Fixing the US political system - Part One

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Political polarization in this country has grown in recent years, probably due to demographic trends, things students are being taught in schools, and biases of the mainstream media.

Hostilities between progressives and conservatives on the respective sides used to peak during election campaigns, but subside after the votes were counted and government leaders got back to the governance role. Now the electioneering goes on essentially nonstop, and there are fewer “moderates” in the mix.

During periods of divided government (no political party controls both houses of Congress and the White House), very little constructive legislation is being enacted. In such periods (e.g., 2011-16 and 2019-20), government accomplishments are primarily dependent on administrative action and the legislative functions of Congress atrophy. Impeachment push is symptom of underlying problems,
12/2/19.

On issue after issue, Congress has been getting very little real work done of late. Deficits & debt – border security – infrastructure – gun laws - you name it. And with the exception of the Republican tax cuts in 2017, we’d be hard pressed to cite any major legislation that has been passed in the past three years.

At that point, it appeared that the principal legislative results in December would be (a) last-minute voting on spending legislation that should have been dealt with in September, and (b) passage of articles of impeachment against the president by the Democrat-controlled House (which articles would be “dead on arrival” in the GOP-controlled Senate).

SAFE did offer several suggestions for the end-of-the year session, including halting the impeachment process, but only one of our suggestions (approving the USMCA trade treaty) came to fruition. Once again, Congress delivered subpar results,
1/13/20.

In sum, Congress delivered one win and multiple losses in December 2019. Such mediocre performance cannot be afforded, and changes must be made. But what changes? It seems idle to hope that the upcoming elections will straighten everything out, although they will certainly have an effect, and we don't see any other ready answers.

The Senate’s acquittal of the president in the Senate impeachment trial, basically on a party line voting basis, didn’t serve to clear the air. Neither party acknowledged that it might have overreached in the course of this proceeding, and there continues to be talk about the House impeaching the president again. Poll: 55% say impeach Trump again, Washington Examiner, Paul Bedard,
2/26/20.

[The findings of a recent Zogby poll] highlight just how divided the nation is over the president and a likely understanding that voters don’t mind if Trump gets scolded by Congress so long as he’s not removed.

Likewise, there are no signs that the upcoming elections will usher in an era of national reconciliation.

Democratic primary debates have shown that the party’s presidential candidates are united in their disdain for the current president and veering left on the policy issues that are under discussion. The president’s political rallies, at which he touts the purported accomplishments of his administration and mocks “Crazy Bernie,” “Slow Joe,” “Mini Mike,” etc. have been equally uncompromising.

The odds of Bernie Saunders winning the Democratic nomination are perhaps 50/50 at this point, with the most likely alternative being a brokered convention. Joe Biden’s decisive victory in the South Caroline primary on Feb. 29 may have dimmed the Democratic Socialist’s aura of inevitability, and Michael Bloomberg will be on the ballot starting with the Super Tuesday primaries on March 3.

If we’re right that America isn’t ready for a Socialist president, the upshot of a Saunders nomination might be a blowout Republican win in November that would enable the GOP to win back the House as well as holding the Senate and the White House. If the Democrats nominate someone else, we are inclined to think that divided government and legislative gridlock will continue into 2021 and beyond.

The foregoing outlook underscores the importance of the issue that was identified in the 1/13/20 blog entry, namely fixing the political system so the government will start delivering better results. This subject was discussed at the SAFE board meeting on Feb. 7, and we will now offer some ideas for consideration.

I. Elections – It’s nice to imagine our political leaders seeking office when duty calls, working in harmony with other political leaders to serve the country’s interests, and resuming their lives in the private sector when the job is done. Things often work quite differently in practice, however, with elective office becoming an occupation versus a higher calling. And the longer members of Congress stay in DC, the more likely that they will become beholden to the special interests that fund their election campaigns and fixated on pursuing moneymaking opportunities (book deals, speaking engagements, post-congressional lobbying gigs, etc.).

#TIMING OF ELECTIONS – Subject to provisions for filling vacancies, members of the House of Representatives serve for two years, presidents serve for four years, and members of the Senate serve for six years.

Elections are therefore conducted every two years, with all of the House slots and 1/3 of the Senate slots being up for grabs. Presidential elections occur every four years, with intervening mid-term elections (which judging from voter turnout are perceived to be less important).

This staggered election schedule contributes to the likelihood of divided government by enabling the voters to express dissatisfaction with the leadership of a sitting president (as happened in 1994, 2010 & 2018, but not in 2004) by shifting control of one or both houses of Congress to the opposing party without waiting for the next presidential election. And as previously stated, there is ample evidence of a link between divided government and partisan gridlock. Impeachment push is symptom of underlying problems,
12/2/19.

•One potential change to the present arrangement (constitutional amendment required) would be to require the president to stand for election every two years, thereby averting deadlock on crucial issues because a majority of the country had lost confidence in the incumbent president. See, e.g., The Constitution: Presidential term of office,
6/23/14.

The enhanced ability to discard presidents who have worn out their welcome would tend to limit presidential overreaching – which is being pushed to dangerous extremes. All elections would be important; the lesser degree of interest in mid-term elections would no longer apply. Quite possibly, this change would help to bolster the fading prestige of Congress as an institution.

No one else has offered this suggestion, to our knowledge, and several observers have suggested a change in the opposite direction (giving presidents a single term of six years so they would never run for reelection). In our view, six years between national leadership elections would clearly be too long.

•Another idea, which would not only minimize exposure to divided government but also give members of the House more time to do their jobs, would be to switch (again by constitutional amendment) to uniform four-year terms for all federal elective positions.

Participants at the SAFE meeting were inclined to stick with the status quo in this area. If divided government is as big a problem as we think, however, further consideration of one of the change options may be in order.

#TERM LIMITS – The Constitution was amended after FDR’s death to limit presidents to two terms, i.e., eight years in office. But no such limits apply for members of Congress, and some of them serve for decades. See, e.g., 79 members of Congress have been in office for at least 20 years, Michael Snyder, activistpost.com,
5/8/15.

Given the “power corrupts” adage, why not give some new folks a chance? A reasonable restriction would seem to be 12 years of service in either the House (6 terms) or Senate (2 terms). Members of Congress could serve longer, however, if they transitioned between the two houses of Congress or were elected president.

#CAMPAIGN FINANCE - Political campaigns are expensive, and the amount of money a candidate is able to raise may importantly affect his/her chance of being elected. Small campaign donors may not expect anything tangible in return, but larger donors typically expect access (or more) from winning candidates after they take office.

The negative implications of donor influence are evident, and have spawned the current campaign finance laws. Critics continue to complain that said laws don’t go far enough, and would like to see further restrictions placed on donors that they don’t approve of, e.g., corporations (there is less fuss about labor unions) under the Citizens United decision.

Taking money out of politics is an unrealistic goal, however, and the main effect of the current restrictions is to obfuscate the amount of money being donated. Thus, unrealistically low limits are placed on direct campaign contributions while political action committees are permitted to engage in unlimited funding of ads in favor of policies advocated by candidate X so long as they don’t engage in impermissible “coordination” with candidate X’s campaign. This approach can be particularly problematic when a PAC engages in negative political ads that Candidate X would be slammed for running directly.

Then there are billionaires, who choose to use their own money (at least initially) to run for political office. First it was Donald Trump during the GOP primaries in 2015-16, and now there are two billionaire presidential candidates on the Democratic side. Campaign finance laws created Michael Bloomberg, Bradley Smith & John Lott, Wall Street Journal,
2/24/20.

In the entire 2016 campaign cycle, corporations spent less than $300 million on federal races, less than 5% of total spending. Meanwhile, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already spent more than $360 million on cable, broadcast and radio advertisements since declaring his candidacy in mid-November. That doesn’t include Mr. Bloomberg’s spending on staff, office space, logistics and internet advertising. Overturning Citizens United wouldn’t touch that money.

There are basically two reform options available at this point.

•Devise new restrictions on big money contributions, if necessary amending the Constitution to cure any First Amendment objections that might be involved, in an effort to limit the influence of corporate donors, wealthy individuals, and billionaire candidates.

•Repeal current restrictions on campaign donations, which give some potential donors an advantage over others, and concentrate on forcing public disclosure of all significant political spending including the funding of non-profit advocacy groups.

The full disclosure option seems like the way to go, subject to one caveat. In the current political climate, some groups have been increasingly willing to harass or even threaten donors to causes or candidates that they don’t like. Such behavior must not be tolerated!

II. Legislative procedures – The Constitution empowers the two houses of Congress to make their respective procedural rules. Over time they have done just that, with generally satisfactory results. And if mistakes are made, the members of the House and Senate have the power to correct them by amending the rules.

Broadly speaking, the goal should be to strike a balance between rights of the minority to ask questions or advocate positions and rights of the majority to bring matters to a vote. If the balance tips too far in either direction, this will contribute to declining congressional effectiveness.

A significant problem exists in the Senate, where the filibuster rule can be applied to block consideration of most legislative topics absent a 3/5 supermajority vote (e.g., 60 out of 100 senators) to invoke cloture. In this matter, the minority party(whichever party it was at the time) has routinely blocked proposals that it disagreed with or simply wanted to delay for tactical reasons.

The Senate filibuster rule could be eliminated by majority vote using the so-called nuclear option, and SAFE has repeatedly urged that this be done. If Senator Mitch McConnell et al. had heeded our advice in 2017, Republicans might have enjoyed greater success in promoting their legislative agenda, e.g., obtained adequate funding for border security barriers, defunded Planned Parenthood, and repealed GovCare. Time to bin the filibuster,
4/23/17.

For the time being, with each party controlling one house of Congress (and therefore able to block legislative actions that it doesn’t like), this issue may seem unimportant. But at some point Democrats will lose the House or Republicans will lose the Senate, and whichever party prevails would do well to abolish the filibuster – as has already been done for Senate confirmation of presidential appointees.

Such action could be invaluable in speeding up consideration of appropriation bills, which have been routinely delayed by invoking the Senate filibuster rule as a bargaining tactic. The solution is simple; abolish the filibuster.

Another goal would be to facilitate congressional supervision over the rulemaking activities of administrative agencies, which collectively churn out most of the laws with which US citizens are required to comply.

There is no commonly accepted definition for the term “agency,” but suffice it to say that scores (or even hundreds) of federal agencies exist. Some are units in government departments; some report to the White House or Congress; some operate semi-autonomously

Many government agencies have rulemaking authority, and the volume of regulations issued dwarfs the legislative output of Congress – even currently despite the emphasis of the Trump administration on cutting regulatory red tape. 28 federal rules and regulations for every law Congress passes, Clyde Wayne Crews, forbes.com,
1/1/20.

Some regulations are relatively unimportant, but others have a major impact on sectors of the economy or society as a whole. Accordingly, a strong case can be made for requiring affirmative congressional approval of “major regulations” (say those having an annual compliance cost of $100 million or more) before they go into effect.

The president et al. may be able to rollback regulations that have already been issued, e.g., during previous administrations, but such action typically requires time-consuming rulemaking procedures and may be further delayed by court challenges. Ergo, there is a clear need for Congress to monitor the behavior of government agencies and rein them in when appropriate. Rise of the administrative state,
6/20/16.

In principle, Congress can block or rollback any regulations with which it doesn’t agree, but this may prove difficult if a 60% vote is required in the Senate. One more reason why the filibuster rule should be abolished.

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Oops, out of time and space. Tune in next week for the remainder of this entry, which will focus on curing the chronic deficit habit and offer some thoughts about the path forward.

**********FEEDBACK**********

#I have been in favor of term limits for Congress for many years. Keep pushing it.– SAFE member (NC)

#I am with you, but how realistic are most of these items? We are dealing with a bunch of crooks, deep state sabotage experts, and a plethora of bad actors. I actually don't see a viable way out unless Trump just overwhelms them for the next four years. – Retired finance executive

#The changes needed are not “blue sky” thinking, but rather applied common sense. (1) Term limits are “way overdue.” My idea would be two 6-year terms for senators, three 2-year terms for House representatives, which would still allow room for necessary experience and consistency. (2) Tighten ID requirements for voters, e.g., first time voters should secure ID at least 6 months before the election. (3) Crack down on illegal immigration. (4) Good luck with balancing the budget (to be discussed next week). – SAFE member (DE)


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