To change policy, change the system

Maturing moment – Convention delegates sign great but flawed Constitution at Independence Hall.

Part 4 of American Vision by Bruce Ticker

Congress will never change so long as both political parties are locked in an endless struggle for power.

Many senators and representatives in both parties enter Congress with the best of intentions, but they must still run for re-election and consider how their votes will affect their respective parties.

The end result means frequent watered-down compromises between what is best for their constituents and the public at large, and for their party.

More after the jump.
Republicans seem dead set against doing anything for vulnerable citizens,and they have feared that a more conservative candidate will be nominated to face President Obama in November. Democrats will restrain themselves because they worry that Democrats representing swing states or swing House districts will be endangered by initiatives considered to be too liberal.

It would be ideal if citizens entered Congress as, well, citizens intent on solving America’s problems, but political pressures intrude on a disproportionate basis. The election of independents could readily revitalize elections and the governing process.

The present system impedes the election of independents who would have difficulty raising the kind of money and building the type of campaign organization that can be provided by a political party. Because of the winner-take-all system, independents usually end up siphoning votes from one or both party candidates.

Some bad actors from either party who hold safe seats would probably get elected anyway, but a less partisan Congress would dilute their power. Probably nobody would have dared tell a president that he lied.

Independent candidates have been elected in a handful of statewide elections, usually small states. Of 100 senators and 435 House members, only two members of Congress are independents – Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who was also elected as an independent when he represented Vermont in the House. Like independent governors in other states, these candidates were already people of stature.

These kinds of obstacles might be overcome by creating a system known as Instant Runoff Voting, which allows voters to list other preferred candidates in case their favored candidate ranks low on the pecking order. More on this in later chapters that outline recommended improvements.

It is probably impractical for an independent to mount a serious campaign for president or for elected office in a diverse, populous state, but it might be possible in congressional districts and small states.


The performance of Congress tops a chain of oppressive circumstances that restrict government on most levels in resolving difficulties in society.

The failings here are evident – crime, poverty, substandard schools, housing shortages, unemployment, inadequate health-care coverage, the widening income gap, child abuse, prejudice, political gridlock, corruption, government mismanagement and so on.

People often complain about conditions, but little is done about them. Some Americans who may fit the label of “liberal” assail Obama for failing to push his progressive agenda harder. Some African-Americans gripe that Obama has not done enough for issues which affect the black community. All true.

Maybe they failed to notice some slight stumbling blocks. Obama and Democrats in Congress have been unable to succeed with basic initiatives because of Republican opposition. The House passed legislation for a partly publicly financed health care system on Nov. 7, 2009, when it was controlled by the Democrats, but the Senate dislodged what was called the “public option” because Republicans threatened to exercise their filibuster power.

The same fate awaited Democratic attempts to repeal tax cuts for the wealthy.

If Democrats cannot get past these simple hurdles, how are they expected to do much else of a progressive nature?

The barrier that blocked Democratic legislation in Congress is one of many traps in our governance system that obstructs efforts to address some of the most basic needs in our country. Children continue to go hungry, more loyal employees in the private sector lose their jobs, students still attend overcrowded schools, prices persist in rising as wages stagnate.

Our system also maintains institutional racism. African-Americans and other racial minorities are disproportionately victimized by such policies.

None of this is likely to improve so long as we endure the policies produced by our current system.

To change policy, change the system.

The historic magnitude of the Constitution cannot be minimized, but certain of its rules limit America’s ability to serve its citizens adequately. The Constitution provides a durable foundation, but in two centuries it was necessary to place a great deal of building blocks atop it. What we have now is far from sufficient.

The Constitution contains four significantly flawed requirements. The most obvious was the set of provisions prolonging slavery. Fortunately, slavery was abolished with the Civil War, but the Constitution reflects the ongoing racial conflicts inherently embedded in American society.  

The electoral college was widely vilified when the 2000 presidential election turned into a bizarre spectacle – not the first time that a presidential candidate won the electoral college while losing the popular vote. The electoral college served its purpose for selecting presidents during the nation’s early years, but the reason for it no longer exists and the electoral college remains a drag, at best, on the democratic process.

The electoral college allows the ongoing potential for the selection of a president who is elected by only a minority of the voters, not to mention other disadvantages.

Creation of the Senate permits a minority of the country’s population to control part of the legislative process and the appointment of Supreme Court justices. The majority of the people must depend on chance at the ballot box to obtain sufficient clout in the Senate.

On the surface, the amendment process can easily block any attempt to adjust these clauses to make the system more democratic. Any proposed amendment can be thwarted by provisions requiring a two-thirds vote in each house and ratification by three quarters of the 50 states.

Under this system, interestingly, the minority of the population can block adjustments of the rules which already stifle the will of the majority.  

Our system of governance also inhibits the appointment of Supreme Court justices and judges on the lower federal courts whom we can trust for fairness. It is possible for the minority of the people to select judges because of the power of the electoral college and the composition of the Senate.

Beyond the Constitution itself, our 50-state network as we know it is anachronistic. The economic strength or weakness of many states now depends on corporate decisions reached in other states and even foreign countries. Big cities or metropolitan areas usually fund a state’s operations by higher proportions, and the larger states send more money to the federal treasury than smaller states.

Some cities and metropolitan areas may well be self-sufficient if they detach themselves from their state governments. It would likewise make sense if low-population states merged, or if some small states folded into an adjacent larger state.

Many of our problems are self-inflicted. We entrust our political leaders with extensive powers on levels from the White House to City Council. We have elected many exceptional people for public office, yet we have voted people into office who mismanaged our government, stole from us and even contributed to frantic turmoil throughout the world.

Politicians who betray our trust are able to do so because we let them get away with it.

Few enough Americans exercise their rights. Many do not vote in any elections and others will only vote in selected elections, especially the presidential election and in big-city mayoral elections. We do not take time to learn about candidates’ backgrounds and their positions.

Way of Wisconsin – Citizens exercise their democratic rights in rotunda of state capitol in Madison, in protest of Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union initiatives

Once successful candidates take office, too few of us bother to keep track of what they do or communicate our concerns to them. Nor do we organize sufficiently to express dissent of their actions. The series of mass protests in Madison, Wisc., was an exception to what we have experienced in modern times.

Mayors, governors, judges and elected officials of all kinds have mismanaged their operations or abused the trust placed with them. Scandals abound, involving massive contract overruns, judges prosecuted for profiting from sentencing practices, council members benefiting from questionable procedures, a lawyer’s conflict of interest over a proposed building, sexual harassment, the appointment of a schools chief seen as indifferent and unqualified,  and a state government’s longtime neglected oversight of an abortion doctor ultimately charged with murder of babies after being born alive.

The system can be changed.

This begs some legitimate questions: Why bring all this up? Are there any alternatives? If there are, how do we bring about any change?

A series of recommendations are recited in the latter portion of this series. They include a more proportionate form of congressional representation; a realignment of state governments; more regional systems of government; modified rules governing the federal courts; and electoral changes to encourage campaigns of independent candidates, among other measures. Did I mention scrapping the electoral college?

These suggestions can at least serve as a starting point for consideration.

The most anticipated concern about these ideas is this likely question: How? To risk understatement, the obstacles to any changes are daunting.

Broken system – Electoral vote prompts need for bizarre recount in Florida, sparking protests.

If the Senate refuses to adjust or eliminate the filibuster rule, what hope is there for anything else? To amend the amendment process, we obviously need to use, well, the amendment process. The public understood full well the consequences of the electoral college when we endured the Florida recount a decade ago, but there has been no groundswell to eliminate it.

We should be under no illusion that the system will change. Maybe conditions can improve, but at this rate the outlook is not optimistic.

However, it is crucial to understand the deficiencies of the system before we can improve conditions. Making America what it should be does not seem possible under the existing way of doing business, but maybe it can happen. I do not know how to change policy without changing the system.

At stake is good government and how it can best serve its people.  


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