Congress Can Fix Itself … With A Little Help

Part 1: A Thought Experiment on Our Broken Legislature

Imagine astronomers discover a giant asteroid on a collision course for Earth, scheduled to collide in 100 years. It is possible to build the technology to deflect the asteroid if we spend $2 trillion dollars now. What would Congress do?

We can guess at the answer. Some members would say we need to study the issue more and defer action until a blue ribbon panel reports back. Others would deny we’re on a collision course. Members from districts that would build the technology to deflect the asteroid would argue the government should spend $4 trillion… just to be safe. Others would suggest we build deep trenches to escape the impact, because doing so would be a lot cheaper. Questions would be raised whether the asteroid is a Chinese or Russian plot. And each party would blame the other for not addressing the asteroid menace and using it to score political points.

While they’re arguing, the asteroid would come closer and closer. The costs of dealing with the problem would mount. And finally, long after the point where anything meaningful could be done, Congress would fund a private sector initiative to build deflection technology that would not work properly.

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This little story is meant to illustrate how Congress functions these days. If you think this is an exaggeration, noted scholars Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann recently wrote a book entitled “It’s even worse than it looks,” which points the finger at hyper-partisanship and an enervated Congress.

Prescriptions abound for how to fix Congress. They include stopping gerrymandering; closing the revolving door; throttling the flow of money into politics; handcuffing lobbyists; ending earmarks; restoring earmarks; increasing bipartisanship; making elections matter; and so on

What these cures have in common is they overlook the perspectives of those who serve in Congress. Except in the unlikeliest of circumstances, members of Congress must come to an agreement about how to change that institution and the way our democracy works. That can only happen if we can give them a realistic way out.

Next: How Congress Broke Itself →

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Part II, to be published tomorrow, discusses how Congress broke itself. Part III, set for Wednesday, explains how to bootstrap Congress into the digital age. And Part IV, set for Thursday, sets forth concrete ideas on the way forward towards a stronger Congress.

— Written by Daniel Schuman