How to Fix Congress, part 1

As I discussed in my last post, the curious thing about American politics is that the majority party (almost) always needs the help of the minority party to implement absolutely anything, while it is normally in the interests of the minority party to make sure that the majority party fails. This paradox results in gridlock as a political system built on cooperation runs into political parties that are currently built on rigid, ideological opposition to the other. So how do we fix this? I am planning a three- or four-part series advocating simple, easily implemented reforms that have a precedent in American politics. The goals of the reforms, like the problems they are meant to solve, are two-pronged: to make Congress more effective by requiring less cooperation between increasingly opposed parties and to reduce partisanship in Congress.

Two of the best ways to reform the House of Representatives would be to lengthen the terms of Congressmen from two to four years to get rid of the endless campaign cycle, and to eliminate the process of gerrymandering, whereby liberal politicians pack their districts with liberals and vice versa for conservatives.

Politicians generally need time to breathe and to get down to the hard work of legislating after a campaign. The public also needs time to digest their politicians’ work and respond to it. Our current system forces US representatives to begin raising money, pandering to special interests and looking for ways to score cheap political points almost immediately after they win their election. Two years is a very short time in politics, and when legislators constantly have the next election in the back of their mind, they may prove unwilling to take a politically unpopular stance that is nevertheless good for the country. Quick elections also mean that Representatives must constantly be raising campaign contributions, distracting from their job of public service and putting them at the mercy of their big donors. More infrequent elections mean that members are less vulnerable to the corporate slush funds and superPACs that now dominate our elections.

Ending gerrymandering should be a no-brainer. In most states, politicians fiddle with political district lines to do their best to deny voters the right to choose their legislator. Its the ultimate case of politicians choosing their voters instead of voters choosing their politicians. Gerrymandering has made it so that the majority of Congressmen are never in danger of losing their seats. Most districts in America are either soooo conservative or soooo liberal that there is never any doubt as to who is going to win an election. Here’s a primer on gerrymandering. Gerrymandering also causes some really lopsided results.

Let’s use Florida, one of the most politically moderate states in the nation, as an example. Because Florida Republicans have been so successful in cheating their citizens out of their votes, the Florida Congressional delegation is made up of 20 Republicans and 7 Democrats. Florida’s Republican politicians have made it so that one of the most notorious swing states in the nation has to send more Republicans to Congress than Democrats, no matter what. The same thing has happened in Texas. You could use Massachusetts or North Carolina as somewhat less egregious examples of Democrats doing the same.

The simplest way to solve this is to have independent commissions of judges or private citizens draw district lines without any considerations of party or the residences of lawmakers. Several states do this already and as we can see from California’s experience this year, doing so results in more competitive seats and less political favoritism. Independent commissions should be adopted across the country to make our districts more fair and to give voters a choice when they go into the ballot box.

  1. It’s a great idea that has zero chance of ever happening.

  2. I like and agree with your suggestions with respect to gerrymandering and congressmen being elected every 4 years as opposed to 2. Both would be a significant step in the right direction. Unfortunately, both ideas are unlikely to happen anytime soon. But keep up the argument in their favor.

    • Stephen Griggs
    • August 15th, 2011

    I like these ideas. It’s unfortunate the endless campaign is so much a part of politics. Hopefully social media and other electronic sources help to overcome that and make raising money for elections far easier.

  1. August 15th, 2011
  2. May 15th, 2012

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