Home National Politics The Repair and Maintenance of Congress

The Repair and Maintenance of Congress


The word which most frequently comes to mind when thinking of Congress is “dysfunctional.” Some go even further and say the system as a whole is broken, generally when they do not get what they wanted. As Mickey Edwards (Republican Representative from OK-5 1977-1993, who voted for Barack Obama in 2008) writes in the July-August 2011 edition of The Atlantic, Congressional leaders of either party readily admit that their goal is to elect more of their own kind, and prevent the election of the other—- in other words, to seek partisan advantage, rather than to address the serious problems facing the country.

As I have said elsewhere, political parties are never mentioned in the Constitution; there is no Article IV for political parties, following Article I (Legislative), Article II ( Executive), and Article III (Judicial)—- actually, Article IV is miscellaneous, like “full-faith-and-credit.” Yet, we have turned over our entire election system to political parties, which are ad hoc and extra-constitutional groups, more interested in perpetuating themselves than in anything else.  It is their stranglehold on the system which has produced most of the frustrating dysfunctionality in government, not anything inherent in the Constitutional system itself.  Mr. Edwards has come up with six suggestions for how, he says, to “turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans,” and, just maybe, get something done in Washington.

The frustrating system we have today is “a far cry from what the Founders intended…. not a legacy of 1789 but an outdated relic of the late 1800s and early 1900s,” when candidates for office began to be selected by direct primaries, rather than by party bigwigs in smoke-filled back rooms. Instead of resulting in more popular involvement in the process, primaries have turned out to be dominated by “a subset of party activists who are often highly ideological and largely uninterested in finding common ground,” so that when the average voter goes to the polls in November, his or her choices are limited only to those candidates the political activists have already  pre-selected.  Edwards says he does not want “harmony” in a mythical center, because democracy depends on vigorous debate: “the problem is not division but partisanship—- advantage-seeking by private clubs whose central goal is to win political power.” He wants to put the people, not parties, in control.

1) Break the power of partisans to keep candidates off the general-election ballot. Today’s ideological rigidity and refusal to compromise arises from the closed primary/convention, dominated by party activists who have taken over the election process from state and local governments. In 2010 California voted for “open primaries,” in which every candidate for a particular office, regardless of party, appears on the same ballot, and every voter, regardless of party, can choose among them; the top two will advance to the general, even if both happen to belong to the same party. Although Edwards does not say this, what it amounts to is a two-tier general election, the first one followed by a run-off. [I myself am not so sure this would not still result in bitter partisanship with enormous corporate money waging political war, nor would it engender elections whose victors would be more likely to listen to the needs of their constituents than their party—- but it would give more opportunity to third parties and true independents].

2) Turn over the process of redrawing congressional districts to independent, nonpartisan commissions. Gerrymandering of districts in order to protect incumbents and perpetuate the dominance of one particular party means that residents are deprived of their constitutional guarantee that “a legislator serve as the voice of a community,” because community interests have been replaced by the interests of a political party.  So far, thirteen states have created bipartisan or nonpartisan redistricting commissions. [This idea is key to reducing the power of activist fringes and party establishments, IMO, and will naturally be fiercely resisted by said party establishments, as we in Virginia know only too well].

3) Allow members of any party to offer amendments to any House bill and—- with rare exceptions—- put those amendments to a vote.  Over time, the Congress has devolved from an arena allowing ample debate and dissent, even under partisan leadership like that of Tip O’Neill, to an arena of competing armies, under rigid partisan generals, determined to destroy each other. Edwards seems to date the change to 1987, when Jim Wright became Speaker.  Edwards proposes that equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats sit on the Rules Committee which sets the rules at the beginning of each new Congress, and adopt a rule that “any proposal receiving a significant level of support—- say, 100 co-sponsors—- should automatically be allowed a committee hearing, an up-or-down vote in committee and then, even if it fails in committee, a vote on the House floor.” [One detects echoes of what must have been some disappointments Edwards suffered during his tenure, but I do believe the legislative process must be opened up somewhat, diluting the tyranny of a majority’s running roughshod over the minority, but I am not sure just how this would work, nor if future Congresses could be compelled to continue the practice.  There is also the problem of one party clogging the pipeline deliberately with innumerable irrelevant amendments simply to delay the agenda of the other party, a problem that would have to be forestalled when designing the rule].

4)Change the leadership structure of congressional committees. The chair of a committee, always a majority party member, decides whether or not a proposal will even be considered, and picks whose views will be brought before the committee. Why not create a Vice-chair from the minority party, who also can bring up a proposal and invite expert witnesses? The way it works now, party leaders use committee hearings to advance their agendas, so the process is “transactional, not deliberative.” [Since voters elected a particular party based on a proposed agenda offered by that party during the campaign, of course the committee will be engaged in effecting that agenda, IMO, but I do see merit in the concept of turning committee hearings into more broad-based deliberations].

5) Fill committee vacancies by lot. Presently, party leaders determine committee assignments, generally based on their estimate of how obedient a member will be in “going along,” or how tough they will be on the other party in the partisan combat which passes for committee deliberations.  Edwards quotes the Lord Admiral in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta H.M.S. Pinafore: “I always voted at my party’s call, and I never thought of thinking for myself at all.” He points out that in every informal subgroup, like the Human Rights Caucus, the Rust Belt Caucus, etc., leaders are chosen without regard to party, and he thinks the formal committee should open up as well, beginning by filling vacancies on a committee by lot from among however many seek the appointment.  This would mean the committee member would not be beholden to party leaders, and eventually all committees would be filled that way. [Hmm, hard to see how that might work in real life, when, say, nobody from Iowa won the lottery for a seat on the Agricultural Committee, or when no one from the minority, or for that matter, the majority, lucked out and made it to the Armed Services Committee. The House has modified its committees in the past, when it replaced the strict seniority rules, so it’s conceivable that some judicious loosening of party control might help, remembering that experience has to count to some degree, and there is the need for institutional memory so that lobbyists are not in total control…]

6) Choose committee staff solely on the basis of professional qualifications.  Committee staffs provide research and select witnesses, and are chosen to reflect the political preferences of the committee members, that is, they are political appointments. Says Edwards, “if the goal is to legislate for the country, not for a party, then committee staff members should be selected by a nonpartisan House or Senate administrator and obligated to serve all members equally without regard to party agenda.” [Nice concept, but who picks the “administrator?” Think about creationists ending up on the science committee, or big oil geologists on the energy committee staff. This is a good idea, but tricky to implement.  Maybe a basic nonpartisan professional staff and then other, partisan-selected staff as well?]

There are some other ideas floating around, such as requiring amendments to be germane to the main bill, or removing all private money from campaigns and instead providing free air time and public money.  That brings up the problem of Citizens United and the gusher of corporate money flooding into the electoral process, often not directed into the coffers of a particular candidate, but generalized, or simply attacking one candidate.

You will notice that almost all of Mr. Edwards’ suggestions implicitly accept the continuation of a strongly partisan two-party system, each dominated by a partisan, established leadership. Given how far we have slid down the path of The Permanent Campaign, I have my doubts about the efficacy of Mr. Edward’s ideas, but we are at the point where any suggestions that honestly try to address the obvious dysfunction of the system at present are helpful. For that matter, we in Virginia could think about applying Mr. Edward’s ideas on the state level, as well.  

  • Teddy Goodson

    for public office is crucial to the success of democracy, when you think about it. In the original system of democracy in ancient Greece, leaders were chosen by lot i.e., they drew straws) from among all eligible free men, or citizens (no women, no slaves, only adult males), which worked okay in a small city state where everyone literally knew everyone else. Representative democracy was invented for larger groups, followed by development of political factions which became institutionalized as formal political parties with party bosses, the establishment of an on-going Old Guard in the party, plus fringe factions attached to the parties, and so we arrived where we are today, where candidates for office usually percolate up through the party system and seek public office, sponsored by their party.

    How many times have we bemoaned the poor choices we are offered when we go the polling booth in a general election? How many times have we seen good candidates kill each other off in a primary or a caucus, leaving a poor third or fourth choice as the winner? Or, how many times have we seen some unstable or wild-eyed nut suddenly chosen as the party standard-bearer simply because only the fringe showed up to vote in the primary? And, a new twist: we now find  Trojan horses in primaries, where one party populates the primary of the other party with also-rans in order to force the real party candidate to waste money and energy in the primary, thus depleting his resources for the general election campaign against the candidate of the other party.

    The end result of this cock-eyed system is that we too often get neither the best possible candidates nor have an opportunity for substantive debates about crucial issues, but we spend an incredible amount of time and money churning trivialities  with no good outcome for the public good. Democracy is naturally messy (which is why authoritarian types despise it). But does it have to be this messy? If we don’t pick good candidates at the very beginning, we won’t end up with good leaders.