A Broken System

October 23rd, 2017

Is it just me, or does it seem to some of you that the wheels are coming off our national political system?
Allow me to vent, please, as we look at our current dilemma:
Thanks to the electoral college and nearly 63 million voters, we have a President who is manifestly unsuited and ill-prepared for the job. He was duly elected under arcane rules that have denied the presidency to the popular vote winner in two of our last five national elections. In 2016, that meant his opponent got nearly 3 million more votes…and lost.
Thanks to gerrymandering and big money, we have a Congress that deadlocks over everything from health care to tax reform. It takes a disastrous hurricane to get anything done quickly, or to even kick the can down the road for three months.
Thanks to partisan redistricting and again, big money, there is precious little turnover in Congress. In 2016, 97 per cent of the House incumbents who stood for re-election won; 93 per cent of Senators who sought re-election succeeded. More often than not, incumbency equals job security.
Big money also has given special interests maximum leverage in Washington. No surprise, because campaigns have become ever more costly. Former Texas Senator Phil Gramm had it right when he said: “ready money is the mother’s milk of politics.” As if to prove it, a record $55 million was spent earlier this year in the special election to replace Tom Price in Georgia’s sixth district, most of it on behalf of the Democratic candidate, who lost. It demonstrated how hard it is to win a seat that has been skillfully gerrymandered over the years.
Look as well at what the U.S. presidency has become. It is an imperial office today, with vast powers to rattle nuclear sabers, tear up trade and international climate agreements, dismantle domestic programs and pardon convicted criminals.
The executive order is today’s all-purpose tool of convenience, used equally by our current and former chief executives. Occasionally, as in the case of the evolving travel bans, the federal courts step in. But most often, a stroke of the presidential pen prevails.
Nothing illustrated the current congressional fecklessness better than the Republican failure to repeal and replace Obamacare. After seven years of pledges and promises, the GOP leadership was unable to control the conservatives in its own caucus and deliver the votes to pass a substitute version.
Nor is tax reform likely to be any easier. Or the much-promised trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, or immigration reform or any of the other big-ticket items that were supposed to be adopted now that one party controls both houses of Congress and the White House. Gridlock is what we get instead.
I’m not sure this is exactly what the founders had in mind when they drafted the constitution and bill of rights and created a system of checks and balances. Congress was supposed to be a co-equal branch, not a frustrated and frustrating cave of winds.
Three things could make our democracy more democratic: non-partisan redistricting, serious campaign finance reform with spending limits and expanded public financing and revising or scrapping the electoral college.
Direct popular election of the President will not solve all our problems, but it certainly will better reflect the people’s choice. Independent re-drawing of congressional districts, based on population not partisan politics, will make more races competitive. Gerrymandering is a bi-partisan passion: the Democrats in Maryland are every bit as adept as the Republicans elsewhere. In Maryland, the politicians choose their voters, not the other way around.
And reforming the rules on campaigning, limiting the time and money involved, will open the process to more candidates and reduce the influence of special interests.
None of this will make for a perfect system. But it would be more fair, less beholden to the powerful groups that distort it today and yes, more democratic. With a lower-case “d.”


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