A FEW months back, after a column about ways to restore Congress to working order, I got a note from Mickey Edwards, former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, whom I had met when he was teaching at the Kennedy School. Now director of the Aspen Institute’s leadership program for elected officials, Edwards offered to send me his book on the topic.
I’m in his debt. Informed by his 16 years in the House, “The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans” is a practical primer on congressional dysfunction and how it could be changed. At a time when many political scientists favor strong parties, Edwards has a contrary view: He thinks political parties have elevated hyper-partisanship at the expense of a pragmatic problem-solving ethos.
Edwards says that when he took office in 1977, he felt he had crossed a threshold from partisan candidate to lawmaker with duties that transcended party allegiance — only to find the process reinforced the notion that Republicans and Democrats should clash rather than compromise.
“From the moment you take the oath of office, you are confronted with the reality of two teams battling each other,” he told me. “It was much more like the NFL than a group of Americans working together to solve our common problems.”
The Democrats and Republicans don’t sit together, but rather across a wide aisle from each other. When they speak to the House, they use separate lecterns. When they leave the House chamber to get coffee or make phone calls, they go to separate cloakrooms. When committees meet, Democrats are on one side, Republicans the other.
Changes could spur parties toward more pragmatism.
Edwards places particular blame on Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker, for ushering in the era of extreme partisanship. Still, he says, both sides have been guilty of shutting the other out of decision-making. So how do you change the prevailing mentality? Edwards is a fount of ideas; here are a few I found particularly interesting.
First, make leadership less partisan. The House could take a cue from the changes Britain made in 2007, and require that a candidate for speaker of the House of Commons must be nominated by a dozen members, including at least three from a different party. (To further reduce partisanship, the Commons elects its speaker by secret ballot.)
To loosen the tight control recent House speakers have exercised, any bill that has 100 cosponsors should be guaranteed a committee hearing, a floor debate, and a vote. “If you have 100 members, that represents a whole bunch of Americans who want that point of view discussed and debated,” Edwards notes.
He would grant committee vice chairmanships to the minority party, and give them authority to bring legislation forward for hearings. And he would end the partisan seating divide inside the congressional chambers.
But how to move toward those changes? Voters need to speak up, mobilize, use social media, to let their congressfolk know they’ve had it with excessive partisanship.
“When people stand up and demand that things change, you listen,” he says.
There’s also room for direct democracy. Edwards highlights several ideas that can be accomplished by ballot initiatives, which are permitted in almost half the states.
First, change the electoral system so that it rewards candidates with the broadest mainstream appeal rather than those most attractive to a party’s determined partisans. Edwards likes the blanket primary or top-two system adopted by California, Louisiana, and Washington, where any voters can cast a ballot for any candidate who qualifies for the ballot, regardless of party. The two top finishers, regardless of party, face off in a run-off.
Second, take redistricting out of the hands of politicians by having congressional maps drawn by independent commissions rather than by legislators, whose impulse is to create safe seats for their party brethren. One result would likely be more politically competitive districts, which in turn would yield lawmakers with more bipartisan inclinations. During a recent visit to the Globe, former US senator Olympia Snowe, Republican co-chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform, also stressed the importance of independent redistricting commissions.
Change starts with smart ideas about how things could be better — and with his thought-provoking proposals, Edwards has made a valuable contribution to the debate over how to repair our broken government.