A Roadmap to a Stronger Democracy
The electoral system, congressional performance, and engagement in public service are three areas that need reform to counteract the polarization of American politics, says a new report by the Bipartisan Policy Center.
What are some specific actions the country can take? We recently took a few minutes to speak with former U.S. secretary of agriculture and Kansas congressman Dan Glickman -- who currently serves as a senior fellow on the BPC Commission on Political Reform -- about the center’s ideas.
What are the biggest issues with the American political system today?
I suppose the biggest issue is a general lack of trust by the American people in all of the institutions of government. The biggest lack of trust is in Congress, but it is in government generally and it is in other institutions from academia, to public officials, to big business, it is across the board.
But it is especially bad when it comes to congressional members. You can't have a political system that operates very well if the people are just down on it so dramatically. I think that is the heart of the problem. It has led to a political system that is not as resilient as it ought to be. The country is not coming apart, so it is not like we are facing a revolution or anything like that. But it is a serious problem, and it is making it much more difficult to solve national problems.
You mentioned Congress is one of the biggest problems, so let's start with that. How can Congress improve its performance with its committees and debate process?
Our report recommends a lot of things. One is that they should work five days a week, at least three weeks on and one week off. The public needs to see them working like they work all the time. I think there needs to be regular order so that the bills can be handled the way the Founding Fathers wanted them handled. The process needs to appear to be fair so that everybody has an opportunity to engage in it. Committees need to operate more like the way they were intended to operate.
We need to limit the filibusters in the Senate so they are not so ubiquitous all the time. The Congress and the president need to meet on a much more regular basis. It is not just all the Congress. The president has an obligation to engage Congress in the political process because we have separation of powers. We recommended that the president meet with congressional leaders once a month on a regular basis and meet with the caucus of the full membership at least twice a year.
There are a lot of answers here, but these are some things we think would help Congress would do its job better.
What is the problem with campaign finance?
The raising of money in politics dwarfed everything else. Members spent a good amount of their time -- in many cases 50 to 70 percent -- raising money. The need to raise money has just increased kind of arithmetically over the last two or three decades. Contested races for Congress cost anywhere between 3 and 5 million dollars. We have outside money coming into the process without appropriate disclosure.
These are huge problems. Of course money buys advertising. Advertising is almost always negative, so what the public ends up seeing with all this money in politics is people trying to destroy each other and people trying to kill each other. When we were spending 10 percent of the money we are spending now, it wasn't quite as bad, because there wasn't as much stuff there, but now the airways are just inundated with this stuff.
The amount of money that is being raised is monumentally higher than it was before. The amount of money that is being spent is monumentally higher than it was before. A lot of that money is not disclosed, and outside money is coming in in bigger chunks than ever before. The money is spent on things that try to be destructive rather than constructive. So all of these things together just make the system much worse than it was 30, 40, or 50 years ago.
Money has always been a factor in politics. I think it was Sam Rayburn who said, "Money is the mother's milk of politics." But it has become the cottage cheese, the yogurt, cream cheese, and everything else. It dominates the system. If somebody wants to run for Congress, the first question for viability is, "Can you raise the money?" rather than, "What are your views?" or, "What are your ideals?" or, "How do you want to help the country?" I am not naive, you have to have resources to get your message out. But now it has become one of the only criteria, and that is not healthy.
How can we solve this?
This is a very contentious issue. The thing that we said is there should be full disclosure of all contributions in politics. There should be no dark money. We should know where all the dollars are flowing in from, and that is not the case today. Transparency is certainly a positive step.
The second thing we say is this whole leadership PAC where members are raising money for their own leadership PACs, money is going into leadership positions. That really needs to be limited and certainly that money should not be raised for personal usage.
But we couldn't reach a consensus on a lot of the issues. Should we have a constitutional amendment limiting spending? Should we try to encourage small contributions and try to restrict large contributions? So in addition to everything else I mentioned, we think there needs to be a true national effort, whether it is a commission, or some sort of presidentially appointed body or one appointed by the private sector. Wherever it comes from, it needs to look at all these serious issues of how we can put money into proper perspective of national politics.
The media has a role in this because most of this money is going into advertising that is destructive. We have to figure that out as well. We didn't provide excellent answers to these questions because they are very contentious.
The report mentions that very few young people are interested in politics today. Can you describe their importance and what we can do to get them more engaged in the political process?
Without a new generation of engaged young people, idealistic young people, you can't regenerate the American political system. So what we found is that people who enter public service or are serving their communities are more likely to find themselves going into politics. We are trying to do what we can to create a national movement for public service. It would involve kids between the ages of 18 and 28 taking a year out of their lives to go into military or non-military public service, while not doing it for free, but getting some benefits out of it as well. We think that is going to make a much better citizen, and much better citizens make a much better political system.
But at the same we also know that we have to find this bridge for younger people to find politics as an acceptable means to try to change society. So we have to work on all levels, including local and state. You find a lot of young people finding local politics and even state politics more attractive than national politics. But we have to get them into that political system no matter what. Because right now a lot of young people think that politics is not the way to engage their country and that there are other ways to do it. But unfortunately in our political system we have to have a viable system with good people in it, and the only way to get good people in it is to encourage and educate them while they are younger.
In addition to public service, we talk a little bit about civic education in America, where we have seen that teaching civics and government as part of our national education system has become very secondary in importance. That is another area we are going to try to focus on as well.
Is there an area of the report the commission feels especially strongly about?
I think one of the recommendations we feel strongly about is the congressional redistricting process, making it a much more independent process. Right now, the word is that the legislators choose their constituents rather than the reverse, in terms of how congressional districts are created. What has happened therefore is that we have created a whole system of one-party congressional districts in the country. That means there is no genuine competition across party lines for very many congressional seats. That means the extremes on the right and the left tend to govern those races. Some states have enacted this reform, such as Iowa and California, but we think it needs to be a much more national reform.
Michael Cipriano is a RealClearPolitics editorial intern.