
- Fixing our Party System
The Democratic and Republican parties of today are less alike and more internally homogeneous than ever before. One of our best bets for normalizing politics is to expand the electorate and bring in more ideologically moderate and flexible voters who are turned off by today’s extreme partisanship.
One of the first steps we need to take is updating our antiquated voter registration systems. In the U.S., unlikely every other modern democracy, the burden is on the individual to register to vote, rather than on the government to register its citizens.
We currently use outdated paper-based registration systems. One of the first steps we need to take is for states to automate the registration system and put it online. Local and state governments should also make use of third-party public voter lists. Today’s technology and tools make it easy to update these lists and ensure they’re accurate, and merge them across jurisdictions. The same technological advances should make it relatively easy for voters to vote online, or at least have more flexibility regarding polling locations (i.e. allowing people a choice of locations, and add more convenient locations such as malls and supermarkets). Finally, we need to implement election day voter registration. A number of states have this is well and their voting percentages are significantly higher.
We also need to make a much more concerted effort to fight practices that attempt to restrict voting, which almost always have partisan motives. In many states, for example, you can use a concealed carry permit to register to vote but not a student ID, which clearly targets certain demographics such as young people and African Americans. The norm should be that any ID required for voter registration should be free to obtain. Another issue is that local elections and ballot initiatives are combined with the federal ticket. There needs to be a separate federal ballot to reduce confusion.
Currently, U.S. elections are held on Tuesday. This is a holdover from the 1800s that we need to change. Election day should be on the weekend or ideally there should be a voting period that lasts from Wednesday to Sunday.
This last one I know is controversial. But we should consider mandatory voting, as many other modern democracies have. The argument against this is that it’s a restriction on our freedom. However, people forget that you can simply opt for ‘none of the above.’ It should be easy to get out of voting with a valid excuse, or a small fine of $10. We could alternatively offer incentives to vote, such as a small tax credit or even a cash lottery prize for those who vote. In modern democracies where this is the system, 95% of people normally vote and only 3% choose ‘none of the above.’ Even if this is a slight infringement on our freedoms, I think it’s more than worth it to moderate the voter base and bring more centrists into the political process.
Another big issue we face today is how our votes are converted into seats in government. We are a strange democracy in that the politicians we elect shape their own voting districts, rather than having nonpartisan boundary conditions draw the lines. Parties devote lots of money and resources to winning control of local legislatures via partisan redistricting processes. This needs to change. This sort of redistricting recently took place in California and other states are following suit.
Another potential fix is moving to an open primary system rather than our current closed primaries. There are two different forms we could consider. The first is a blanket primary, where there is a single ballot for all candidates from all parties. Alternatively, we could consider a top two vote getter primary, where the top two candidates face a runoff in the main election.
We should also consider enacting an alternative to our current winner-take-all system. We should consider an instant runoff system where voters rank candidates and subsequent runoffs a performed until a candidate has received a majority of the votes. This avoids the wasted vote problem that often stems from strong third party candidates. This will lead to more legitimate majorities elections and help us eliminate the electoral college.
Finally, while I think it’s unlikely to fly in the U.S, we could also consider a proportional representation system, such as the single transferable vote system. In this case, each voter gets one vote, but they can transfer it to another candidate automatically, i.e. when their first choice already has enough votes to be elected.
The final issue to tackle which impacts the way our parties currently work is that of campaign finance. It’s going to be very tough battle to work within the confines of Citizens United, but there are two parts of the existing law we need to enforce. First, disclosure, and second, separating independent expenditure groups from candidates. The DISCLOSE act mentioned earlier would attack the first, and Congress needs to revive the bill. As far as separating independent expenditures groups, the best course would be a new law that simply outlaws super PACs. The political parties themselves are forming Super PACs, and at this point they are impacting House and Senate races and even judicial races. It would be nice to reform the Federal Election Commission as well, but that looks close to impossible as the Senate is closely protecting the existing commissioners.
It would be possible for other branches of government to attack these issues as well. The Internal Revenue Service, for example, could go after fake 501(c)4 nonprofits. The Federal Communications Commission could require all political commercials to list donors. The Securities and Exchange Commission could also play a role by having public corporations disclose quarterly and annual payments to third parties, which are currently hidden from the public. Unfortunately, Congress just passed legislation a few weeks ago making it more difficult for the FCC and the SEC to do so, under pressure from large undisclosed lobbyists.
Another smaller issue is leadership PACs, which are simply vehicles politicians use to collect money and then spend on perks for other politicians. these should be flatly outlawed, as they are pure tools of corruption. We also should prohibit lobbyists from contributing to political campaigns. If someone gets any benefit from federal contracts, they should not be allowed to make campaign contributions.
We should also consider alternatives for how campaigns are financed at a high level. One of the best things that we can do to normalize politics is to encourage more small donors. We could offer tax credits or rebates, or 5-to-1 dollar matching for small donations. All of these reforms are going to take a long time to enact, but hopefully will be more widely considered as disgust with the current system grows and the search for better alternatives intensifies.
2. Reforming our Political Institutions
ne broad way to reform our institutions would be to switch to a parliamentary majority system, where a single party or a coalition elects the executive. We could also consider eliminating midterm elections, which usually reduce the president’s majority, or try to make Senate terms longer or shorter to match House elections. But I think such drastic changes are unlikely. The best path would be to reform our institutions in two ways. First, make some reforms in the Senate, and second, work on shifting power between Congress and the executive branch.
In the Senate, our focus needs to be restoring majority rule. First, we need to limit filibusters one per bill. Second, the burden of holding the floor during a filibuster needs to be on the minority, not the majority. The minority should be called on to go the extra mile to prevail rather than the majority being required to provide a quorum. 41 votes should be required to continue the debate, not 60 votes to end the debate. Third, we need to eliminate extraneous delays in the Senate. Cloture should take one day, not two. Debate time should be 15 hours, not 30, and should require the minority to actually debate on the floor for the its 15 hours. Finally, we must expedite the nomination process and guarantee votes within time limits, ideally 60 days. The current trend of nominations taking 6 months or more even for competent nominees represents inappropriate blanket opposition and policing by the minority, ignoring their oath to implement legitimate laws on the books, and is in turn crippling the government by making qualified public servants hesitant to subject themselves to the current process.
There are few options for shifting power between the branches. One academic theory, that of the Unitary Executive, holds that the president has the right to take any actions that are required to faithfully execute the laws with which he is entrusted. Examples of the ‘unity executive’ approach include Reagan pushing through his conservative agenda, Bush pushing through national security reforms after 9/11, Clinton pushing through public land and medical privacy reform, and Obama granting states waivers to No Child Left Behind. Generally, however, scholars think that this theory lies outside the realms of the Constitution.
Many agencies are also established by Congress to both abdicate power and also limit the president’s authority. The Federal Reserve is by far the most important, which even still comes under frequent criticism from the likes of Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich. Other examples include the FCC, the FEC, the FTC, and the SEC.
One promising organizational development was BRAC, the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission. Congress must routinely close outdated military bases and generally agrees on the need for the reductions, but individual members naturally fight against closures in their own districts. BRAC presents a list of facilities to be closed, an independent commission appointed by the president can makes additions or deletions, and then Congress has 45 days to either approve or reject as a whole.
This model works for base closures, but less so for more contentious issues like deficit reduction, especially when one party is unwilling to consider any tax increases. The Simpson-Bowles commission appointed by Obama came up with a set of recommendations that were favored by many budget experts, but it was not guaranteed a vote in Congress and was never submitted as a bill.
It does seem that this model might work for smaller issues, such as with the Independent Payment Advisory Board, charged with holding Medicare spending within limits. The board recommends measures to the president, who presents them to Congress under expedited procedures, and they are implemented automatically unless Congress proposes alternatives that achieve comparable savings. The IPAB came about to deal with the fact that Congress is incapable of standing up to health company and insurer lobbying efforts.
3. Working Within the Current System
I talked about ways to change the system but we also need to talk about how to work within the system we already have. There are two main points to address. One is that we need to work to change the culture of politics in America today. Second, we need to deal with the asymmetry of America’s two major political parties.
The culture in which politics exists today is toxic. One remedy is to work to restore public shame. Opinion leaders throughout society need to call out ridiculous statements such as Stephen Schwarzman equating carried interest taxes to Hitler invading Poland, Mike O’Neal calling Michelle Obama YoMama, Allen West telling Obama to Get the Hell out of the USA, and the like.
We also desperately need to re-create a public square and decrease the impact of partisan media. We need to find a new source of funding for public media, such as broadcasters paying rental fees on their use of airwaves, that fits a better model of public discourse, with genuine debate and straightforward coverage, than profit-driven networks like Fox and CNBC.
Some have suggested building a Shadow Congress, made up of former members and other lawmakers, focused on genuine but non-vicious debate. Many former members of Congress express anger at the institution’s current conduct, such as Republicans trashing even conservative health reform ideas just because Obama supported them, or Congress trashing the scientific community over climate change.
And finally, we need to rein in the insurgent Republican party. The modern GOP favors political wins over cooperation and compromise, embracing extreme ideological viewpoints and shunning negotiation. We need to foster change from within and challenge the take-no-prisoners approach, accept that ‘starving the beast’ with a ‘no new tax’ pledge has been empirically disproven, and accept that the welfare state is here to stay. Republican voters need to take responsibility and not just vote against the majority when times are bad. Educate yourself on policy and try to form and ideological framework for yourself.
Obama needs to call out Republicans more for being obstructionist and insincere negotiating partners. Presidential elections need to present a choice to voters, not just a referendum on the party in power.
The media needs to help readers recognize asymmetric polarization. Report the truth, which is not the same as balanced treatment of unbalanced phenomena. Fact check. Don’t treat filibusters as routine. And finally, clarify for voters the choices that an election entails. How would they govern? What would the accomplish? What would unified vs. divided government lead to in each specific case?
At the end of the day, voters decide. Blanket condemnation of Congress and Washington serves the status quo and is not productive. Punish ideologically extreme parties. Challenge the legitimacy of filibusters. Beware of non-profit political groups. Consider which presidential ticket you prefer, and vote for the same party in Congress — this makes more sense in times of partisan polarization. Promote respect, acceptance of legitimacy of one’s opponents, bargaining, and compromise.
Fun Books to Read
- The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century, by Gerald Baldasty
- So Damn Much Money, by Robert Kaiser
- Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist, by Jack Abramoff
- The Broken Branch, by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein
- It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein
- Party Wars, by Barbara Sinclair
- Disconnect, by Morris Fiorina and Samuel Abrams
- The Disappearing Center, by Alan Abramowitz
- Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy, by Charlie Savage