Broken City

Ideas abound for breaking logjam, but D.C. isn’t listening

Viewing the current stalemate as a grave threat to American democracy, political scientists and other experts offer ways to limit the sway of campaign money, extreme factions, and take no prisoners partisanship. In some places, such alternatives are already working.

Robert Davis/Globe Staff

Last in a series.

On the October day that Congress nearly defaulted on the national debt, two dozen of the nation’s top political scientists gathered privately in California to discuss what they viewed as one of the greatest crises in the nation’s history. American democracy, they believed, was at grave risk, and something had to be done.

One by one, the men and women, envisioning themselves as modern-day writers of the Constitution, laid out the problem. The system, they believed, was being undermined by an explosion in campaign money, the rise of political factions, and politically motivated redistricting.

No one suggested that democracy be replaced with some other system. But many urged that fundamental elements be reshaped to repair what they called the nation’s “democratic deficit,” aiming to make a Congress dominated by extremes better reflect the public’s more centrist viewpoint.


The group concluded it had a moral responsibility to warn the public and propose solutions. “The notion that we can be different and exceptional and survive, the faith in that has been shaken to its core,” said Stanford University professor Bruce Cain, who attended the session near his school’s campus.

Get Today in Politics in your inbox:
A digest of the top political stories from the Globe, sent to your inbox Monday-Friday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

In this year of extraordinary trials for the American way of democracy, such dire warnings and calls for new solutions have grown in number and intensity. Throughout this year, the Globe has detailed many of the problems facing Washington in a series called “Broken City.” Today’s final installment turns the spotlight to possible solutions — some presented at the California conference, some hatched by other experts, some already at work in the several states and in other democracies around the world.

What became striking in this review was not how little can be done, but how many intriguing options exist. Amid the diversity of ideas there is, however, one common thread: almost complete indifference in Washington, the world’s capital of gridlock, even when alternative, perhaps better, ways are already at work, some in plain sight.

Imagine, for example, a place where elected officials are officially nonpartisan, terms are limited, the budget is balanced, backroom deals are discouraged, and legislators actually get things done in swift sessions.

Someone’s far-fetched idea of political heaven? No, it’s Nebraska.


How about a country where government institutions have an approval rating that regularly goes above 80 percent, and where majority power finds a way to make smaller factions part of the solution? Welcome to Denmark. And is it possible to have a 92 percent voter turnout, ensuring broader representation? Yes, in Australia, where voting is compulsory.

In California and Washington, legislatures have tried to make voting more democratic by adopting “open primaries,” in which the top two vote-getters face each other, encouraging a battle for moderate voters and discouraging complacency among incumbents.

Even the government framework the American colonies rebelled against — the British Parliament and prime ministry — offers useful lessons in how a democratic system can get things done. The real fear of monarchical oppression that led the framers of the US Constitution to divide power among branches, legislative bodies, and the states now seems almost quaint. The sovereign to fear today is called stalemate.

That there are many ideas is not to say that any, or even one, will be easy to enact. Getting to consensus will require some with vested interests to give way to a sense of a larger national interest. And given the scorching tone of debate in Washington of late, it is easy to say, good luck with that.

Still, many of those who suggest solutions hope that this year’s series of crises in the nation’s capital — from the fiscal cliff to the sequester to the government shutdown to the botched rollout of President Obama’s health care plan — will lead to a historic reckoning.


“The American people should start thinking about, is this a good system?” said John Hibbing, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The increasing ability of factions such as Tea Party supporters to stymie action has, he said, focused attention on whether “we have gone too far in allowing minority rights. A legitimate and serious nonpartisan reflection would be very useful for the country.”

There is, after all, no one recipe for implementing democracy. To many observers, American democracy has many elements that are ripe for reform, starting with the way that the voting power of a citizen can be applied in unequal ways in different states.

For example, the winner of the popular vote in presidential elections can lose due to the quirks of the Electoral College, as happened in 2000. The two Republican US senators from a small state such as Wyoming (population 576,412) have the same power as the two Democratic senators from California (population 38 million), while the reliably Democratic District of Columbia (population 632,323) is not even allowed senators and representatives, other than a delegate with limited voting rights.

Moreover, the nomination system in some states is tilted toward selecting the most partisan nominees. While some states have primaries that encourage the greatest participation of voters, others have caucuses or conventions that can give outsized power to groups of the most partisan players.

In Utah, for example, Republican Tea Party backer Mike Lee needed just 982 votes at a state convention to get on the primary ballot, effectively ousting incumbent Senator Bob Bennett. Lee went on to win the primary and general election, and he became a leader in the effort to shut down the government. That has led some Republicans to call for dropping such state conventions in favor of primaries that might produce more mainstream candidates.

But Tea Party backers say they represent the solution to much of what ails Washington, and the name of their movement highlights their belief that they represent a return to American tradition.

From their perspective, Obama’s decision to sign health care legislation without winning a single Republican vote — which was only possible at a time when Democrats had a filibuster-proof Senate majority and controlled the House — was one of the biggest overreaches in recent American political history, setting the stage for the gridlock that followed when Republicans picked up seats in the 2010 midterms elections.

Once the GOP took control of the House, the underlying separation of powers all but assured little legislation would pass.

Any proposed reforms are bound to create concerns that America’s vaunted system shouldn’t be tampered with. There is nothing, some believe, that can’t be fixed in the next election.

But others worry that our time is running short, that our system has grown distorted in unsustainable ways. What if the current gridlock is not another phase, but signals a permanent drift toward inaction driven by increasing partisanship in both parties? A recent analysis of voting patterns by National Journal found that the political middle in the US House has practically disappeared in the last 30 years.

In 1982, 344 out of 435 House members were viewed as being in the ideological middle, drawing about equally from both parties. In 2012, only 13 House members were classified as being in the middle. Yet about half of Americans surveyed recently by NBC News considered themselves to be centrists.

So, what sort of changes are needed — in the way Congress is constructed, how its members are elected and how it does business — to make Washington more representative and revitalize the political center?

The solutions being discussed in various quarters all aim to resurrect the best intentions of the democratic system, giving more voice to the average citizen while ensuring that those at the extremes who can unravel a nation’s political fabric don’t have outsized influence.

Some or all of these measures, if adopted at the federal level, could loosen the partisan cement that seems to keep key players at the edges. If that doesn’t work, some observers say the biggest possible solution may be required: amending the Constitution, a step that is, by design, extraordinarily hard.

Consider that it took well over a century to get from our original framework to one in which senators were directly elected by the people and where women could vote. It took a century and the Civil War to win passage of the amendments that would free millions of Americans from slavery and enshrine, if not quickly make real, the mandate of equal rights under the law for all.

Even so, if amending the Constitution sounds drastic, consider this: much of the current gridlock can be traced to a series of measures implemented in recent years with little or no public referendum.

These include the influx, abetted by court decisions, of unlimited, secret political donations, known as “dark money”; redistricting plans that all but ensure the election of the most partisan politicians; and the increased use of legislative tools that a minority can use to stymie the majority, such as the filibuster. While the Democrat-controlled Senate recently voted to get rid of filibusters on most nominations, it still takes only 41 senators out of 100 to block legislation.

Indeed, the American form of democracy has been undermined in ways that the founders could never have envisioned. No other democracy gets so bogged down in a debate over whether to raise the “debt ceiling”; it is a crisis that is made in America and puzzles the rest of the world.

One of the most disturbing trends in US politics has been the shrinking voter turnout. Only 57 percent of Americans voted in the 2012 presidential election, and only 41 percent of eligible voters turned out for the 2010 mid-terms. The rate can be in the low single digits in some congressional primaries where the most partisan candidates emerge. Other democracies have found ways to boost turnout, including compulsory voting. Australia, for example, imposes a fine equal to about $19 for failure to vote and, as a result, has 92 percent turnout.

Now the question is: can the broken pieces of American democracy be glued back together?

It is a question that has, in fact, been asked many times before, with results worth studying anew. Just 24 years after American independence was declared, the fissures were so great that two Founding Fathers faced each other in the election of 1800.

After Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams, the sage of Monticello declared that his victory ushered in a second American revolution. He could not have imagined how many decades would pass before revolutionary inklings yielded further necessary changes.

One reason for today’s stalemate, of course, is that the separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches was designed to make it difficult to push through major changes. But scholars say the Constitution, itself the result of the “Great Compromise” among its authors, was not intended to stifle action. Instead, it was designed to facilitate or force consensus — a notion that now seems forgotten, even quaint.

“We don’t as a polity understand that we have put ourselves willfully in a position in which we must negotiate,” said Jane Mansbridge, a Harvard professor and former president of the American Political Science Association. She was among those who attended the California conference, which was sponsored by the Hewlett Foundation. “The separation of powers system means it is designed to require negotiation.”

There is precedent for dramatic change in the nation’s democratic framework, even if the pace has traditionally been glacial. And such changes to the Constitution were once expected to be applied regularly. Jefferson expected revision by every generation, writing of his vision that “every constitution . . . and every law naturally expires at the end of 19 years.” Yet the Constitution has only been amended 27 times (including the 10 measures in the Bill of Rights) since it was adopted in 1787 and went into effect in 1789.

“We totally let the Founders down,” said University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato, who proposed a series of amendments in his book, “A More Perfect Constitution.” “We ended up worshiping what they did when in fact all they tried to do is create a system for their time. They would have been the last to say the Constitution was handed down on the mount to Moses, but that is the way a lot of people treat it.”

Prior generations once avidly experimented with changes to their democratic institutions. One of the most vivid examples is in Nebraska.

It was 1934 when US Senator George W. Norris, a Republican supporter of the Democrat-authored New Deal, campaigned across Nebraska for a series of political reforms. He successfully argued that there was no need for a bicameral legislature or even for partisan labels. The result can be seen today in the state capital of Lincoln.

The legislature has only one chamber, composed of senators, making passage of legislation less time-consuming. Instead of each party holding a legislative primary that appeals to a partisan base, the state’s system enables candidates for the state Senate to run without being identified by affiliation, with the two top finishers facing each other in a general election.

Once elected, the state’s senators are still not identified by party. Senators of all political stripes receive committee chairmanships. No senator can serve more than two consecutive four-year terms.

“I’ve been on the inside now for seven years, and I keep looking for partisans,” said state Senator Bill Avery, a Democrat and former political science professor. “I see it on some issues, but mostly the same 25 votes don’t come from the same 25 people. You have to look for a new coalition of votes on every issue.”

To be sure, Nebraska has its problems. Nebraska’s redistricting formula has been dominated by Republicans, eschewing the reforms adopted by Iowa, which has one of the most nonpartisan systems of setting the boundaries of congressional districts.

But that is the point: from state to state, some laboratories of democracy are experimenting with ways to keep their political machinery functioning more smoothly than it does on the federal level, providing lessons and possible solutions.

Washington, meanwhile, is mostly stuck in an aging system, increasingly burdened by the extremes of partisan positioning and free-spending political committees.

The two-party system has been turned on its head. Once envisioned as a way to limit the influence of smaller factions, the two parties now can be dramatically influenced by such groups, as demonstrated by the way Tea Party supporters have influenced the direction of the GOP.

As a result, the political scientists who attended the conference in Menlo Park, Calif., suggested strengthening the parties and allowing them to collect much more money, leveling the playing field with independent interest groups that can use unrestricted funds to influence elections.

As the conference attendees issued their recommendation, Washington gridlock reached a nadir. Having already shut down the government, Congress came within hours of defaulting on the nation’s debt. Only a last-minute bipartisan deal that rejected Tea Party demands kept the country from going over the brink. The crisis was postponed but hardly solved.

“We almost defaulted. That’s about as close as you get to the equivalent of a constitutional crisis as we have ever had,” said Nathaniel Persily, a political science professor at Stanford who helped organize the conference of political scientists. “If we looked at other countries coming this close to political breakdown we would say that is not a functioning system.”

Something has to change in order to end the gridlock, Persily said. On this point, if no other, there is something like consensus: “No one is happy with the current system.”

Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@globe.com.