08 June 2012


Several weeks ago an article appeared in the Washington Post, summarizing the gridlock in Washington (political dysfunction, partisanship, attack politics, low public approval of Congress).  The authors, Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, went on to list five fruitless cures that are often proposed, and four cures that stand a better chance to make a meaningful difference.  Here's a summary (read the article for a fuller description) ~

Solutions to avoid ~

  • A third party to the rescue.  DOA ~ 90 percent of Americans identify with or lean toward one of the two major political parties.
  • Term limits.  Self-defeating ~ new lawmakers tend to have no incentive to think long-term, and start jockeying for their next step up once they leave office ~ e.g., lucrative careers in lobbying.
  • A balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.  Experience has already proven that this doesn't work.  49 states have balanced-budget amendments.  When an economic downturn occurs, the government experiences less revenue and increased demand for services.  The result?  Raising taxes and cutting spending.  Not a healthy way to run a society.
  • Public financing of elections to restrain special interests.  Fail, for two reasons.  One, the money raised by public financing is a drop in the bucket compared to the floodtide of expenses in today's elections, and cannot compete with the massive cash infused by often-anonymous super-PACs under today's election rules.  Two, those same wealthy special interests (the NRA, AARP, the AFL-CIO to name a few) don't just donate to 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."  Individual private citizens don't have that kind of financial or policy influence.
  • Stay calm ~ acrimony comes and goes in cycles.  True, but only up to a point.  "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 everything put forward by the Democrats, the near-disappearance of the regular order of 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."
Solutions to consider ~
  • Realistic campaign finance reform.  To include (a) "Passage of straightforward disclosure legislation requiring the timely identification of all significant donors to independent campaign ads (say, of $5000 or more)", and (b) "real efforts by the Internal Revenue Service to simply enforce its own regulation on nonprofit 501(c)4 entities to keep sham organizations from exploiting the law to hide political donors."
  • Converting votes into seats.  Redistricting should use independent commissions to draw congressional district lines based on respect for communities' boundaries, to reduce escalating partisanship.  "Another option that would help make votes more accurately reflect the electorate's real feelings is instant runoff voting, where voters rank their candidate preferences.  Such a system produces majority winners, eliminates the spoiler role, and reduces the 'wasted vote' calculation for minority-party candidates."
  • Restoring majority rule in the Senate.  "Restoring the filibuster to its traditional role of allowing an intense minority to temporarily hold up action on issues of great national import ~ and away from its new use as a regular weapon for obstruction ~ should be a top priority .... Senate rules should guarantee an up-or-down vote on executive and judicial nominations reported out of the relevant committees, with a time limit to the holds of the nominations."
  • Expanding 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 to 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 .... and they seek to attract a majority of 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 .... Finally, if we can't persuade more Americans to vote with the threat of a fine, how about the promise of untold riches?  How about a lottery, where your vote stub is a ticket, and where the prize is the money collected rom the fines of those who didn't vote?"
The proposed solutions sound attainable.  I would add to the last solution expanding the electorate to include all undocumented immigrants ~ provided that they register as temporary workers, and are allowed to remain in the U.S. long enough to satisfy the requirements for citizenship.  Their presence in the interstices of our culture is simple reality, and they are as affected by our laws as anyone born in the U.S.  The infusion of another set of voters, educated in American history and politics, but with a different (not better or worse) experience with race, class, gender, and economics influence our worldview, could only serve to diversify and deepen everyone's understanding and (hopefully) mutual tolerance.  We are all immigrants, or the descendants of immigrants.

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