National I&R would break gridlock

It is most often in times of crisis that real change and reform occurs.

I am hoping that the current mess in Washington will open the door to some populist reforms.

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By “current,” I mean the several-years-running hyperpartisan brinksmanship that has left the federal government in gridlock.

Almost nothing happens because both parties have decided to play all their cards in pursuit of killing everything the other side does. And the public is left frustrated, confused and alienated from politics.

But there’s a way to reform the system and get voters back in the game.

The innovation we need — national initiative and referendum — has already been road tested in 24 state “laboratories of democracy.” There have been countless model proposals over the years to study for a national template, and there are already functioning advocacy groups pushing some sort of national I&R.

The pieces are there.

By submitting the great national issues to nationwide up-or-down votes, we’d be able to end run the do-nothing crowd on Capitol Hill.

Of course, this is one issue that would bring about a spirit of bipartisan cooperation.

As with the term-limits battles of decades ago, both parties would be wildly cooperative in heading off national initiatives.

They used to say that asking members of Congress to support term limits was akin to beckoning the chickens to endorse Colonel Sanders. Updated to current times, what those Chick-fil-A cows do to “chikins” in order to protect their own hides is pretty much what Congress would do to I&R.

Members of Congress are annoyed enough that they have to grovel for reelection votes every few years. They sure don’t want to cope with additional referenda on congressional salaries, balanced budget mandates and populist stuff like that.

It will be very challenging to adopt any meaningful national I&R proposals without at least the tacit approval of Congress and party leaders, so it might be a good idea to entice them with a robust system allowing congressionally referred referenda.

At the state level, I have noticed that gridlocked legislators often are happy to get rid of a sticky wicket by referring the matter to a statewide referendum. Members of Congress would have a new tool in their bag of legislative strategies. Perhaps at the time of every general election, each party could refer several measures to the ballot.

Other ideas proposed down through the years might be integrated into a new national I&R process as well. For example, perhaps whenever the Supreme Court strikes down a law, it should trigger a national referendum, to check and balance against a runaway activist court. 

Perhaps whenever enough voters sign petitions to overturn a new federal law like ObamaCare, it should trigger a national plebiscite.

Common sense must prevail, of course. We cannot vote on anything and everything. In states that come too close to doing this, voters can get fatigued.

But there needs to be some sort of I&R that serves as a pressure relief valve whenever the system requires some checks and balances.

If a majority of Americans decide that implementation of a sweeping change like ObamaCare is misguided and unacceptable, a Democratic majority in just one house of Congress should not be allowed to block redress. We should all be allowed to vote on it.

I recognize that I&R at the state level has had its own set of problems.

Some of those problems have fostered reform efforts. But not a single state has seriously considered abandoning I&R altogether. The electorate would not stand for it. That alone should tell us that the public likes I&R. 

And in the age to come, when technology will make voting easier and more secure than ever, national I&R is almost certain to become a reality.

Let’s start setting the rules now.


Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.

This post has been corrected from a previous version.

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