Americans must change the incentives in our broken politics


Signs continue to mount of a political wave forming in this year’s mid-term election. Most recently House Speaker Paul Ryan announced that he will join at least 42 other House Republicans who will not seek re-election this year. With approval of Congress at just 10 percent, depths not seen since the Watergate era, the voting public seems poised to deliver another change election. But don’t bet this change will bring about a better functioning Congress.

{mosads}If the recent history of wave elections is any guide, the moderates in swing districts will be the first swept away, leaving mostly passionate partisans and hard-left or hard-right politicians from safely gerrymandered districts. The continuing shift in power to the political extremes will insure more polarization, gridlock, and extreme volatility, meaning the American system of governance will remain mired in a cycle of dysfunction.

Look no further than Congress’ chronic inability to perform its most basic budgetary responsibilities to understand its dysfunction. From 2011 through 2016, Congress passed not one of its 12 annual spending bills on time, instead stumbling along with inefficient “continuing resolutions” that temporarily extend previous funding levels, and catchall omnibus bills that avoid tough decisions and balloon the debt. Meanwhile profound problems fester, including crumbling infrastructure, floundering health care, a broken immigration system, unsustainable entitlement programs, and historically high debt. Our broken political incentives are the crux of these problems.

Computer-assisted gerrymandering and geographic self-selection by voters in both parties have greatly increased the number of reliably “blue” and “red” single-party districts. Even in a swing year, the general election is a forgone conclusion in these one-party districts, and the real contests are low-turnout primaries dominated by the most passionately partisan voters. A politician who wants to win these primaries must appeal to the voters on the extreme fringes to protect their flanks. Little wonder that once elected these politicians bring a no-holds-barred, my-way-or-the-highway mindset with them to Washington.

The failure of campaign finance reform has also contributed to our political dysfunction. A lawmaker’s schedule is often squeezed out by the demand to constantly raise money. Big money has also moved from the political parties themselves to less-regulated, opaque “Super PACs.” This dominant role of money in politics has engendered deep cynicism in the electorate, with 65 percent of respondents in a 2016 University of Maryland national poll saying that the U.S. political system is “rigged.”

With non-competitive districts and the explosion of special interest money, it is no surprise that voter turnout in the United States is embarrassingly low.

The fractured media landscape and liberal and conservative media “echo chambers” have also contributed to the increased polarization of our politics. Surveys have shown that many Republicans and Democrats get their news from different news sources that often reinforce whatever preconceived opinions and worldviews news consumers already hold. Meanwhile, the phenomenon of “fake news” has shaken the public’s faith even in a set of common facts, the bedrock of reasoned debate. None of this is healthy for a democracy as large and diverse as ours.

We believe it is essential to find a way out of this downward spiral. That is why we are co-chairing the new Commission on Civility and Effective Governance, sponsored by the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.

Our goal is to act as a convener and catalyst for political reform efforts, to bring forward the best ideas for returning to the compromise and consensus-building on which this country was founded. We will focus on reforming the incentives in U.S. politics that currently drive our leaders to favor partisan point scoring, personal attacks, and all-or-nothing posturing over reasoned debate and finding real solutions to our nation’s daunting challenges.

Our commission is reaching out to people of good will across the country who recognize the danger of a polarized political culture and the skewed incentive structure of our politics. Many are proposing practical solutions. Like many past efforts, states are often serving as the critical laboratories of democracy. California has reformed how its districts are drawn and implemented a “top-two” primary system. Louisiana, Iowa, Arizona and many other states are also experimenting with open primaries, independent redistricting, and other proposals.

A new “Problem Solvers Caucus” has been forged in Congress, and reform-minded groups are mentoring “Future Caucuses” of young leaders from both parties at the state level, bringing them together around important issues and promoting the art of bipartisanship. Demographically balanced “Citizens Juries” are being formed across the country to hear from experts and deliberate in a civil fashion the difficult issues we face. There are also innovative approaches like “NewsGuard,” which plans to increase media literacy by rating ten thousand news websites on a scale from responsible journalism to outright “fake news.”

Our nation has a history of reform and renewal in the face of challenge. All of these efforts and groups honor an American tradition of coming together and finding common ground in times of peril, rallying behind the ideals that unite us, and rejecting the forces of division. We are proud to work alongside them in this critical endeavor.

Tom Davis III (R-Va.) served seven terms in Congress, and co-authored the book “The Partisan Divide: Congress in Crisis.” Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) served three terms in Congress, and authored the book “Dead Center: How Political Polarization Divided America, and What We Can Do About It.” They are co-chairs of the Commission for Civility and Effective Governance at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.

Tags Campaign finance reform in the United States Fake News Paul Ryan Polarization Political philosophy Political science Political terminology Politics Primary election

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