Five reforms to improve Washington’s broken policymaking

Five reforms to improve Washington’s broken policymaking
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Most Americans — regardless of party or ideology – agree that this nation’s policymaking process is a mess. It suffers from polarized parties, deep policy conflicts, uncivil discourse, refusal to compromise, gridlock and inaction on urgent national needs, and excessive influence by campaign donors and lobbyists — not to mention frustration and alienation among ordinary citizens.

Implementing certain democratic reforms would not only help majorities of Americans get policies they favor; they would also help counter the contentious politics that increasingly divide us.


The logic is simple. Polarization largely reflects undemocratic influences on the parties, including donors and activists driven by ideology who push the parties to take policy positions — sometimes very extreme policy positions — that are far apart from each other. The polarized parties then use the Madisonian separation of powers and multiple veto points that are built into our political system to obstruct any policymaking by the other party. That causes gridlock. A promising approach to reducing partisan conflict and gridlock, therefore, is to counteract those undemocratic, polarizing influences on the parties.


Democratic reforms would tend to make both parties more dependent on ordinary citizens — all citizens, treated as equals — and less dependent on partisan cadres of ideologically extreme donors and activists. As a result, each party would take more centrist, democratically responsive positions. That would facilitate the policymaking needed to cope with national needs and problems that are currently being neglected.

Our research has uncovered a great deal of evidence concerning what sorts of reforms would actually increase democratic responsiveness. The most important and most promising reforms fall into five groups:

  1. Give equal political voice to all citizens.
  2. Curb the political power of money.
  3. Democratize the electoral process.
  4. Improve House and Senate representation of all citizens.
  5. Overcome remaining sources of gridlock.

An equal political voice for all citizens

The United States is unusual among advanced democracies in having low and unrepresentative turnout in our elections, especially primary elections. Lower-income people and racial and ethnic minorities are severely underrepresented.

A relatively simple step would be to ensure that all citizens are automatically registered to vote, as is done in most of the advanced world.

Step No. 2 would be to make voting desirable and easy. The U.S. evidence indicates that piecemeal “convenience voting” reforms, if they do not ease the burdens of registration, do little or nothing to make turnout more representative.

After registration has been made automatic, such measures such as providing abundant polling places and hours, mail-in ballots, early voting, and online voting are much more likely to increase participation by those who are currently underrepresented.

Particularly helpful would be to declare election days to be national holidays, as they are in most of the world.

Countering the power of big money

There is no need to wait for reversal of the Supreme Court decisions that have forbidden effective regulation of big money in politics. The key concept is declining marginal returns from campaign money. Voters will sit still for only so much TV or internet advertising. Adequate amounts of public money, even if outweighed by private contributions, could counter much of the impact of private money.

In fact, with sufficient pubic funding it should be possible to persuade candidates to voluntarily reject private money altogether in return for the public money. Any candidates who persisted in the old ways would gain little if any advantage, and might pay a price by arousing scorn and criticism.

Democratize elections. Fully equal voice for citizens will require major changes in how we select candidates, conduct elections, and count votes.

For the House of Representatives and state legislatures, low-turnout, one-party primary elections currently empower big donors and extreme ideological activists and facilitate the nomination of extreme, unrepresentative candidates. Since most districts tilt strongly toward one party, those candidates generally win in November, even if they very poorly represent the views of their constituents.

Independent re-districting commissions can and should be used to end deliberate gerrymandering. But “naturally” one-party districts due to geographical clustering can be avoided – especially in one-party states – only by some form of proportional representation. That could be achieved through ranked-choice voting by all citizens among a set of petition-qualified candidates running for multiple seats that would all be filled at once.

Ranked-choice voting can give voters more choice among a broad range of candidates, including those from a third or fourth party or no party at all – which would put salutary pressure on the major parties to field the most appealing possible candidates.

Democratize the House and Senate. It would be relatively easy to end one-party rule in the House of Representatives. Today, a “majority of the majority” (often a small minority) can completely block action that is favored by most House members and by the other branches. This practice should be eliminated.

One-party rule frequently leads to blocking even moderate, centrist actions favored by majorities of citizens in both parties. It also causes severe policy lurches when control passes from one party to the other, and it contributes to gridlock by putting the House into disharmony with the Senate and the presidency.

The Senate is a tougher nut to crack. As long as the Senate has an extreme rural, small-state bias — with one citizen of Wyoming having roughly 66 times the clout of one citizen of California — majority rule among senators is a far less appealing goal. The rural bias of the Senate is the most undemocratic feature of the U.S. government. And it will only get worse. Serious groundwork needs to be laid for the hardest reform of all, Constitutional amendments to increase the Senate representation of populous cities and suburbs.

Overcome gridlock. Our own research has made clear that the biggest obstacles to democratic responsiveness involve prevention of action on policy changes, especially on social welfare issues, economic regulation, progressive taxation, and provision of public goods like infrastructure, education, and environmental protection. Taken together, the above democratic reforms would tend to facilitate action and overcome gridlock, by democratizing and depolarizing the political parties and by democratizing all branches of government. When all political institutions respond similarly to ordinary citizens, they will no longer have compelling reasons to disagree with and obstruct each other. When fewer veto points exist, corporations, the wealthy, and other special interests will have fewer weapons to obstruct actions that most Americans favor.

Some of the most important reforms might require years of effort by a broad-based social movement. But the Constitution has been amended before. We are optimistic enough to believe that long-term thinking and persistent efforts can prevail.

Benjamin I. Page, Fulcher professor of Decision Making at Northwestern University, and Martin Gilens, professor of Public Policy at UCLA, are authors of “Democracy in America? What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It.”