Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein’s ideas won’t solve Washington’s gridlock.

Why Washington Can’t Be Fixed

Why Washington Can’t Be Fixed

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 9 2012 2:19 PM

Why Washington Can’t Be Fixed

And is about to get a lot worse.

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Mann and Ornstein don’t propose an actual move to parliamentary democracy, which would require major amendments to the Constitution along the lines we are unlikely to see in our lifetimes. And they reject a number of reform proposals which they call “bromides to avoid,” including waiting for the system to correct itself, a third party (such as Americans Elect), a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, term limits, or full public financing of elections.

Among the changes they want to see to our political system are voter registration modernization (making it easier for people to register to vote); compulsory voting (or at least efforts to end state restrictions on voting); moving election day from Tuesday to a weekend; putting congressional redistricting into the hands of citizen commissions, as was recently done in California; allowing more open primaries whereby non-party voters can vote for party nominees; the use of alternative voting systems (such as instant runoff voting), whereby people who vote for less popular candidates have their votes reallocated to higher vote-getters to produce majority winners; and revamped campaign finance laws to improve disclosure, take lobbyists out of the fundraising business, and prevent candidates from coordinating with Super PACs.

Of course, most of these reforms would never clear the hurdles of our hyper-partisan atmosphere. More importantly, they hardly seem likely to fix Washington and end polarization. The basic gist of these reforms is to increase the number of voters in both primary and general elections. Mann and Ornstein expect these voters to be more moderate, and in turn they will choose less ideological senators and representatives. These new members will then agree to pass legislation in the spirit of compromise.


But why would these nonvoters-made-voters necessarily be any more moderate than the voters we already have? If parties did not have to worry about getting out the vote, they might do a lot more to get their base excited about their candidates, and politics could get even nastier. We just don’t know.

Mann and Ornstein also offer a second set of reforms, including making it harder to filibuster bills in the Senate, strengthening executive power (so that voters would hold the president more accountable), and having the media and others with clout in society shame extreme members of Congress into moderation. Some of these are nonstarters. Republican House members will wear excoriation by the New York Times editorial board—or nowadays almost any media outlet—as a badge of honor.

Making it harder to filibuster legislation would move the Senate toward a more majoritarian institution (although not really majoritarian, since each state gets the same two Senators regardless of state population). While filibuster reform might be helpful to end gridlock, it would not solve the problem of polarized parties, separation of powers, and lack of accountability. Imagine if Mitt Romney is elected president, Republicans maintain control of the House and Democrats (barely) keep the Senate, with a weakened filibuster rule. If things go poorly, would voters be inclined to blame Republicans or Democrats? The answer again is unclear.

Mann and Ornstein have done a great public service in opening a dialogue on how to fix the mismatch between our political and constitutional systems of government. But we need to go back to the drawing board on how to fix Washington. And if no-compromise candidates like Richard Mourdock are our future, things will have to get much worse before they get better.