Column: How to break the parties’ grip on government
“I always voted at my party’s call and never thought of thinking for myself at all.” — Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore”
“I hope here to show a path out of the partisan party tribalism that has overwhelmed our ability to collectively solve our nation’s problems …” writes former Congressman Mickey Edwards in his recent book, “The Parties Vs. the People.”
Sixteen years a congressman, and a faculty member at Harvard and Princeton universities subsequently, Edwards is also now an active member of No Labels, an organization promoting an end to party control of primaries, redistricting and congressional organization. They point out that this control of our political processes by political parties is not a legacy from the founders but dates to the late 1890s and early 1900s.
Our most important founders and first four presidents, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, all warned of the great dangers posed by political parties. Their fear was that parties would be dominated by ideological extremists and/or special interests and would lead to governmental corruption and paralysis.
Well, that is exactly where we are today. As Edwards says, closed partisan primaries are “too easily hijacked by ideological activists or party hacks beholden to special interests. And because these primaries are the gauntlet that candidates have to run, they lead directly to the culture of hyperpartisanship that now threatens our capacity for effective self government.”
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Today we are allowed to elect a government only from the narrow choices permitted by the two political parties and from districts drawn to serve the interests of whichever party was last in power. I guess, for example, that Bernie Sanders would have preferred to run as an independent, but decided that the present rules are such that it would be too difficult as an independent just to get on the ballot, leaving him and his supporters insufficient time to get their message across. (But he was still hampered at every turn by the Democratic Party organization headed up by pro-Hillary Debbie Wasserman Schultz.)
Edwards and No Labels propose taking away the right of the parties to control access to the ballot. They point out that distaste for the parties has reduced participation in party primaries drastically. The result is that at least half, if not more, of the electorate today consider themselves independent, but due to the party control of the ballot, we get to vote in the general election only for one of the two chosen by these now-unrepresentative parties.
They propose creating one open primary, with its greater number of candidates, along with measures making it much easier to vote. These latter include making primary and general election days national holidays, adopting automatic voter registration, mail-in ballots for primaries as well as the general election, etc.
Now I am going to ask you to read through the rest of their proposed reforms, although I know that these civics topics can become tiresome and dull. But our neglect of them, of which I also have been guilty too much of the time, can have dire consequences. These begin with campaign finance reform, and not just overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited political donations by the 1 percent.
They also propose making elections less expensive by requiring broadcasters using public airwaves to provide free time to all candidates with a certain threshold of support. These candidates should also all get free franking (postage) privileges, as do only incumbents at present.
Then they propose establishing a nonpartisan congressional leadership. The Constitution does not establish rules for the House or Senate. They are free to draw up their own rules and can elect a nonpartisan, even an outsider, as Speaker of the House, as is done in Great Britain and Canada. Ending party control of committees is another proposal, especially for the House Rules Committee that decides which bills may be brought to the floor for a vote and what amendments may be considered.
For the Senate, they proposed sharply curtailing the ability of individual senators or groups of them to put a “hold” on consideration of any proposed presidential appointment. Another of their ideas is that the filibuster — originally thought of as something to be used sparingly — once again be made difficult. Today it is far too easy to use the filibuster to prevent any important action by the majority.
From 1920 to 1970 the filibuster was used once a year on average. Now there are about 70 per year. It was only as recently as 1975 that the Senate changed its rules to eliminate the requirement that the senator doing the filibustering must actually occupy the floor. Our reformers suggest we go back to the old rules, requiring the filibustering senator to hold the floor.
They also propose that in both the House and Senate, the members should be seated interspersed instead of Democrats on the left and Republicans on the right. And they propose that both representatives and senators be required to stay in Washington a greater proportion of the time so that they get to know each other better.
Of course this would be easier if they didn’t have to run around trying the raise so much money.
Mary Boland’s column appears on the second Thursday of each month. She is a retired teacher and journalist, a proud grandmother and a longtime resident of Carbondale.
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