How to Fix Congress, the list

The two main goals of Congressional reform should be to reduce partisanship in Congress and to make Congress more effective by requiring less cooperation between increasingly antagonistic parties. In addition to ending gerrymandering and lengthening the terms for US representatives, the best ways to fix Congress are:

1. Adopt an “open” primary system, where the top two candidates, regardless of party, go on to compete in the general election.

Having separate primaries for Democrats and Republicans usually leads to the most extreme Democrat and the most extreme Republican facing off in the general election. This obviously means that whoever wins the general election will be a shrill partisan from one side. In an “open” primary system, all possible candidates would compete together in a single primary and the two highest vote-getters would then face off in the general election. This system would give moderates a chance to compete, instead of mostly forcing them out of elections.

For instance, if there was an open primary system in place in 2010, moderate Senator Bob Bennett of Utah would not have been forced out in the Republican primary, only to be replaced on the ballot by extreme conservative Mike Lee. Likewise, Charlie Crist, the moderate Republican governor of Florida, had to run for the Senate as an independent because it was clear that hard-line Tea Party supporter Marco Rubio was going to win the Republican primary. Both Crist and Bennett would have easily won an open primary and probably the general election as well. Obviously, Congress would be a better place if it had more moderates who better represent the majority of Americans.

2. End the filibuster

The filibuster is a very technical term and process but here’s what you need to know: it makes everything you learned about the Senate in high school civics class meaningless. Instead of bills needing 51 votes (or 50 votes plus the Vice President) to pass into law, the filibuster makes it so that 60 votes are necessary for anything to pass through the Senate. Instead of  being an opportunity for the two parties to work together to pass moderate bills acceptable to both sides of the aisle, the filibuster is just used by the minority party to block anything the majority wants to do.

Because a party almost never controls 60 votes in the Senate, the filibuster acts as a minority party’s veto over legislation and appointments. The filibuster gives a minority party power without responsibility. After all, the minority won’t  be blamed if legislation fails to pass, or a problem goes unsolved, they will be rewarded! The minority party has the incentive to see the majority party fail. And yes, perversely, that means that it is in the minority party’s interest to see the country fail (a bad economy or the existence of other big problems mean the majority party will be punished at the ballot box). The filibuster gives the minority party the ability and the incentive to stop responsible action on behalf of the country. The filibuster makes sure that no one can solve our country’s problems.

3. Remove some powers from Congress

This probably would not be necessary if the above reforms pass, but failing that, this would be a good step. If Congress remains a dysfunctional, bickering body, then the only way to keep our government moving is to take powers away from it. America does not benefit from Congressional inaction, as Ezra Klein explains. It is not in the country’s interest to have a third of our federal judge’s benches sitting empty because a mere 41 Senators want to filibuster all of the President’s nominees. Likewise, we need people to be appointed to the Federal Reserve board (seeing as we are in an economic crisis and the Fed controls our money supply and interest rates) but we can’t even get a Nobel prize winner past the filibustering Republicans (literally).

It is not necessary for Congress to have some powers, either because  the chance of mischief  is too great (the debt ceiling) or because partisanship will gum up necessary governmental functions (the appointment process). We should eliminate Congressional votes on the debt ceiling (no other country has one) and we should cut in half the number of federal positions that have to be confirmed by the Senate (there are currently over a thousand that  need confirmation, which is down from former highs).

4. Give Congressmen back the power to earmark money for their districts.

This may seem counter-intuitive, from everything else I’ve said, but hear me out. Earmarks have, for the time being, been done away with because  they were labelled as “pork barrel” spending by their opponents. The problem with earmarks wasn’t that they cost us a lot of money (they didn’t) but that in the past they were ways for Congressmen to secretly slip in funds for their own pet projects. But they also fulfilled a valuable role. They undermined partisanship.

Congressmen tend to know their districts well and are somewhat good judges of the constituents’ needs. Earmarks allowed Congressmen to redirect funds in individual ways for their district. Making a valuable and personalized action on behalf of their home state or district helped to tie a Congressman to his voters. This makes that Senator or Congressman less beholden to corporations or the vested interests in Washington for campaign cash and political support.

The answer is to make earmarks more transparent and open and to hold Congressmen accountable for bad ones, not to get rid of them entirely. Right now, Congressmen just lobbying behind closed doors to try to convince bureaucrats to funnel money to their district. Why not just let Congressman do it openly and directly?

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