WASHINGTON — Gridlock and political dysfunction. Partisanship at record levels. Attack politics run amok. And public approval of Congress scraping the single digits (Sen. John McCain is fond of saying it’s down to blood relatives and paid staff).
We’ve all heard the laments — we’ve made some of them ourselves — that Washington is broken, that our political system can’t grapple with the nation’s big, long-term problems. So what can be done about it? Unfortunately, the cures that get tossed around are often misguided, sometimes even worse than the disease. Here are five much-praised solutions we should avoid, followed by four that have a chance to make a meaningful difference.
• A third party to the rescue
Ah, if only we had a third force, an independent movement that could speak plain truths to the public and ignite the silent, centrist majority around common-sense solutions.
Sound familiar? In recent decades, Ross Perot, John Anderson and George Wallace have pursued a serious third-party route, although only Wallace managed to win any electoral votes. But this hasn’t stopped high-profile columnists such as Tom Friedman of The New York Times and Matt Miller of The Washington Post from singing this siren song, along with former elected officials such as Republican Christine Todd Whitman, Democrat David Boren and many others. The much-hyped Americans Elect group — which was to harness the democratic spirit of the Internet to find a centrist third-party presidential candidate for the 2012 race — is a prime example of this approach.
One problem: Despite Americans’ disgust with our politics, about 90 percent of us identify with — or at least lean toward — one of the two major parties. Among Americans who call themselves independent, two-thirds lean to one of the parties, and behave at the polls just like the partisans. So the core audience for a third party is perhaps 10 percent of the electorate. So-called independents are classic referendum voters; when times are bad, they want to throw the bums out rather than carefully attribute responsibility or parse alternatives.
The third-party fantasy is of a courageous political leader who could persuade Americans to support enlightened policies to tax carbon; reform entitlements; make crucial investments in education, energy and infrastructure; and eliminate tax loopholes to raise needed revenue. But there is simply no evidence that voters would flock to a straight-talking, independent, centrist third-party candidate espousing the ideas favored by most third-party enthusiasts. Consensus is not easily built around such issues, and differences in values and interests would not simply disappear in a nonpartisan, centrist haze.
Just ask Americans Elect, which has been unable to coalesce around a single candidate, despite spending $35 million.
• Term limits will save us
This is the quintessential bromide for curing American democracy. The case seems self-evident: Career politicians in safe seats lose touch with their constituents, become beholden to the Washington establishment and stop acting in the public interest. Term limits, we’re told, would replace them with citizen-lawmakers who cared less about re-election and more about acting on behalf of their fellow citizens — thus restoring Congress to its intended role as the citadel of deliberative democracy.
Does it work? Term limits of some sort have been implemented in 21 states since 1990 (in six of them, the limits were ultimately overturned), and the experience has given scholars time and opportunity to evaluate them. But instead of channeling ambition in the right, public-interest direction, term limits have the opposite effect: New lawmakers immediately begin planning for ways to reach the next level, or to find lucrative lobbying jobs when they are term-limited out. They have no incentive to do things for the long-term and no regard for maintaining their own institutions. With the loss of expertise among senior lawmakers, power devolves to permanent staff members and to lobbyists.
If anything, voters should look to candidates with a stake in the regular order, an understanding of the need to compromise, a willingness to build expertise in important policy areas, and an incentive to listen to constituents — all features that are more likely among politicians with longer horizons.
• A balanced-budget amendment can fix the economy
Another hardy perennial is the notion that a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget would end Washington’s rapacious habits and force politicians to make tough fiscal decisions. After all, 49 states have such an amendment in their constitutions, so why not Washington?
In fact, the states’ balanced budgets are the best reason to avoid one at the federal level. When a downturn occurs, basic economic theory tells us that we need “counter-cyclical” policies to inject adrenaline into a fatigued economy — meaning more government spending and/or lower taxes. States do the opposite: A downturn means less revenue and more demands from unemployed residents, so they cut spending and raise taxes to preserve their balanced budgets. The fiscal drag from states in the recent Great Recession amounted to $800 billion, which the Obama administration’s stimulus plan barely offset. A federal balanced-budget amendment would only have aggravated the downturn — the economic equivalent of bleeding an anemic patient.
The latest House Republican proposals for a balanced-budget amendment would limit spending to 19.9 percent of gross domestic product and make any tax increases contingent on a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers of Congress. Because federal revenue is now at barely more than 15 percent of GDP and spending is at 24 percent, balancing the budget under these conditions would essentially eliminate all of the government other than the big entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare — or would require cutting those programs severely.
Maintaining fiscal flexibility is crucial in the American political system, particularly in a globalized economy where less and less of our destiny is under our control. And the experience of the 1990s demonstrates that the White House and Congress together can take the steps needed to balance the budget under existing rules.
• Public financing of elections will restrain special interests
Certainly, in the post-Citizens United world, the financing of political campaigns is a nightmare — a Wild West of secret big money and a new Gilded Age of influence peddling by special interests.
But full public financing of campaigns is not the answer. We understand the appeal, but short of an unlikely constitutional amendment or a reconstituted Supreme Court placing limits on private money in political campaigns, public funding simply cannot provide candidates enough resources to overcome hugely expensive “independent” campaigns against them by super PACs. Even then, the influence of organizations such as the National Rifle Association, AARP, the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO is not defined simply by the money they spend on campaigns. They also mobilize powerful collections of single-minded members and followers to pressure lawmakers; and they hire former lawmakers or congressional staff members to gain access to power and boost policy expertise on key issues. Campaign donations are a relatively small part of the resources they invest in influencing government.
Whether or not campaign money is the key, restricting the flow of private money in politics has proved devilishly difficult, and the actions of the Roberts Supreme Court and the feckless Federal Election Commission have made it virtually impossible.
• Stay calm — things will get back to normal eventually
Finally, there are some analysts who do not think that our times are particularly exceptional, that under economic stress, all advanced democracies grapple with dysfunction, and that as life calms down, so will our politics. They also point out that the 111th Congress (the last one) was extremely productive, passing health-care reform, financial regulation and an economic stimulus package. David R. Mayhew, a political scientist at Yale and the author of books such as “Divided We Govern” and “Partisan Balance,” is a prominent adherent of this view. Most of the political imbalances of our era “have not been major, permanent systemic problems,” he argues. “More precisely, at least during recent generations, many alleged problems have proven to be nonexistent, short term, limited, tolerable or correctable.”
No doubt, acrimony and gridlock are built-in features of our political system, and it is true that we have had several eras of intense stress and polarization, including the period right before the Civil War and around the turn of the 20th century.
Yet, it is not exactly comforting to compare what’s going on now to the years leading up to the Civil War. And an examination of the Obama presidency suggests that we are experiencing neither politics as usual nor an odd blip. We are witnessing unprecedented and unbalanced polarization of the parties, with Republicans acting like a parliamentary minority party opposing almost everything put forward by the Democrats; the near-disappearance of the regular order in Congress; the misuse of the filibuster as a weapon not of dissent but of obstruction; and the relentless delegitimization of the president and policies enacted into law. Given the defeat of problem-solvers such as Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., and the emergence of take-no-prisoners partisans such as Richard Mourdock, there is no reason to think the system will correct itself anytime soon.
So, if these solutions won’t work, what will? There is a more sensible and promising reform agenda, one more focused on fixing the party system and addressing the roots and the weapons of political partisanship.
•Realistic campaign finance reform
Without a different Supreme Court, serious problems with money in politics will endure. But there are fruitful reform possibilities outside the public financing of elections; namely, restoring the effectiveness of two provisions of the law the court affirmed in Citizens United: disclosure and the separation of independent spending groups (such as super PACs) from the candidates and campaigns they support.
Passage of straightforward disclosure legislation requiring the timely identification of all significant donors to independent campaign ads (say, of $5,000 or more) would be a big step. Combine that with real efforts by the Internal Revenue Service to simply enforce its own regulations on nonprofit 501(c)4 entities to keep sham organizations from exploiting the law to hide political donors, and we would be on a path to real disclosure.
Congress could also pass a measure to sharply tighten the anti-coordination provisions that require unlimited donations to be totally independent of candidates and their campaigns. Even absent such legislation, the Justice Department could prosecute those who violate the coordination bans in cases where the brazen behavior has been most evident. (The fact that Foster Friess, who bankrolled the “independent” effort to back Rick Santorum’s presidential candidacy, sat next to Santorum on his campaign plane and stood behind him at campaign rallies shows how farcical the practice has become.) Justice does not need to wait for the Federal Election Commission to act — it would be waiting a long time.
• Convert votes into seats
With the partisan redrawing of congressional district lines skewing American politics, we support a redistricting process that — like several states have done — uses independent commissions to draw the lines based on respect for communities’ boundaries and for real political competitiveness. It is no cure-all (none of these solutions is), but such an effort could contain and possibly reduce our escalating partisanship.
Another option that would help make votes more accurately reflect the electorate’s real feelings is instant runoff voting, where voters can rank their candidate preferences. Such a system produces majority winners, eliminates the spoiler role and reduces the “wasted vote” calculation for minor-party candidates, allowing them to participate more fully in the election process. Building more legitimate majorities in this fashion could extend the electoral reach of the major parties and thereby reduce their polarization.
• Restoring majority rule in the Senate
Restoring the filibuster to its traditional role of allowing an intense minority to temporarily hold up action in areas of great national moment — and away from its new use as a regular weapon for obstruction — should be a top priority. Senate rules should allow only one filibuster on any bill (now there can be two or more). Currently, the burden is on the majority to provide the 60 votes to break a filibuster; instead, the minority party should have to take the floor and hold it via debate, and provide the 41 votes needed to maintain the filibuster.
Senate rules should guarantee an up-or-down vote on executive and judicial nominations reported out of the relevant committees, with a time limit for holds on the nominations.
In return for allowing true majorities to ultimately prevail, finding a way to allow a minority to offer a respectable number of relevant amendments on most bills is a reasonable trade-off.
• Expand the electorate
Consider the Australian system of mandatory attendance at the polls, where not showing up results in a fine of $15 or so. This modest penalty has spurred participation of more than 90 percent since the 1925 reform. Australian politicians can count on their bases turning out, so they focus on persuadable voters in the middle. Instead of campaigning on marginal wedge issues, they talk about the economy, jobs, education — and they seek to attract a majority from the entire citizenry.
In the United States, such near-universal voting could eliminate the parties’ incentive to diminish the turnout of their opponents’ supporters and to mobilize the ideological extremes. Boosting overall turnout would help tilt the balance back toward where most Americans actually are: closer to the middle of the playing field.
Other promising avenues to expand the electorate include automating the registration process (so voters can register online and carry their documentation with them when they move from one state to another) and to open up the primaries, as California has done, to all voters. Over time, open primaries could produce more moderate elected officials.
Finally, if we can’t persuade more Americans to vote with the threat of a fine, how about the promise of untold riches? Millions lined up — sometimes wasting all night — for a shot at the Mega Millions lottery in March. How about another lottery, where your vote stub is a ticket, and where the prize is the money collected from the fines of those who didn’t vote? The odds of the mega-jackpot were about 1 in 176 million — we’d like to believe that the chances of fixing American politics are a bit better than that.
Thomas E. Mann is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This essay is adapted from their book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.” This column ran first in The Washington Post.