As we begin the year 2014, I find myself reflecting on the political situation in the United States, and I must say that it is a bit depressing. Our political parties cannot seem to agree on much of anything, our bureaucracy is a model of inefficiency, and there does not seem to be much positive change on the horizon. Is there anything that could really fix this situation?
Well, with a new year, hope springs eternal, and though I have no expectation that any of the following suggestions will be implemented this year (or any other year), I am going to go ahead and make them anyway in the hope that it might spur some positive discussion. Love them or hate them, here are five things that I think would help to improve our federal government.
1) Force members of Congress to agree on an annual federal budget if they are to receive an annual salary.
Why? In recent years, the U.S. federal government has managed to avoid passing an annual budget in the traditional sense. (For a starter description of the complicated budget process, try this Wikipedia article.) Instead, Congress comes up with a series of continuing resolutions to allow the government to keep functioning. This creates a climate of uncertainty and makes things difficult for federal departments, yet it allows members of Congress to put off important decisions that are not seen to be politically convenient. Hitting them in their pocketbooks may be the only way to convince them to do their job in this case.
Of all the measures suggested here, this one could probably gain the most popular support, since everyone is fed up with Congress. (I have yet to come across someone who belongs to the hypothetical 10-15% of Americans that approve of the job Congress is doing, but maybe they’re just the silent minority.)
2) For states with three or more seats in the House of Representatives, require that one of the seats be voted on by the entire state.
Why? One thing that has contributed to the partisan stalemate in Congress is the fact that most Congressional voting districts are so skewed in one ideological direction that the only competitive race is either the Democratic or Republican primary election. This, in turn, leads to the election of candidates with more extreme conservative or liberal views.
Forcing states to redraw district lines in a more competitive manner has proven to be difficult, so instead I recommend requiring that one of the state’s members of the U.S. House represent the entire state rather than an individual district. I chose the number three because states with only one representative already hold a statewide election, while those with only two representatives would not have any district representation if they had two statewide races. Certainly, such a move would upset people who like locally based representatives, but I think it could be the only way to help introduce some competition into our democracy.
3) Limit the amount of money which may be spent on media advertisements by any single candidate or advocacy group.
Why? U.S. politicians spend far more money on their campaigns than politicians in countries such as the United Kingdom, Russia, and Japan; much of that funding is consumed by television, online, and print advertisements. The American court system has tended to see all of this spending as part of the right to free speech, and I understand that. However, as one politician spends millions of dollars, so their opponents are often forced to join them in order to compete. This creates a system in which only those who have a lot of money themselves or a lot of rich friends are able to run for high office.
Placing some limits on the amount of money that can be spent would help to level the playing field for those who are not as wealthy. In order to truly work in this day and age, such a requirement would have to apply to unofficial “527” groups as well as the candidates themselves. As an additional benefit, Americans would not be bombarded with as much negative advertising as they have often been subject to in recent years.
4) Require the Commission on Presidential Debates to reduce its criteria for participation in its debates.
Why? There are few political events to which the average American pays attention, but our quadrennial presidential elections do seem to get people excited. While most of the campaign is dominated by negative ads and carefully staged public appearances, the usual slate of presidential candidate debates provides one of the few opportunities in American politics to hear representatives from our major political parties engage in a back-and-forth discussion about the important issues of the day in a (supposedly) neutral environment.
However, with the notable exception of the 1992 presidential election, in which third party candidate Ross Perot was allowed to participate, these debates have been two-party affairs. For those who lament the lack of success for third parties and/or independent candidates, the refusal of the Commission on Presidential Debates to invite anyone else is seen as a major source of the problem. Officially, the commission is not anti-third parties, but it chooses to invite candidates who are already have at least 15% support in national opinion polls and appear on the ballot in a sufficient number of states to win an Electoral College majority.
Of course, since most third party candidates have little money for the kind of advertising used by the Democrats and Republicans, their best chance of gaining supporters is by appearing in the debates, so it’s a bit of a “Catch-22” situation. When the United Kingdom finally introduced televised debates during its 2010 general election campaign, third party candidate Nick Clegg ended up performing well and gaining a lot of attention for his party. At the very least, having an extra person in there could liven things up a bit and get more people interested.
I think the Commission should at least consider reducing its criteria for what percentage of support a candidate must have in order to participate, though I understand that they cannot invite everyone and their mother. Perhaps requiring 5 or 10% support instead of 15% would be a good place to start.
5) Get rid of the debt ceiling.
Why? I know this probably seems crazy to some people. After all, the debt ceiling helps keep our government from borrowing even more insane amounts of money, right? Well, yes and no. The debt ceiling seems like one of those good ideas that just has not worked out the way it was intended.
Congress got into the habit of raising it every year: if the national debt were a building, it would be a skyscraper by now after all that ceiling raising. Only recently did some in the Republican Party start seriously questioning whether they should bestow their annual rubber stamp approval. Once again, this seems good in theory, but the fact is that the government is kind of like a train that needs to slow down gradually rather than coming to a screeching halt.
Without the debt ceiling being raised, there is not a sufficient amount of funds to pay for expenditures that Congress has already approved. To use the train analogy once again, the sudden halt may not cause a complete derailment, but it certainly results in a shock to the system.
Refusing to raise the debt ceiling without a long-term budget plan in place just results in political gridlock, as we have witnessed the past few years. I submit that what we need is not a somewhat arbitrary “debt ceiling”, but rather a government that is committed to fiscal sanity and serious reforms. Despite the debt ceiling, our government has continued to move further and further into debt, so the strategy really is not paying off.
Rather than actually solving our fiscal problems, it simply gives politicians one more form of leverage with which they may cause havoc. They can appear to be really concerned about our nation’s debt problem without making the hard sacrifices necessary to truly fix it. I know that many will disagree with me on this, but I think it may be time for the debt ceiling to be retired. Instead, American voters may have to actually pay attention to how the government spends its money and hold politicians accountable come election time. (I know: a shocking idea if ever there was one.)
None of these ideas are exclusive to me, nor are any of them particularly revolutionary. With time, I may come to see one or more of them as wrongheaded, because unlike most politicians, I am not afraid of changing my mind when the evidence clearly points in a different direction. But for now, these are some of the best suggestions I can come up with to start improving the way American government works. We shall see if 2014 grants any of my wishes – frankly, I doubt that it will.