5 Long-Overdue Changes We Need in American Government

If the 2016 presidential election is proving anything, it’s that voters are not happy with the state of their union.

On the left and right, we’re seeing insurgents give establishment candidates a run for their money. Democrats are breaking from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vermont), a longtime independent and self-declared democratic socialist.

Republicans are meanwhile finding it difficult to prevent real-estate billionaire Donald Trump from locking up the nomination, even while he skewers the party’s traditional litmus tests.

As unalike Sanders and Trump may seem, the two men often make some of the same criticisms about the status quo. They’re both populists with widespread appeal among the politically disenfranchised: those who feel they can’t trust their parties anymore, and who demand systemic change. Not incremental change. Systemic change—and not two or four years from now, but immediately.

As journalist James Surowiecki recently wrote for The New Yorker, “Trump and Sanders are popular not just because they’re expressing people’s anger but because they offer timely critiques of American capitalism.” As he points out, their critiques are notable, also, because they’re going after the fruits of the last three decades of U.S. economic policy: the loss of blue-collar jobs, vast wealth inequality, and the nagging feeling that something just isn’t right with our political and economic order.

And who could blame them? Several years ago, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression robbed the United States of some $16 trillion in wealth, according to conservative estimates from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. People lost more than their jobs; they suffered the indignity and uncertainty of foreclosures, widespread losses in home equity, depletions of their retirement accounts and pensions. Oh, and some 10,000 people committed suicide across the Western world as a result of the crisis, according to researchers with Oxford and a London medicine school.

Meanwhile, most of the culprits got bailouts, and not a single Wall Street executive saw the inside of a jail cell.

I digress. I’m not writing about the Great Recession or Sanders or Trump (although these subjects certainly merit a few pieces), but rather the enormous, pent-up pressure the electorate seems to be releasing. It’s as if the American public feels like it’s been underwater for a few seconds too long, just surged to the surface, and, still gasping for air, threw its arms around the two nearest life preservers available.

I would venture that this is the symptom of an ill-fitting political system. Sanders and Trump echo that sentiment with boasts about how they’re not dependent upon money from wealthy donors or super PACs.

Their claims hint at a common theme: ours is a system of control, characterized by an unfair distribution of political power that favors those with wealth and consistently works against those without it. These insurgent candidacies—and, now, the tone-deaf gridlock over the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court replacement—reflect just how badly we need to open up and breathe fresh air into our political system.

Don’t believe me? If you’re American (and even if you’re not), you owe it to yourself to read a recent study by researchers from Princeton and Northwestern universities that found the United States is, essentially, an oligarchy, where a few elites rule the many. Or check out French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which predicts the United States and Canada are on the fast track to becoming aristocracies in the tradition of 19th-Century Britain.

And here are five long-overdue constitutional remedies we need in order to stop all that and make our elected officials work again: work with each other, and for the good of the country, and not just for one tax bracket, race, community, or religion, but for all of us:

1. No More Private Money in Elections—or At Least Much, Much Less of It

The Sanders and Trump candidacies are viable, in part, because of widespread perceptions about the power of money in politics. A New York Times/CBS News poll found last year that 84 percent of Americans agree that money has too much influence in politics.

And why shouldn’t they feel that way? According to OpenSecrets.org, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney wound up raising—and spending—a mind-blowing combined $2.6 billion during the 2012 presidential race. The 2016 contest is already poised to outdo that one, and you can view the breakdown at the same website. And if you want to know how that affects who gets the biggest say in politics, just watch this Represent.us explainer video.

So, how do you reduce it?

One often-cited proposal involves publicly funding campaigns. A number of states already have programs in place. Arizona and Maine in particular offer what are called “clean elections” funding, which imposes limits on private fundraising but allows qualifying candidates to receive taxpayer-funded grants. In Arizona, that entails gathering a specified number of $5 contributions from constituents. And yes, there are pros and cons, but the idea is sensible: reduce the power of private money in politics.

The path to this goal could require a 28th Amendment to the Constitution that stipulates, simply, that every state needs some form of public financing, much as our cherished founding document already stipulates a republican government for every state. This would allow every state to experiment with public financing.

2. Require Everyone Who Gives Money to Admit It

If nothing else, we need complete transparency in our elections. That went out the door in 2010 with the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United v. FEC decision, which made it possible for nonprofits to engage in unlimited campaign spending.

The ruling deserves its criticism. While the campaigns themselves need to disclose their donations, their other benefactors, so-called “super PACs,” do not. Effectively, wealthy donors, corporations, labor unions, and anyone else can ride around transparency laws by donating unlimited sums to nonprofits.

You can’t ignore the effects. OpenSecrets.org reports that these organizations donated more than $300 million in the 2012 presidential race and more than half that amount in the 2014 midterms. That’s up from less than a measly $5.2 million these nonprofits donated to campaigns in 2006.

The solution rests with Congress or the state legislatures. The former could simply pass a law that reinstates the ceiling on donations from nonprofits. Failing that, two thirds of state legislatures could amend the Constitution.

3. The Fox Should Not Guard (or Gerrymander) the Henhouse

Apart from money, gerrymandering, or partisan redistricting, presents one of the biggest problems in American politics. Most state legislatures are responsible for drawing their own electoral districts after every U.S. census. That’s weird—and self-evidently corrupt—because it allows political parties to determine whom they represent. It’s like letting the fox guard the henhouse.

Experts agree that gerrymandering is responsible for much of our polarization. It’s easy to understand why: If a congressional district is drawn to include mostly Democratic or Republican voters, the general election becomes moot. Indeed, PolitiFact reports that incumbents hold more than 96 percent of seats in Congress—despite the institution’s record-low approval ratings. And this is because general elections aren’t competitive anymore.

Experts agree that gerrymandering is responsible for much of our polarization.

That, in turn, makes the primary election the de facto general election. This is important because primary voters are notoriously partisan. Thus, a member of Congress must toe the line with this small electorate, no matter how out-of-step their desires may be with mainstream voters. The polarization helps explain many of the demoralizing events we’ve seen in recent years, from government shutdowns to credit downgrades and the relentless House infighting that led Speaker John Boehner to leave Congress. Since many U.S. senators start out in the House, observers say that radicalism naturally carries over into the upper chamber.

But it doesn’t stop there. Gerrymandering is also nefariously unrepresentative. Writing for the New York Times in 2013, Dr. Sam Wang said his own formulas found that Democrats running in 2012 should’ve narrowed Republican control in the House with a 220-to-215 margin. Instead, he wrote, Republicans secured 234 seats, leaving Democrats with only 201 seats—this despite the fact that Democrats received 1.4 million more votes in midterm elections nationwide.

Speaking with me for a past story, Garry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, called gerrymandering “a very straightforward distortion” of the way elections are supposed to work.

If we want to free ourselves of this mind-numbing partisanship, we need to pass a constitutional amendment that strips state legislatures of the ability to draw their own congressional districts. We can give this function to nonpartisan or even bipartisan commissions, a la Arizona, California, and Hawaii, or even to a computer program.

4. End the Revolving Door (or Slow It Down)

In drafting the Constitution, the founders understood public service to mean personal sacrifice on behalf of the country. Until the second half of the twentieth century, most former officials returned to whatever they were doing beforehand.

Nowadays, thanks largely to lobbying firms, public service is a veritable gravy train for former officials. Ex-House members and ex-senators are respectively banned from lobbying for a full year and two years after leaving, but they’re free to pick up lucrative contracts on K Street afterward—and many do.

Roughly more than half of all officials leaving Congress regularly find employment as lobbyists after their tenure.

Roughly more than half of all officials leaving Congress regularly find employment as lobbyists after their tenure. The Center for Responsive Politics found that a total of 427 former lawmakers—almost as many as you can find in the House—now lobby the institution, cajoling and arm-twisting their former colleagues into furnishing legal loopholes and tax giveaways for their employers.

According to an analysis by FreeBeacon.com, these lobbyists include less than two thirds of the 75 lawmakers who left the 113th Congress, more than half of the 97 who left the 112th session, and just about half of the 118 who left the 111th session. And this excludes, of course, the former administration officials who often join lobbying firms—as well as the hefty sums that ex-presidents and First Ladies collect in vague speaking fees from corporate firms and nonprofits.

If we want to eliminate even the appearance of corruption and, say, streamline our unfair and unwieldy tax code, we need to impose stiffer limits on ex-officials. The most obvious solution is a complete ban on the ability of any public official to enrich themselves like this at the expense of the public. Even if we didn’t try for a complete ban, however, we could still extend the current prohibition terms to 10 or even 5 years for House and Senate members.

5. Let States Other than Iowa and New Hampshire Have the First Say in Presidential Politics

There is any number of other reforms we can make through law or constitutional amendments that would make our politics less corrupt, polarized, and unworkable. We could open up primaries to the public, increase the number of U.S. representatives for our diverse and burgeoning population, and make the political process and financial support more accessible to third parties.

Yet one of the most interesting and little-discussed changes involves the way we select our presidents. The Electoral College gets a lot of attention since it charges unelected delegates with the task of actually electing our presidents—but what about the primary process that provides these delegates?

The lead-up to this year’s presidential campaign focused intensely on the first two traditional primaries in the country: those in Iowa and New Hampshire. Given their privilege, these two states can make or break a candidate for the White House. And this is wrong.

Why? For starters, Iowa and New Hampshire are unrepresentative of the country as a whole. Both states are overwhelmingly agrarian, white, and Protestant Christian. This is unsuitable for a nation that is increasingly diverse, ethnically and religiously, and in which whites reportedly may well become the minority by 2050.

In “A More Perfect Constitution,” famed political scientist Larry Sabato offers an alternative: replace the haphazard primary process with a lottery system for each of the nation’s regions. If this were to happen, more states would gain a voice in weeding out or giving momentum to presidential campaigns, and determining their place in the process would be a lot fairer. Demographically complex states like California or overlooked ones like Mississippi could suddenly receive much-needed attention in a presidential election, and the states, the campaigns—and our country—would benefit as a result.

Is it difficult to make these changes? Yes. But can we afford to leave our politics the mess it is? No—not unless we want to continue to put all of our hopes on one presidential candidate every four years and feel disappointed with the result.

Photo Credit: Orhan Cam / shutterstock.com