How to fix political dysfunction

How to fix political dysfunction
© Stefani Reynolds

Congress has once again kicked the can on its basic responsibility of appropriating money to operate the government. It is another link in a long chain of failures to find some compromise and give agencies and businesses some certainty around which to plan. This game costs all taxpayers enormous amounts of money and is just slightly less bad than closing the government. It is sad that temporarily avoiding an imminent shutdown is considered a success. No wonder 80 percent of Americans say Congress is dysfunctional. That is an unhealthy crisis of public faith.

Gridlock has made it nearly impossible to deal effectively with budgetary issues. The government ran out of funds three times last year and began the longest shutdown in our history. Continuing resolutions, which place federal spending on autopilot using numbers from the previous year, have become ever more prevalent, increasing in length by 200 percent in the last decade. Congress is in a fiscal death spiral, and partisan dysfunction is to blame. Here are three modest ideas to help lift us out of this mess.

First, end shutdowns and continuing resolutions forever. Members of Congress need to be incentivized to finish the budget cycle on time before the end of the fiscal year. Yet they are strongly incentivized to not compromise thanks to our electoral system of gerrymandered districts, closed primaries, and winner take all duopolies. To counter this, provide an urgent message that all politicians in office will understand and restrict members of Congress from collecting campaign contributions until they can complete the budget and appropriations cycle for the fiscal year.


If members want to get about raising money for reelection, they will get the budget process done quickly. With this rule, continuing resolutions and shutdowns will be things of the past, and appropriations will probably be done before summer. This approach has the added benefit of showing citizens that Congress will take a break from the money game while they are doing the important business of allocating taxpayer funds. Members will also probably enjoy the respite from hectic call times as well.

Second, address the poisonous partisan media environment. Our friends in the free press play a vitally important role in informing the public and keeping politicians honest. However, their relentless pursuit of dramatic narratives where one side is pitted against the other simply serves to deepen mistrust. This problem is hard to address with legislation. Instead, perhaps news outlets could be called upon to voluntarily help citizens gain better context about what elected leaders say on television.

How about displaying on screen the partisan voting index of every representative who is interviewed so viewers can see how partisan their district is? We know there is a correlation between this score and how incentivized they are to use combative partisan language, so help viewers understand what motivates a representative. This proposal will require a little viewer education, but that might help us all be better citizens.

Third, mandate voting. Elections should be a contest of ideas pitched to a wide audience of citizens, not competitions to turn out an ever dwindling crowd of fringe participants. That leads to tremendously outsize power for political extremists, which is a reason why legislative debate often looks like a meeting of two opposing crowds who scheduled rallies at the same time. One solution to increase participation is to mandate voting. If we encourage universal voter turnout, we will rebalance the electorate to include many more voters who demand compromise over ideology.

Congress could somehow link federal benefits to citizens participating in elections. This of course must be accompanied by improvements in ease of voting. Congress and state governments must invest in greater access to absentee and mail in ballots so that no one has to wait in a long line to vote. Other countries, such as Australia, mandate voting as part of their civic life. It not only increases turnout but removes the tempting option of disaffected voters checking out of their civic duty to engage in choosing leaders, an option that just tends to make things worse for everyone.

The United States government has become dysfunctional to the point that gridlock is almost a cliche. But it is not hopeless. Our political system is well designed, assuming informed voters participating broadly. It is high time to reverse the damaging cycle, incentivize elected leaders to find basic compromise, and restore public faith in our great democracy.

Glenn Nye (@GlennNye) is president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress and is a former United States representative.