” I find the great thing in this world is not as much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving. We must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it, but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.” Oliver Wendell Holmes 1858. Holmes spoke wisely during the days when our country was drifting towards a great civil war.
Today, we are also drifting or perhaps in some cases we are just laying at anchor, with our political system being broken. We, the people need to put pressure on our elected officials to fix what is broken, before it is too late.
President Truman once referred to his Congress, as the do nothing Congress, well the current Congress is surpassing the prior one, in ineptitude. They are setting a record for actually doing nothing.
In my early days of being a political science major, in college, I learned two things, one was that in our system of government the President of the United States often proposes legislation and Congress disposes. Well, in this case, President Obama, has proposed legislation such as a jobs bill and Congress has not disposed of it. The President can’t even get an up or down vote on whether they approve of it or not.
The second principle I learned in political science was that a person’s actions either at the voting booth or as a representative of the people in Congress, are based upon the simple premise of one’s self interest. In more simple terms, what is in it for me!
For our elected officials in Washington,D.C., being re-elected is most important to them, and for the voters what used to be the most important issue were pocket book issues.
Congress’s favorability ratings are at their lowest in history. So what can be done so that Congress will not be as dysfunctional as it is today? And how can we fix the structural problems that make Congress less responsive to the will of the people so that issues like jobs can be dealt with ?
If we are to continue as a Republic, our government can no longer afford to be held hostage to obstructionists who use archaic procedures and political extortion to obfiscate, delay, and frustrate the will of the majority of the voters of the United States. Elections should have consequences and a tyranny of the minority should not be allowed to deny the voters their say as expressed at the ballot box.
Each body of Congress is allowed to set up their own rules according to the Constitution, but some of our representatives who are supposedly in Washington to do the people’s business are not. They sit there and obstruct and make sure that nothing gets done.
The Senate has two rules, the rules regarding filibusters and those that relate to holds. Holds are when one senator can anonimously place a hold on any nomination. Both of these rules need to be changed to allow for the rule of a majority to prevail. What we have is the will of the majority being held hostage by a tyranny of the minority.
Filibusters are not used as they were originally intended. The idea behind having a filibuster is to protect the rights of the minority by giving them an opportunity to express their views for as long as they wish. In the early days of the Senate up until the first world war, there was no limit on debate. During World War I new rules were established which stated that a super majority was required to close debate, the number required was 66 votes. That super majority amount stayed that way until the Byrd amendment which lowered the amount of senators who could close debate to 60. The procedure is called cloture.
The use of the filibuster has increased dramatically. There have been more filibusters in the last 13 years than the prior 200 years. It is no longer a tool used to protect minority rights but rather it has become an obstructionist tool, to keep the Senate from ever having a vote, if cloture can not be obtained.
A solution to the problem would be that they limit a filibuster to 1 per bill, and to set a time limit on the length of time one can debate a bill. The filibuster is not even mentioned in the Constitution. One can not even imagine the founders contemplating such an idea as requiring a super majority before one of our legislative bodies is even allowed to vote on a bill of legislation.
If you changed the rules to allow debate with 51 votes you would be changing a key part of what makes the Senate differnt and unique from the House of Representatives. The Senate as an institution has for years and years claimed to be the greatest deliberative body in the world. If the rules are not changed, the danger is that instead of the Senate being a great deliberative body, it will become an institution that will lose its relevence.
Another reform of the Senate rules would be to get rid of what is called a hold. A President nominates candidates for certain positions such as judge or an appointed position. Currently an individual senator is allowed to place a hold on a nomination. This is an arcane rule that makes no sense, and it is used so often now that it has become part of an opposition party’s strategy to delay the nomination process. It is difficult enough to find qualified candidates for positions these days without putting those who are nominated in limbo for a long time.
There needs to be election reform to increase turnout and to insure that extremism ends.
Gerrymandering has been around for a long time and it has lost it’s purpose and usefullness. A state legislature has in the past, after a census, changed the electoral map. On it’s face that is proper, but when a state legislature re-districts for the specific purpose of having safe seats democracy is not served.
A safe seat means that a representative would have his district drawn up so that no real threat would exist for his or her defeat unless there was some scandal.
We, the people, have one primary tool to change the direction of government and that is at the ballot box to throw the bums out so to speak. For years due to gerrymandering the percentage of safe seats was around 96%. It is somewhat lower now but not enough.
Safe seats encourages extremism. Extremism has no virtue. You can say anything no matter how crazy it is if your seat is so safe that no consequences will occur as a result of the extreme nature of the elected official’s views.
Gerrymandering has created some real crazy shapes when it comes to what the district looks like geographically.
California put together through the initiative process, a citizen’s commission which acted in place of the state’s legislature to determine the nature of the Congressional districts. There is more of a community of interests, things that the voters hold in common with each other in the new districts. Politicians had no say in determining their own districts. My own district is part of the foothills, and the communities that lay across the foothills have the same congressional district.
Moderation and compromise may very well result from these more representative districts. People forget that the political middle is necessary for our form of government to work. Just from a logical standpoint, it is quite clear that government can not work if you have two sides diametrically opposed to each other from an ideological standpoint, where you have each side entrenched and convinced that they are right and that they can not give up their principles. This type of government is doomed to fail. Only when you have a parliamentary type of government can this type of relationship survive and keep the government whole. We decided many years ago when we ratified our Constitution that we wanted what we have.
Gerrymandering needs to be reformed if we are to encourage those whose beliefs lie somewhere in the middle to become encouraged to once again become involved in our body politic. The type of Gerrymandering which guarantees a person’s re-election is bad for our Republic and bad for democracy.
Voting should be made easier not more difficult. Oregon has proved that voting by mail works.
Australia has made voting mandatory but that idea will probably never take hold in the United States.
We could change the voting on national elections to a weekend or make the Tuesday a national holiday and a paid day if you show that you voted.
It was an embarrassment to watch people in Florida standing in line for hours.
We can be more flexible on where our precinct is. In California, the distance and time it takes to get home on the freeway can deprive one of the opportunity to vote. We live in the computer era now, there is no reason that you should not be able to show your driver’s license to the poll watcher and be able to vote near your work. I personally enjoy voting in a voting booth. I would hate to lose the fun of it, just because my work might take me too far away from my home precinct.
Let us remember that James Madison in Federalist #10, warned us of the dangers of excession factionalism. Factionalism was the cause of the destruction of all of the prior Republics. Democracy can be quite fragile. We need to end excessive partisanship and have our representatives work for our interests and not their own. These suggested reforms are worth having in order to fix our broken system. Yes, dear, we can fix it. We don’t need to throw it out.