Archive for the ‘ political reform ’ Category

Republicans attempt to rig the next election

After two large back-to-back Presidential losses, Republicans have started looking around to try to find ways to put one of their own in the White House in four years. One way of doing this would be to try to adopt more moderate and popular positions that appeal to America’s median voter. But that would mean…becoming more sensible and moderate, so the GOP isn’t interested. Instead, many plan to go with option two: trying to rig the next election so that even if America doesn’t vote for Marco Rubio in 2016, it won’t matter and he will win anyway.

Reince Priebus

Reince Priebus, Chairman of the RNC


They will do this by messing with our arcane Electoral College system in selective states. Right now, the candidate who wins a majority of the votes in Pennsylvania wins all of PA’s 20 electoral votes. Get 270 electoral votes  and you win the Presidency. Yes, this system is weird and cooky and it would be much easier to just give the Presidency to the person who gets the most votes across the country. But Republicans aren’t trying to fix this quirk. They’re trying to make it worse.


Reince Priebus, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee has just endorsed a scheme that would instead award an electoral vote to the winner of each congressional district in only Democratic states. This ploy would still ensure that the Republican nominee got all 38 of Texas’ electoral votes, but would only give a Democrat 7 of 16 electoral votes in Michigan, even if they win the state handily, as Obama did this last time. That’s right. Republicans could lose Michigan by 10 points and STILL get a majority (9) of the state’s electoral votes under this vote-stealing technique.

Crucially, Republicans are only proposing to do this in states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia, Ohio and Florida. These are states that Obama won last year but that also have Republicans controlling their state governments. If this proposed system had been in place in 2012, Obama could have lost the Presidency even as he won the national popular vote by 4 points.

Republicans can do this because of the big wins they scored in the all-important 2010 mid-term elections. This win (their only winning cycle since 2004) gave them control of the state governments in most swing states. Crucially, this let them re-draw congressional districts in their states so there are no longer more than a handful of competitive congressional elections in our most closely divided states. And now that Republicans have decided that Pennsylvania, a blue state, will always have 5 Democratic and 13 Republican representatives, they want to make sure that no matter how the people vote, their votes always count for the Republican!

These proposed changes are, quite literally, the greatest threats to democracy in America. These proposals have no redeeming qualities. They are simply to make sure Republicans have a huge advantage when electing the next President.


What the filibuster is and why it’s important

In civics class, every child learns that it takes 51 votes to pass something in the Senate, with the Vice President breaking ties if necessary. Of course, those civics lessons no longer apply to today’s Senate. Because of the Senate’s rules surrounding filibusters and cloture, it now takes 60 votes to pass a motion in the Senate. These rules directly contradict of the intentions of the framers of the Constitution and have made the Senate increasingly dysfunctional and ineffective.

I’ve written before that for the good of the country, the filibuster needs to be gotten rid of. Since its in the news again, here is a rundown on what the filibuster is and why you should care.

What, exactly, is the filibuster?

The filibuster is a Senate rule that allows unlimited debate on an issue before the Senate. This unlimited debate can only be ended by the votes of 60 Senators (called invoking “cloture”). From the mid 1800s to the mid 1900s the filibuster was primarily used by lone Senators or small groups of Senators to block or call attention to legislation they disapproved of. Since 2009, the filibuster has been used to block the Senate from voting on any bills or nominations unless they have 60 votes. Predictably, this has result in intense and debilitating gridlock in Congress.

Where did the filibuster come from?

The filibuster is not in the Constitution. It came about (like anything else) by accident. As Ezra Klein writes:

In 1806, the Senate, on the advice of Aaron Burr, tried to clean up its rule book, which was thought to be needlessly complicated and redundant. One change it made was to delete something called “the previous question” motion. That was the motion senators used to end debate on whatever they were talking about and move to the next topic. Burr recommended axing it because it was hardly ever used. Senators were gentlemen. They knew when to stop talking.

That was the moment the Senate created the filibuster. But nobody knew it at the time. It would be three more decades before the first filibuster was mounted — which meant it was five decades after the ratification of the Constitution.

This extremely powerful and controversial rule was created by accident and should never have come into existence.

When did the Filibuster achieve its current form?

As I said, the filibuster didn’t always function like it does today. In the earliest days, it was a tool for a single Senator (or group of Senators) to use to oppose a particular bill that he didn’t like. After Senators tried to block the Treaty of Versailles from being considered, “cloture” was developed. In its early days, cloture allowed 67 Senators to cut off debate on a motion, ending a particular filibuster. Most famously, the filibuster was used by Southerners to block civil rights legislation in the 1950 and 1960s.

Along the way, the filibuster evolved from being something that a single Senator or group of Senators might use to block a single bill and instead because a tool the entire minority party in the Senate would use to block the majority from doing what it wanted. This turned the balance of power in the Senate on its head, giving the minority party a veto over what got done in the Senate. Today, this forces an electorally victorious Senate majority to beg its defeated opponent for the right to pass legislation the minority opposes.

When it seemed that the number of filibusters was getting out of hand in 1975, the Senate lowered the number of votes required for cloture to 60. In that session of Congress, there had been about 40 filibusters.

Via the Washington Post

Now, the minority party in the Senate stages nearly 140 filibusters per session of Congress. Nearly every act of Congress, no matter how minuscule, is subjected to a filibuster. In this environment, its no wonder people complain about Congress not doing anything to help the American people.

Why the filibuster is important

Voters elect a party to power and expect them to govern. If they govern well, voters will reward them at the next election. If they govern poorly, voters will punish them. Republicans figured out in 2009 that if they simply block everything the majority party wants to do, then it starts to look like the majority party is doing a very bad job at governing. Few bills are passed, and the ones that are have to be loaded down with pork in order to scrounge up enough votes to get to 60. Americans’ problems start to go unaddressed and it starts to look like the majority party is doing a very bad job. So who do voters reward? The minority party.

In short, the filibuster allows the minority to sabotage the majority party, and by extension the will of the people and the good of the country, and then reap the rewards from voters’ dissatisfaction. Obviously, this is not how a democracy should work. Since it is nearly impossible to amass 60 votes in the Senate, this dynamic will be near-constant in the years  ahead.

Would the Framers have liked the filibuster?

Obviously no framers were around to see a filibuster, but many of the filibuster’s defenders claim that the framers would have liked having it around.  This claim doesn’t make any logical sense. After all, the framers had the opportunity to create the filibuster and they didn’t. Turns out that this claim doesn’t make any historical sense either. The framers thought about creating a super-majority requirement for the Senate and specifically rejected it. Again, from Ezra:

In Federalist 22, Alexander Hamilton savaged the idea of a supermajority Congress, writing that “its real operation is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of government and to substitute the pleasure, caprice or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent or corrupt junta, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority.”

In Federal 58, James Madison wasn’t much kinder to the concept. “In all cases where justice or the general good might require new laws to be passed, or active measures to be pursued, the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule; the power would be transferred to the minority.”

In short, the filibuster was a historical accident that was never intended to exist. It makes it impossible to legislate for our country and should be gotten rid of immediately by changing the rules for the Senate.

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?

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.