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

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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