It’s time to unlock Congress

It’s no secret that Congress doesn’t work. Polarization is higher than it’s ever been in the modern era, fewer laws are getting passed and congressional approval is at all-time lows. And for all of their talk of compromise and productivity, it doesn’t look like our current Congress has the desire, or ability, to fix itself.

But that doesn’t mean that solutions don’t exist. Yesterday, I had the chance to hop on the phone with Michael Golden, author of the upcoming book, Unlock Congress: Reform the Rules  — Restore the System, set to hit the shelves on April 15th. Here is the full audio of our conversation:

The premise is fairly straightforward. Golden’s main point is that a set of structural problems in Congress — money, short House terms, uncompetitive races and the voting filibuster — make it nearly impossible for Congress to do their jobs, and in many cases actively work against sound governance and fair representation.

Here are the problems:

Chasing the Money: It costs about $1.7 million to win a seat in the House of Representatives. Want to be a Senator? That’ll be $10.5 million. The prohibitive costs of congressional races forces our representatives to spend the bulk of their time doing things other than, well, representing. The average member of Congress spends more time raising money than doing anything else. Not only does that make them beholden to the people writing the checks, but it also takes time away from doing their regular jobs. In other words, it makes them less responsive and less competent.

Predetermined Elections: Congress is not representative of the American populace. It has always been older, whiter, richer and male-dominated; and currently it is way more Republican. Some of this is due to gerrymandering and some of this is naturally-occurring due to geographic sorting; the effects of both are exacerbated by the conclusion of the party realignment that began in the 1960’s. Taken together, we’re left with a congressional map in which practically none of the seats are competitive. Most congressional districts have electorates that are so partisan that it requires no special knowledge of American politics to safely predict the outcome of nearly every House race long before it happens. That means that the overwhelming majority of our representatives have little incentive to attract support from anywhere outside their own party.

Short Terms: In modern politics, two-year congressional terms give members of Congress just enough time to put together  a really solid re-election campaign. One year and the might not raise enough money; three years and they might actually pass some legislation. The constant specter of reelection means that a newly-elected president has, at best, about a year in which they can expect Congress to work with them in a meaningful way. After that first year’s up, the House is too wary of the voters back home to produce compromise legislation.

The Voting Filibuster: As President Obama learned the hard way, and as Mitch McConnell may soon learn himself, needing 60 votes to pass meaningful legislation is exhausting. It’s also not what the Founders had in mind when they wrote a pretty clear “majority rules” feature into the Constitution. Sure, the Senate is allowed to set its own internal procedures, the filibuster being one of them, but let’s face it: requiring a supermajority in order to hold a roll call vote is a dumb rule — one that’s being used at an accelerating pace to hold up otherwise noncontroversial bills. And now that Democrats are in the minority in the Senate, I expect my Republican counterparts to agree with me in saying so.

These four factors work together to drive three overarching negative effects: They distort fair representation; deter compromise and negotiation; the two of which combine to produce suboptimal policy outcomes for the American populace.

So what can we do about it? Golden has a few ideas:

Catch up with the money: As long as money is defined as speech, as it has been since Buckley v. Valeo in 1976, it gets really difficult to argue for arbitrary caps on how much an individual can spend on politics. In order to truly address campaign finance, we’re going to need a Constitutional amendment redefining political speech on equal protection grounds instead of free speech grounds.

However, until then, there are a number of ways in which we can mitigate the effects of big money in politics by amplifying the financial impact of small-dollar contributors. For example, legislation sponsored by Congressman John Sarbanes (D – MD) would set up public financing to match and then multiply small-dollar contributions to federal candidates. Under the “Government by the People Act,” contributions of under $150 would be matched by the government 6-1, upped to 9-1 for candidates who agreed to only accept small-dollar donations.

The other policy proposal Golden outlines for tackling campaign finance is Lawrence Lessig’s election voucher system, in which voters receive a voucher that can be spent on political campaigns or, if unused, is put toward administering the election.

Redraw the map…and the ballot: Non-partisan redistricting would be a good start, but it would still leave Congress older, whiter and more rural (in other words, more Republican) than the American electorate due to natural geographic sorting that has left America ideologically segregated, with Democrats clustered in big cities and Republicans spread out across the country. In order to make Congress truly representative, Golden endorses a number of proposals from FairVote that would, taken together, provide for proportional representation within a smaller number of larger districts, the representatives of which are selected via ranked choice voting.unlock congress

That’s a bit complicated, so let’s back up a step:

Golden’s proposal would consolidate current congressional districts into larger ones, and then have voters select multiple representatives from that district on a proportional basis. It would also replace single-ballot voting with ranked choice voting, in which voters list their top three choices for office and ballot-counting is conducted in rounds — voters whose top choices lose have their ballots reallocated to their second choice, and then their third if applicable.

Under this system, a hypothetical congressional district could have five (give or take a couple) congressional seats, with any candidate receiving at least 16.67% of the ranked-choice vote guaranteed a spot in Congress — with five seats, it’s impossible for six candidates to all receive more than 16.67% of the vote.

This system would practically guarantee at least some Congressional representation for every American citizen, and would open the door for legitimate third party candidates to enter, and win, races for congressional seats.

Four-year House terms: The United States remains one of the only industrialized democracies that elects an entire chamber of its legislature every year. Most countries have figured out that that’s not nearly enough time for representatives to get anything done, let alone be evaluated on their records. Extending House terms to four years — an idea endorsed by President Lyndon Johnson — would allow representatives to actually govern for a little while before having to gear up for their reelection campaigns.

In our conversation, Golden and I discussed the various pros and cons of having the whole House elected during Presidential years, or if it would be better to elect half of the House in every even-numbered year. Golden favors electing the whole House at once, as having Presidential and congressional election days all align would mean that the Executive and Legislative branches would be in governing mode and campaigning mode at the same time. Presumably, this would mean increasing Senate terms to eight years, as well, keeping all of our policymakers on the same multiples-of-four electoral schedules.

Abolish the voting filibuster: Scratch the surface of someone arguing in favor of the filibuster, and you’ll find someone who doesn’t want to see whichever party’s in power pass their agenda. There is no small-d democratic rationale for allowing a minority faction, let alone one person, to block legislation the majority wants to pass. Getting rid of the procedure entirely — not just for appointments — is perhaps the simplest process change we can make in order to provide for responsive governance.

Implementing any changes to Congress, let alone big ones, let alone a lot of them at once, is certainly difficult. But we’ve made changes before. In Unlock Congress, Michael Golden has provided an outline for what some of those reforms could look like, and why they are worth fighting for.

The book is definitely worth a read, and you can sign up to find out more ways to get involved at unlockcongress.com.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • Rambie

    Mid-90’s? I think that coup started with Regan.

  • Michigan has already essentially abolished local government. Setting the precedent that the governor can essentially disband a municipality, and the entirety of its duly elected officials, any time he pleases without any kind of due process.

  • dcinsider

    It is not the lack of laws curtailing spending it is the Constitutional infringement on free speech that the laws (allegedly) create. If you want true campaign finance restrictions, you really need to address the Constitutional issues, either with a few new members of SCOTUS, or an amendment.

    From Justice Kennedy:

    “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.”

    “The government may regulate corporate political speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements, but it may not suppress that speech altogether.”

    Likewise, limitations on people’s free speech because they are not residents of a particular state is not likely to pass muster. The only way around this for the foreseeable future is by amending the Constitution.

    Good luck with that one. Which politician will lead that charge?

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  • Because even when uncontested, an elected office must be purchased. At this point, it’s not unlike walking into a car dealership: It doesn’t matter if nobody else wants the car, you will still have to pay for it. If you don’t put up sufficient funds to purchase the Congressional seat every cycle, some multimillionaire or candidate with multimillionaire backers will take it from you.

    Campaign funds are a gigantic legalized graft and bribery machine. Part of what makes those seats uncontested is nobody else can raise the money necessary to challenge the incumbents. There’s both partisan lock-in on incumbency as well as seniority-at-the-table. Money is the lubricant.

    It’s why, for example, many of the old guard GOPers are furious and terrified about the Tea Baggers, because not only are they often unelectably radical and painfully ignorant on the most basic details of America’s systems of government, the Baggers are also refusing to obey the cardinal rule in American politics: You wait your turn until given the nod by the hoary old geezer contingent.

  • Sadly, true. Especially when so many seem to refuse to realize the Republicans have been running a slow-rolling coup against American democracy since the mid-1990s. Both at the federal and state level, and now in places like North Carolina, where they’re going after local governments, too.

  • The_Fixer

    I think that these “people” have bought more Lotus Elan cars than were ever made.

  • 2karmanot

    cockroach troll

  • FLL

    I’ll answer your statement about the illusion of control using the same example as I used above, women’s reproductive rights. Let’s say that voters in a Southern state vote for Republican state legislators who promise, in their campaigns, to restrict women’s reproductive rights as much as possible. This might be possible if the population is sufficiently right-wing Christian, and younger women—those who are more likely to be unmarried—are outnumbered at the polls. Using your paradigm, we would say:

    “Oh, look at those silly, deluded Southern conservatives trudging to the polls. Those deluded fools need to wake up and realize that aren’t really exerting control over women’s lives and reproductive rights by voting for Republican state legislators, and in fact they only have the illusion of control.”

    Nicho, I don’t think your paradigm is workable here. Those Southern conservatives trudging to the polls don’t have just an illusion of control; they have actual control. I’m sure that the groups of people who are adversely affected by Republican policies in many regions of the country will be happy to tell you that it’s not an illusion. Fail.

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  • nicho

    The problem with voting when it changes nothing is that it gives the illusion of democracy where none exists. We don’t have a democracy. however, having people trudge to the polls deludes them into thinking that they have a choice. They don’t. It’s like people vainly pushing elevator call buttons when the elevators are programmed to stop at certain floors at certain times — it’s just the illusion of control. And in a country, that’s dangerous.

  • Indigo

    I would short circuit the system and call for a Constitutional Congress to convene. Then we can all throw our revisions into the ring and see what happens. (BTW, I bet six separate nation states would emerge from such a Congress.)

  • Indigo

    Any time a heading says “it’s time” you can be certain Peter Pan is blowing soap bubbles in Neverland.

  • My “Queen Bitch of America” solutions:

    – 100% public funding of campaigns, with hard limits, indexed to inflation (given this, the 2 year House term is not at all unreasonable); this would include a certain amount of free air-time on broadcast TV, radio, cable, fiber, satellite, Internet and other broadcasters as a condition of their commercial licensing
    – Elected and appointed officials are banned for 10 years from lobbying the government after leaving office

    Followed by a “New Bill of Rights”:
    – Constitutional Amendment #1: Money does not equal speech, and therefore all legislated limits on lobbying and campaign spending are 100% legal.
    – Constitutional Amendment #2: Corporations, companies, partnerships or any other business arrangement are not ‘persons’ under the law, and as such they have no Constitutionally-based guarantees of civil rights. Moreover, in no case may a business (or its owners) have rights that supersede those of a flesh-and-blood person.
    – Constitutional Amendment #3: Under no circumstances can a person be compelled or enticed to give up their Constitutionally guaranteed rights, including as a condition for employment, housing, or entering into a business agreement or contract; any such agreement or contract is presumptively null-and-void and unenforceable.
    – Constitutional Amendment #4: Being manifestly corrupting and contrary to democratic principles, gerrymandering and any form of partisan district-drawing are illegal.
    – Constitutional Amendment #5: The Electoral College is abolished; the president is whomever wins the majority of the national popular vote
    – Constitutional Amendment #6: The District of Columbia is granted immediate full statehood, with all the rights associated with this status. Also, the U.S.-controlled territories and commonwealths, including Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa may vote on statehood. Regardless of outcome however, all citizens of these territories and commonwealths are to be granted full and unfettered U.S. citizenship, with all associated rights and privileges.
    – Constitutional Amendment #7: The Prohibition has been a failure. The government may only regulate or ban those substances which are demonstrably — and scientifically proven — to be dangerous. Declarations of ‘no medical use’ must be backed with concrete evidence. Any regulations or bans must be the minimum necessary to reasonably ensure public safety.
    – Constitutional Amendment #8: ‘National Security’ is not sufficient justification to override Constitutional protections against unlawful detention without indictment or trial, unreasonable search-and-seizure, cruel and unusual punishments, or the seizure of property, funds, or personal information without a warrant. Bulk collection of data and surveillance of citizens accused of no wrongdoing is banned. The use of secret evidence in trials is unequivocally banned.
    – Constitutional Amendment #9: Civil forfeiture laws are banned, as they have encouraged both corruption and oppression. Any property seizures may go towards the compensation of the direct crime victims, but that is all.

    Feel free to add more if y’all like…

  • That and end Gerrymandering.

  • It is illegal for PACs to coordinate with campaigns. Does anyone think that almost all of them aren’t breaking that law? Start busting them. Both parties.

    We know how to make change. It’s that both parties are so corrupt that neither has any interest in doing anything that will fix the problem. Mutually assured destruction was the cold-war era term.

  • Follow the money. There are people (including those who don’t win) who basically live off these campaign donations. the entire system is corrupt. It’s legal to bribe elected officials in the USA and has been for years. Start sending them to jail and continue to bust and jail them so that the rest get the message. If we don’t do that things will go on as they have. that includes judges.

  • Are there really that many House members who actually have to campaign? Mine ran unopposed both in the primary and in the general election. A four year term changes nothing for me.

    How about this: impeach judges who are caught taking gifts and bribes from people before the court. Then we could overturn idiotic decisions ruling that bribes are a form of protected speech. Until that happens none of the rest of this can happen.

  • FLL

    From one of Bill’s cut-and-paste graphics: “If voting changed anything they would make it illegal.”
    You could just as plausibly argue that if voting changed nothing, Bill wouldn’t loudly complain every time a writer at Americablog suggests that Americablog readers vote. Why the nonstop complaints aimed at Americablog’s writers? Bill, do you approve of using intimidation tactics in heavily African-American precincts in the hope of depressing the Democratic vote? That is, after all, the favored tactic of Republicans? Those initimidation tactics (along with attacks on civil rights and reproductive rights) wouldn’t be happening if Republicans were not in power in state governments, which really kind of proves that elections have consequences. Ask some woman who needs an abortion if elections don’t have consequences.

  • Tony Mac

    Agree — in fact Senator Warren took only individual donations for her Senate run. Although I think Emily’s List did give her some funds… but yes…take contributions from only those residing in the District or in the State…no PACS, no corporations in any guise…well said…and noted…

  • HKAnders

    Restricting donations to individuals would be the key. Otherwise, wealthy corporations and PACs would buy or lease office space, or establish P.O. box addresses, in every congressional district in the country to get around the rules.

  • HKAnders

    Even under the premise that money is speech, there is no need to accept a near-total lack of regulations on campaign funding. Why shouldn’t money in politics be subject to limits, just as speech is? I’m not protected for labeling Rush Limbaugh a pedophile if he is not. I’m not protected for identifying Lindsey Graham a gay porno actor if he is not. If we can establish boundaries for the limits of actual speech, we should be able to establish boundaries for money-as-speech.

    So, let money be speech. But let it be limited to $10 per candidate, per election cycle for any individual or incorporated entity. If I want to donate $10 to the candidate of my choice, I may do so. If American Crossroads wants to donate $10 to the candidate of its choice, it may do so.

    Those aggregate $10 donations could be augmented by equal-share public campaign financing.

    This would democratize money-as-speech, since no individual or incorporated entity would be able to “speak” any louder than any other.

  • KarenJ

    If “practically none of the seats are competitive” and “most congressional districts have electorates that are so partisan that it requires no special knowledge of American politics to safely predict the outcome of nearly every House race long before it happens”, why do congressional candidates for the House even have to spend $1.7 million to get elected?

    You’d think all they’d have to do is have a handful of BBQ-and-beer tailgate parties in September-October before the election.

  • Tony Mac

    I have to say that having worked on the Hill, a four-year term would be a good move. As for the money, I’ve often suggested that if a person is running for the House or Senate…they can only accept funds from people in their particular House District or State. No PAC money, no corporate money, no out of state money. I a person decides to run from the 2nd District, then all their funds must come from the people they want tor represent. Of course it will never happen, but one can hope…

  • Bill_Perdue

    Congress can no more be reformed than the twin parties of wart and union busting.

    Congress is owned by the rich. The White House is owned by the rich. The courts are owned by the rich. State and local governments are owned by the rich. The media is owned by the rich.

    Jon, what on earth makes you believe that the government and the parties that service the rich are going to stop or that they’d allow you to challenge them.

  • nicho

    Just get money out of political campaigns and most of the other problems will solve themselves.

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