Our government is a dysfunctional mess. Here are 4 ways to fix it

D.C. is a disaster, but former journalist and campaign pro Michael Golden tells Salon there's reason for hope

Published April 18, 2015 11:00AM (EDT)

  (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta/Reuters/Joshua Roberts/<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-302563p1.html'>Ryan Rodrick Beiler</a>, <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-586411p1.html'>Pictureguy</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta/Reuters/Joshua Roberts/Ryan Rodrick Beiler, Pictureguy via Shutterstock/Salon)

One of the more important realities of American government is so prosaic that its discovery can be something of an anticlimax. Because the truth is that while it’s a serious error to treat the politics of the global hegemon as if it were a game, much of self-government in the United States operates according to a set of clearly defined rules. It can be a chore to learn them — and some are more easily found than others — but, fundamentally, democracy has guidelines from which all else flows.

So why is it that despite the great degree of unhappiness many millions of Americans feel concerning their government, movements devoted to changing those basic rules are so few and far between? To be sure, America does not lack for organizations focused on one, two or even a constellation of issues. But with the exception of the growing movement to change the laws governing campaign finance, little attention is paid to implementing more radical, systemic changes. If baseball can change in response to consistent failure, why not the United States?

As far as former broadcast journalist and campaign manager Michael Golden is concerned, the only acceptable answer to that question is simple: It can, it must and, if its citizens organize and demand changes, it will. Which changes should be made — and why they’re so necessary — is the subject of his new book, “Unlock Congress: Reform the Rules ~ Restore the System,” which was released in hardcover earlier this week. Recently, Salon spoke with Golden over the phone to discuss his ideas for reform and why he believes that, sooner or later, positive changes will come.

Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

At what point did you start thinking that U.S. politics would need big, structural changes in order to actually work? We tend to think more often in terms of needing a new president, or a new tax rate, or a new House majority, etc.

This book is really a culmination of more than 20 years working with, for and alongside politicians — especially members of Congress. I covered them in Illinois and Iowa and California as a reporter, worked with them on campaigns for several years; and then, as a higher education scholarship advocate, worked with members of both parties in Congress and also in the Illinois legislature and saw it from that angle.

I just came to the conclusion about three or four years ago that so many good people work so hard to get to Congress, and I think that what they find when they get there is it’s nearly impossible to accomplish the kinds of things they went there to do. Not because they’re not smart or competent ... but because our system and the landscape has changed so much that it makes honest negotiations and legislative solutions incredibly difficult. As somebody who really admires these folks who go to Congress for the right reasons — and I believe most of them do — it’s incredibly frustrating.

You argue that there are four big areas where reform could make a big difference. The first has to do with the role money plays in our politics.

The money flood is the most obvious problem ... The House and the Congress as a whole is supposed to be dependent on the people. But the way it works, increasingly over the last few decades — especially with the dark money and super PAC money — is that the decisions that get made in Congress can be tied ... to the people who are donating money. Martin Gilens and Ben Paige did research on this, and they found that the 90th percentile — the richest 10 percent — their input and their positions on the issues are 15 times as powerful as the average American's.

Justice Breyer mentioned in a dissent a couple years ago ... that if all this money coming in is eliminating or completely diluting the voices of 80 to 90 percent of the people ... then what kind of democracy can you have? That may sound idealistic, but it’s just the truth. The Founders set this thing up 236 years ago with specific purposes in mind. The representatives in our government are supposed to represent the people, not a tiny slice that can afford to get their ear.

That's a pretty widely shared opinion, but many feel that the most obvious solution — a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United — will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pass.

It’s sort of a foregone conclusion, or almost accepted, that Congress ... is awful. But it doesn't have to be. It’s easy to lose sight of that. It’s easy to feel powerless.

But after the Bill of Rights, we’ve passed 17 amendments and the last one was led by one man in Texas; took him 13 years to get the 27th Amendment passed that disallowed Congress from receiving a pay raise until they were re-elected. It can happen, not just at the constitutional level, but in our state constitutions and in just rules of the game inside Congress.

Another idea you propose is lengthening House terms. That's a bit contrarian, since usually the people who want to talk about term-length propose the opposite solution, which is term limits. Why do you think it'd be better if we made terms longer instead?

I think a lot of people may not be aware of this ... [but] being in Congress is a really difficult job: the travel, the campaigning, the pride-swallowing activities of scooping up campaign cash to get elected every two years (which is a huge part of the reason why I think terms should be extended). They don’t have a lot of time in Washington to actually study the issues, much less read legislation ... Being in Congress is difficult, not just because the job demands it, but because the issues are difficult to solve.

It makes it harder when members of Congress are rushing over to the party headquarters to raise money, then rushing back to events, then rushing back to Oversight Committee meetings, etc. They’re forced to behave like cash-collecting hamsters on a greased political wheel that’s set to the maximum speed — and there’s no "off" switch, especially in the U.S. House. It’s a constant grind with an election looming around the corner and the imperative of raising enough money to throw ads on television. I’d say that’s the biggest reason.

It's not just all about the fundraising, though, is it? Because that could be solved with your first solution (easier said than done, of course). You also think shorter terms end up hurting the government's effectiveness.

Over the last century or so, the presidential party loses an average of 25 seats in the midterms. Part of our system may have been set up that way, for voters to weigh in every two years. But, again, we live in a different world, with polling data and 24-hour media. Members of the House, they’re well aware of what their constituents think in real-time on issues. But having midterms every two years, there’s an almost certain push-back to a presidential administration that was elected by the entire country. And that usually thwarts an administration’s agenda. It’s not productive.

Our system was set up to move slowly, to avoid any sudden, dangerous moves. But if you look at the number of laws being passed — or not being passed, if you will — and the public confidence rating ... it’s not working. And the constant [partisan] grudge match that gets complicated by two-year terms ... makes it incredibly difficult for Congress to accomplish anything and for the system to work in a practical sense.

All right, so those are the first two of your proposals. Why don’t you tell me a bit about the third, which is proportional representation? This stuff makes people’s eyes glaze over, but it's kind of cool once you get a handle on it (at least if you're enough of a politics geek to bother in the first place).

The year the Declaration of Independence was signed, John Adams said, A legislature should be an exact portrait in miniature of the people at large, as it should feel, reason, and act like them. But the way single-member districts and winner-take-all in general elections work, it’s pulled us quite a distance from that founding principle. Having single-member Congressional districts is not in the Constitution. There’s nothing that mandates that but a law from 1967.

When you have single-member districts, and this massively polarized map that we have now, you don’t get an accurate representation. We have a whole lot of Congressional districts where [the election] is a foregone conclusion before the polls even open. There’s no reason for Americans to vote in 85 percent of these Congressional races, outside of fulfilling your civic duty ... But in terms of contested elections and single-member districts, these contests are not really contests.

So what would be the result of moving to a multi-seat district model?

With multi-seat districts, you’re going to have smaller thresholds. If you have a four-seat district, you don’t need 50-plus-one to ... get into office. Once a candidate’s beyond their threshold of 16.7 or 23 percent (it depends on how many seats are in the district) the people that voted for them, their second and third choices accrue to the other candidates. And this way, with rank-choice voting, every vote matters.

If you don’t choose someone that gets the most votes, that doesn’t mean your vote doesn’t matter — because you’ve ranked to other candidates. With a mathematical formula that’s quite precise, you’ll get right, left and perhaps an independent in these multi-seat districts. You’ll have more women represented; you’ll have more political minorities represented.

I think it's a cool idea and would more reflect my values — but how would it make government operate better?

I’ve encouraged people to take a look at Fair Vote. It’s nonpartisan organization, and they have a ton of information about how proportional representation would shake up the partisan grudge match, where you have predictable results in elections that ... travel to Washington. And you get the stale old political arguments year after year; and there’s not a lot of listening going on. There’s not a lot of honest discussion and constructive negotiation ... But bipartisan solutions, from the beginning, are what the founders knew was necessary if you were going to accomplish even a modicum of progress for the country.

That brings us to the fourth defect, which is the filibuster. You want to eliminate it. Why? 

The filibuster was an historical accident. The filibuster is not in the Constitution. There are five places in the Constitution where more than a majority vote is required, and passing legislation is not one of them ... Today, one U.S. senator, in a country of over 315 million, can grind the nation’s business down to a halt with a single threat. Then, of course, it takes a supermajority of 60 votes to break that filibuster, which is overturning the principle of majority rule.

It’s a procedural fluke that overturns a democratic form of government and will likely eventually be eliminated ... It’s illogical in a separation-of-powers system like ours to include another veto point. It’s not practical. It doesn’t make sense. And that’s really one of the larger points of the book: Whether you’re on the left or the right or somewhere in between, the system’s not working in a practical, pragmatic way.

I'm going to close with a big-picture question. The changes you're proposing are all going to require a lot of hard work and dedication — and, above all else, people will need to believe that their work won't be in vain. But Americans are very, very pessimistic about government and their ability to improve it. So how do we overcome what is basically a psychological hurdle?

You gotta start somewhere! There are all kinds of civic advances and milestones in our country’s history that took decades, if not over a century; but it had to start somewhere. And I grant you that some of those milestones were more tied to a person or community’s identity, rather than a focus on the broad picture of what Congress is achieving — and broad reforms can be dry and boring to people who don’t follow this stuff.

But at the same time, the first step is making as many Americans as possible understand that the failure of the system matters in our everyday lives ... If enough people get on the same page, where we’re passionately disgusted with the Congress but also understand there are things that we can do to reform it — things that makes sense, things that people on both sides of the aisle might very well come together to do — that’s the first step. And if what I’ve written contributes to that overall conversation ... then I’ll be really pleased.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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