How To Fix The U.S. Government So Sane People Are Stronger Than Extremists & Shutdowns Don't Happen

To avoid future government shutdowns, we need some fundamental reforms to how elections work in the U.S.

government shutdown, debt ceiling, ryan lizza, government reforms, rootstrikers
To avoid future government shutdowns, we need some fundamental reforms to how elections work in the U.S. PHOTO: Reuters

We can all breathe a sigh of relief now that the government shutdown is over and America won’t default on its loans (at least until January and February respectively). The self-inflicted crisis, which cost our economy an estimated $24 billion, is just the latest in a long cascade of partisan brinksmanship involving the debt limit and the threat of government shutdown since Republicans took the House in 2010. Hope for a less dysfunctional government now rests on the possibility of the Republican Party having learned its lesson and backing away from these sorts of tactics.

Good luck with that.

What we really need is a government where this sort of thing doesn’t happen (or is at least much more rare). The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza was thinking along the same lines and suggested reforms to the campaign finance system, parliamentary procedures such as the filibuster and the House maneuver known as the discharge petition.

Lizza has the right idea, but his suggestion on campaign finance reform ignores an underlying problem. Here’s his reasoning:

“My list would start with the return of more money to politics. One of the reasons Boehner is such a weak Speaker is that he doesn’t have the carrots and sticks that his predecessors previously used. The House banned the use of earmarks, which were a traditional tool to keep recalcitrant members in line. In a four-trillion-dollar annual budget, a few million dollars here and there to lubricate the gears of Congress seems like a very small price to pay if it would create a more productive legislative body. Indeed, last night Mitch McConnell, or someone working on his behalf, won a couple billion dollars for a dam project in Kentucky, which seems like a decent outcome if it helped prevent a default.”

Lizza’s idea would be much easier to enact than other reforms, but it would do nothing to address the issue of politicians being beholden to billionaires and the corporations they run. While earmarks are useful sweeteners and are relatively cheap in the larger scheme of things, they encourage a gift economy of favors between corporations and politicians which may grease the wheels for bigger legislation, but are not the kinds of incentives we want our legislators responding to.

The Solution(s)

Instead, we need higher voter turnout, citizen-funded elections and to take away the power to draw districts from the legislature and give it to independent commissions, as California has done.

Voter turnout can be facilitated by laws that make it easier to vote and get registered to vote. Republican-controlled states have been doing the opposite because high turnout tends to favor Democrats, but it also favors moderates. Extremists like Ted Cruz excite the furthest-from-center wing of their party, who respond by coming out to vote. The effect is more pronounced in midterm elections, when turnout is lower. A broader electorate would encourage candidates to appeal to a broader political base, rather than pandering to extremes.

Citizen-funded elections are the biggest step we could take to make the U.S. more democratic. The idea is that every voting-eligible American would be given a $50 voucher that they could donate as they wished to political campaigns. Politicians who agreed to only take contributions from these vouchers would receive a matching fund from the government. This would open the door for true populists, fighting for and dependent on their appeal to the electorate. Currently, politicians must appeal both to the people who vote for them and the rich people who fund them, and the rich people get first dibs on filtering out politicians. The idea even has a great slogan: let’s spend 1% of the government’s money to ensure the remaining 99% is spent well.

Gerrymandering is the most direct cause we can point to for Republicans having control of the House in the first place (House Republicans received fewer votes than House Democrats in 2012) and their extremist tactics. Most House Republicans are carved into safe districts and need only worry about a primary from the right. Any space they open up on the right by say, NOT voting to shutdown the government unless Obamacare is defunded, is leverage for a primary challenger. Being extremist helps most Republicans stay in office right now, but if they had to appeal to the right and the middle, that would not be the case. (The top-two primary system of California, Louisiana and Washington State also addresses this issue, but this post is already long, so you can research that on your own.)

If we want long-term fixes to our dysfunctional government, these are the sorts of changes we need to make. Most are very difficult to enact, but our democracy depends on it.

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