Finding a Path Back to Democratic Governance

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Eliminating the primary and caucus rules would create a more productive and responsive democracy.

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The legislative process in the United States is broken. For well over a decade, Congress has enacted a paltry number of what might be considered major pieces of legislation on a bipartisan basis. The budget process has been broken for years. How long can this dysfunctional state of affairs continue? Over the long term, no democratic system of government is sustainable without a viable legislative process.

The root of the current U.S. governance crisis is extreme political polarization, but it is not clear that we can reduce the degree of polarization in the electorate. We must instead find ways of creating a system for governing a nation with a polarized electorate.

We can accomplish that critical but daunting task by taking two steps. First, we should eliminate the system of primary elections for office that we adopted in the 1970s and return to the system we used before we implemented the misplaced “reforms” of the 1970s. That earlier system relied more heavily on party leaders to decide which candidates would best represent the party in general elections, making it harder for ideological extremists to hijack the selection process.

Second, we should reduce the power of caucuses in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate by prohibiting either party from implementing a version of the “Hastert rule”—a norm that originated in the mid-1990s under then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert. The informal rule forbids the Speaker to place any item on the agenda unless it is supported by a majority of the members of the controlling party. Although only the House applies the Hastert rule, the Senate follows its own rules that concentrate decision-making in the leadership of the majority party.

At present, when a public issue comes to the attention of the legislature, members of the House and Senate begin to address that issue from polar extremes. They are unable to agree on a compromise because of their fear of being “primaried.” Any Democrat who agrees to consider moving to the right to reach a compromise solution is subject to a credible threat to lose at the primary stage of the next election to a more ideologically extreme candidate. Any Republican who agrees to consider moving to the left to reach a compromise solution is equally subject to a credible threat to lose at the primary stage of the next election.

Polling data both explain this phenomenon and identify a path forward to escape the dilemma. Polls show that a majority of Democrats identify with the left wing of the party and a majority of Republicans identify with the right wing of the party. That explains why the threat of being “primaried” is such a powerful deterrent to compromise.

Polls also show, however, that a substantial minority of each party does not agree with the majority. Thus, for instance, in one recent poll, 42 percent of voters nationwide said the Republican Party had become too conservative, while 47 percent said the Democratic Party had become too liberal. When we add the large and growing portion of the electorate that identifies as independent—42 percent in 2017—it is obvious that a moderate nominee of either party would have a good chance of winning the general election in many states and congressional districts.

Moreover, polls show that a majority of the electorate wants elected representatives to engage in bipartisan negotiations to reach compromise solutions to problems. That suggests that, even in states and districts that are bright blue or bright red, a liberal or conservative candidate who pledges to engage in bipartisan compromise is likely to fare well in a general election.

It is the primary process that keeps moderates of both parties from being elected. Until the 1970s, political parties in the United States selected candidates through a process in which party leaders made decisions based on a combination of the extent to which a potential candidate shares the core values of the party and the probability that the potential candidate would win in the general election. Replacing the primary with party leaders choosing candidates—the method the United States used until the 1970s, and that most other democracies have retained—would yield both more moderate candidates and more candidates who are either liberal or conservative but who are also open to engaging in bipartisan compromise. Even incumbents will become more amenable to compromise when they no longer face the threat of being “primaried” if they reach common ground with their opponents.

The second step on the road back to democratic governance is to outlaw caucus rules and practices like the Hastert rule that reduce deliberation, a step senators from both parties have already suggested. This second step would keep the ideologically pure and uncompromising base of each party from being able to block floor votes on the fruits of the efforts of the more moderate and more flexible majority created by step one.

Increased polarization is likely here to stay, but it need not doom the legislative process in the United States. Reforming the way voters pick candidates and eliminating procedural rules that empower the most ideologically extreme legislators would help Congress learn to work—and compromise—again.

Richard J. Pierce, Jr.

Richard J. Pierce, Jr. is the Lyle T. Alverson Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School.