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A More Perfect Constitution: 23 Proposals to Revitalize our Constitution and Make America a Fairer Country Excerpt from A More Perfect Constitution: 23 Proposals to Revitalize our Constitution and Make America a Fairer Country

by Dr. Larry J. Sabato

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Chapter One
Creating a Capital Congress

It's not hard to discern how most Americans look at Congress. Whether in public opinion polls or person-in-the-street interviews, citizens regard the national legislators the way they would disliked relatives: They know they have to live with them, but they hope to have as little contact as possible. Can Congress blame us for feeling this way? Year after year, the Congress seems hopelessly deadlocked on issues of immediate concern to the country. Global warming? It needs more evidence, maybe deep water in the streets of coastal cities. How about reform of our complicated, special interest-driven tax system that remains a national disgrace -- arguably the worst in the industrialized world? This is never a priority. Health care for the millions of uninsured Americans? It always appears to be on the agenda for the next decade or the one after that. A balanced budget so that the nation could begin whittling down trillions of dollars of debt before it completely consumes our ability to meet the growing needs of an expanding population? But that would cost special interests their pet programs, corporate subsidies, and tax breaks -- and they fund the congressional members' campaigns. It would also mean disappointing the legions of well-paid lobbyists who have developed close relationships with long-serving members of Congress. The lobbyists deliver lots of campaign cash, and whatever the ethics laws of the moment, they find wars to richly reward their legislative friends.

Instead of seeing positive action, Americans witness headline after headline of congressional corruption. Some is old-style sleaze-bribery, influence-peddling, and personal scandals reflecting ancient vices -- that reeks of a sense of entitlement. Other congressional fraud reflects modern forms of dishonesty. The congressmen, in cahoots with their allies in the state legislatures, have cooked the redistricting books, using sophisticated computer programs to draw the district boundaries in such a way that they can almost never lose reelection. The campaign finance laws are deliberately tilted heavily in the incumbents' direction, too.

It's wrong and cynical to dismiss all of this as the inevitable consequence of the corrupting power of, well, power. What we have not focused on enough is the effect that the rules and structures of the American constitutional system have in encouraging the corruption. Some fraud is likely under any regime, and as I will explain, any legislature will probably be out of public favor most of the time. But the degree and depth of the corrupt practices can be reduced over time with sensible reforms. To the degree that Congress's unpopularity is due to unfairness and ineffectiveness, the proposals herein can make a difference.

In some ways, we can pity the poor Congress. It is not popular now, and it has never been popular save for brief periods during national crises. Right from the very beginning, Americans instinctively distrusted the legislative branch and made fun of it. One of the earliest ditties summed up the people's view well.

These hardy knaves and stupid fools,
Some apish and pragmatic mules,
Some servile acquiescing tools,
These, these compose the Congress!

When Jove resolved to send a curse,
And all the woes of life rehearse,
Not plague, not famine, but much worse --
He cursed us with a Congress.

These verses were directed against the Continental Congress of 1776! But nothing much has changed, save the colloquialisms, and modern Americans could easily be at home reciting similar lines.

The reasons for the public's semipermanent disaffection with Congress are all too clear. No committee of 535 can act with dispatch or appear especially organized; even with strong legislative leadership, Congress is composed of independently elected members, each of whom has a sizable ego. The division of the legislature into two separate bodies, House and Senate, creates more disunity and contributes to the chaotic image Congress frequently projects. The legislative branch is also elected from districts and states, not the nation as a whole, so its concerns often seem parochial, with the national interest lost in the welter of special interests clamoring to be heard. Moreover, with so many members of Congress, at least a couple dozen, at any given time, are bound to be involved in legal or ethical scrapes. Bad news being news, these delinquent legislators soak up much of the media coverage devoted to Congress, giving the public a distorted view of the branch's composition. And let's not forget that the best metaphor for any legislature is the sausage factory. People may like to eat the savory product, but only if they haven't watched it being made. Reporters don't cover sausage factories, but they follow every jot and tittle of the legislative process -- and it's rarely a pretty sight. Add all these factors together, and it is easy to understand why Americans hate the Congress. The only brief exceptions are at times of national crisis, such as Watergate or 9/11, when the instinct to "rally 'round the flag" includes support for virtually all U.S. governing institutions, or moments of special optimism, such as the opening days of a new presidency or victory in war.

While acknowledging the justification for much of the criticism, we also ought to note that Congress works much as the founders intended. The legislative branch was and is designed to be the "inefficient" element of the federal government, slowing the "efficient" branch, the presidency. The chief executive by nature desires everything to be done immediately, and his way. The Congress slows down the president's policies, forcing them through the prism of the nation's diversity of opinions, groups, and interests. After all, Congress comes much closer than the president or the judiciary to mirroring the country's richness of talent -- by gender, race, religion, background, occupation, and ideology. While much remains to be done, great progress has been made in diversifying Congress over the past half century. For example, just a handful of women and minorities served in both houses in the 1960s (an average of fifteen per Congress through that decade), but the Congress elected in 2006 had eighty-seven women (sixteen senators, seventy-one House members), forty-one African Americans (one senator, forty House members), six Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (two senators, four House members), and one House member each for American Indians and Asian Indians. The cacophony of congressional voices is not harmonious and will never be smoothly orchestrated by anyone, yet how could it be otherwise in a nation that is so exceptionally decentralized and so decidedly diverse?

No one should ever tamper with these aspects of legislative representation, except to strengthen them. Toward this end, I propose to build upon the founders' congressional model in several ways. First, we need a larger, more representative U.S. Senate that better fits the massively increased population of twenty-first-century America, with a new category of senator whose job is to advocate for the national interest first, rather than the needs of individual states. Second, the House needs reforming, because extreme partisan redistricting has virtually drained the lifeblood of vigorous competition in elections. It is time for a new era of real choice in House campaigns, so that the House can resume its position as the federal body closest to the current thinking of the American people. Further, the founders' idea of expanding the House along with population growth should be renewed, so that each member of Congress can represent a smaller constituency and have personal ties to more citizens. Finally, the election schedules and term lengths for both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate need to be realigned, so that there is a better chance the diversity of Congress can be harnessed for constructive cooperation with the executive -- in the interests of sound public policy to serve the people. Taken as a whole, this reform agenda can reinvigorate not just the Congress but American government and politics overall.

Copyright 2007 Larry J. Sabato