All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.
Article 1, Section 1
Why does nothing much ever change in politics? You can vote one way one year and the opposite the next year - and it's hard to tell whether there's any difference. Why is that? Isn't Congress supposed to pass laws for the good of the country? Why doesn't it, no matter who gets elected?
Why does the phrase "do-nothing" seem redundant applied to Congress? While it's unsurprising when different parties control the Senate and House, Congress is hardly any more active when it's under unified control. Why is that?
"Executive overreach" and "judicial activism" are epithets used by one party against the other, usually in a context where the legislature - Congress - has failed to act. And so the chief executive or the supreme court fill in the blanks.
We're all learned how legislatures were supposed to work - both sides debate the issues and negotiate a compromise in one chamber, perhaps a different compromise in the other chamber, then a conference committee irons out an acceptable compromise of compromises which is ratified by both houses and signed by the executive.
That model is seldom demonstrated in recent real life. Congress is usually paralyzed by rank partisanship and unwillingness to compromise - and so nothing gets done. Better to do nothing than compromise one's principles or concede any legitimacy to the other side! Debate is for the benefit of the TV cameras rather than the other members - when was the last time any Congressional opinion was changed by a speech on the floor?
Most casual voters suppose that the job of Congressional representatives is to act for the good of the nation. Most enthusiastic voters suppose that the job of Congressional representatives is to enact their party's nominal agenda. Most major political donors suppose that the job of Congressional representatives is to advance the interests of the donors. Who wins?
Most voters don't follow politics much as a waste of time. Others would gravitate to more centrist candidates if they had the choice - as demonstrated recently in Arizona.
How could partisan paralysis be better for the country than bipartisan compromise? The answer, of course, is that it is not. But it's better for the partisans.
To recycle an axiom of the sixties -
money will get a politician through times of no ideas better than ideas will get a politician through times of no money
What does it take to get elected to the House, much less the Senate? Above all it takes money - about $20 million for the Senate, about $1.5 million for the House. In the Senate, about half that is dark money whose source is unknown.
That kind of money, especially from major donors, is called a "donation" but it's really an investment on which tangible return is expected. At the minimum is "access" - the legislator will promptly return phone calls in person from major donors. Usually there is expectation that the legislator will introduce or co-sponsor legislation that supports the vital interests of major donors. It's usually more subtle than outright bribery - "you do this and I'll pay you that much." Instead it's more like "congratulations on your dynamic campaign which I'm supporting with this contribution for this year and I'd like to hear your legislative goals for next year and share my concerns" with the unspoken implication that the right answers guarantee continuing financial support. As Jesse Unruh memorably confessed, "Money is the mother's milk of politics."
Direct Federal political contributions from individuals are limited in size and published and are disallowed from corporations and unions.
Politicians wouldn't be able to tell whose phone calls to return without other channels of funding. After the Citizens United decision, Super PACs became the preferred channel for major political investors.
Nominally Super PACs don't "coordinate" directly with candidates, but indirect coordination is easy enough. Now unlimited dark money is available for candidates. There is no way to find out where the money comes from. Republicans equate unlimited dark money to free speech, and it's true that the power of free speech is limited if you can't make it worthwhile for a candidate to listen.
For that kind of money, investors don't want somebody who will compromise their vital interests. They want a reliable legislator - "An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought" - Simon Cameron.
So unlimited dark money is one force pushing legislators toward extreme partisanship rather than bipartisan compromise. For good reasons, legislators benefiting from dark money don't want to talk about it, except to extol "free speech."
In general, conservative donors are more opposed to progressive legislation than in favor of conservative legislation. Thus a do-nothing Congress is preferable to an effective one. That was seen when the stock market set new highs in 2020 in response to the election outcome that guaranteed a divided do-nothing government.
One way to inhibit effectiveness is to install supermajority requirements for routine business - the filibuster in the US Senate, and various supermajority requirements for passing budgets and raising revenue in state legislatures.
Most members of the Senate and House have to survive a primary election and general election every six and two years respectively. The voters who participate in these elections aren't the same. Primary elections tend to attract party stalwarts who tend to be more ideological and partisan than the average voter in the general election.
So this means a successful candidate has to say one thing during the primary to avoid losing to a greater partisan, and then say the opposite during the general election to appeal to the at most 20% of voters who are truly persuadable because they are not very partisan. Is it any wonder that many politicians avoid having clear consistent views on major issues and prefer platitudes, and that others simply espouse contradictory attitudes in the two campaigns?
What gets more coverage on political radio, television, and social media - sensational scandals and conspiracies, or prosaic stories about legislators conscientiously working together to reach workable compromises on public issues? Just look at the tabloids in supermarket checkout aisles to see the answer.
The low-information voters who are most susceptible to scandals and conspiracies tend to also be susceptible to quack food supplements and medical scams and investments, etc. - as may be seen from the ads on those same tabloids or on for-profit conspiracy websites. So there is a big commercial advantage to attracting and keeping them, and demagogue politicians fit the bill perfectly. Those voters aren't much interested in abstract political theory or economic theory. They tend to view politics in personal economic terms and partisan allegiance.
So the profit potential associated with promoting extreme partisanship is a big factor in the success of media like Fox and in social media and websites.
There are politicians, exemplified by Trump, that are performers rather than statesmen. Trump gets a thrill from campaign rallies but gets bored in complicated policy discussions. He gets a thrill from a big announcement press conference but gets bored overseeing the details. Thus Trump was a success as a reality-TV star but a failure as a real estate developer - particularly of casinos and golf courses.
Performers are motivated by emotion rather than reason, and the bigger the emotion the bigger the performance. So conspiracy claims and vilification of the opposition are much more satisfying than rational analysis of complicated facts and acknowledging the legitimate concerns of both sides of a negotiation.
To restore democracy based on votes rather than dollars, you either eliminate dark money or limit dark money.
Why not allow unlimited campaign contributions - from registered United States voters - individuals - and report all contributions and publish large contributions. That would make it clear who is buying whom, without prohibiting the practice of buying politicians.
Expect resistance from the investors and recipients of the present system. They don't want to know or to tell where their money comes from.
Other approaches based on public finance are advocated by
Because the Federal Supreme Court has ruled that money is speech, and common law treats corporations as persons with the same constitutional rights and privileges as natural persons, an amendment to the Federal Constitution is probably required.
The US Senate can't seem to overcome its fear of being in the minority and so the filibuster seems indestructible. Its proponents claim it protects the minority from abuse by the majority by promoting bipartisanship, but the exact opposite is true - it protects the minority from the will of the majority by promoting hyperpartisanship. But supermajorities should be reserved for extraordinary business as defined in the Constitution - impeachment, overriding vetos, constitutional amendments - and perhaps for lifetime judicial appointments. Better yet would be to make judicial appointments for a set number of years and confirmed by simple majorities.
Primaries would be harmless except for sore-loser laws - that prohibit candidates from running in a primary and then again in the general election if they lose the primary. The result is that centrist candidates tend to get weeded out in a partisan primary even though they might be successful in the general election. So sore-loser laws have to go, but that has to be accomplished on a state-by-state basis.
A second essential reform is ranked-choice voting.
That allows centrist, third-party, and independent candidates to run even if they are a first choice minority. Voters may vote for them in confidence that if their first choice is eliminated, their vote is not wasted as it is transferred to their second choice.
Established political organizations are not in favor of ranked-choice voting because it diminishes the power of their king-makers. Extreme partisans are opposed because it enhances the power of centrist candidates and voters.
Neither of these reforms involve a Federal constitutional amendment; they are all within the power of the states.
As an extension of this idea, suppose both senators of each state were up for re-election in the same year instead of on a staggered basis. Then ranked-choice-voting with no sore-loser restrictions, with a multi-member-district containing two members, the two senators, would insure that in most states (not California or Wyoming) there would be one Democrat and one Republican elected and the Senate would always be close to evenly divided. But the two senators from each state would be pushed toward the center by the threat from whoever would have been third in the ranked-choice voting. Such a near-loser will never make any headway except by drawing from the center, and so the winners would take care to pre-empt that making their own appeals as broad as possible.
To take the payoff out of social media, it would suffice for all the platforms to reject all paid political advertising. Nobody's speech is limited, they just have to find other ways to propagate their messages. At least they could disable micro-targeting for political advertising. Better yet to disable all micro-targeting - most users would rejoice - but that would destroy the business model.
Traditional media are more difficult, but simply banning paid political advertising sounds better and better. Since there are no consequences whatever for blatantly false or misleading political propaganda, no paid political advertising in paper mail, email, newspapers, radio, or television is worth reading or listening. It might as well be illegal. Let candidates exercise their freedom of speech to make their cases with posts and tweets, speeches in the park, and letters to the editor.
Restoring the fairness doctrine for broadcast and cable media would be wholesome. The repeal of the fairness doctrine in 1987 led directly to poisonously partisan echo-chamber media. It's the weaponization of the First Amendment. Instead of protecting individual expression, "free speech" now means protecting organized dissemination of propaganda to drown individual expression.
Performer politicians often wear out their welcome quickly. At the Federal level, it is not easy to get rid of them until the next election, no matter how much harm they do.
One approach is to devise a system of recall elections for all elected Federal officials. That would require a Federal constitutional amendment.
As far as the executive branch, a different approach, requiring a smaller Federal constitutional amendment, would be to allow the House to nominate and the Senate to confirm a new president or vice president at any time by supermajority vote, or by simple majority if the office were vacant. That would be a way to get rid of an incompetent president or vice president without the burden of proving impeachment or incapacity. Prevent Avoidable Constitutional Crises.
A different approach for Federal legislators is to build upon the existing authority of the Senate and House to expel their members. In response to an initiative petition, a state could schedule a censure-and-replace election to censure an elected legislator by supermajority and elect a replacement, and if successful, the Senate or House would vote to expel the censured legislator and seat the replacement. Without a constitutional amendment, this would require an acceptance of a new norm of government. Approve or Expel.
The partisan stakes are so high in lifetime judicial appointments that it is not likely that any nominee will be approved when the President and Senate are different parties. One way to reduce the stakes, and also to moderate partisan legislation from the bench, is to reduce the terms of Federal judicial appointments from life to 9 years. That means each year there would be a new Supreme Court nomination and confirmation and a chance to rebalance the court ideologically if needed. The need might be less for judges if they know that their re-nomination and re-confirmation will depend on who is in charge in the White House and Congress in the future, and so that might moderate their ideological tone.
If lifetime appointments are to be retained, perhaps a supermajority vote should be constitutionally required. That way overly partisan nominations would have no chance.
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