By Adam Smith / Tampa Bay Times
Let’s try to talk about Washington dysfunction without focusing on Donald Trump.
Trump, after all, would not be president but for the vast public disgust with the status quo that preceded his candidacy and likely will succeed it.
Complaints about Congress are nothing new, though the scope of the problems keeps growing.
“A level of polarization and distrust exists in Washington that has not been seen in more than a century,” Jason Altmire, a former Pennsylvania congressman who lives in Ponte Vedra Beach, writes in his excellent new book, Dead Center, How Political Polarization Divided America, and What We Can Do About It.
“A Congress paralyzed by gridlock. A nation where partisan extremists on both sides dominate the electoral process. A campaign system where money talks and centrist voices are silenced. A political structure that is broken and threatens the pre-eminence of our nation. An American people stuck in the middle,” the Democrat summarizes.
Altmire, 49, was among the disappearing species of moderates in Washington, representing a Republican-leaning Pittsburgh area until his district was redrawn and he lost a Democratic primary in 2012.
Former U.S. Reps. David Jolly, a Republican from Pinellas, and Patrick Murphy, a Democrat from Palm Beach County, were also rare centrists in Washington. The duo has been on the college circuit talking about the structural problems that lead to gridlock.
“Gerrymandering is probably the single biggest thing I would change,” Murphy, 34, told a USF audience recently, noting that 90 percent of the 435 U.S. House seats are safe, either Democratic or Republican.
Representation of those districts is decided in primaries, which typically draw about 15 percent turnout dominated by the most politically active voters on the far right or left.
“You get 15 percent of the country determining 90 percent of your members of Congress,” lamented Murphy. “You’re a member of Congress who might be a lot more bipartisan than your constituents think, but you get there and you’ve got to get re-elected by that 15 percent, that’s what matters. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle end up pandering to the two extremes.”
Jolly offered a note of optimism. Just as Florida voters in 2010 bucked the wishes of Tallahassee politicians to force the creation of more competitive and sensible congressional and legislative districts, he said voters can use ballot referendums to push through other significant reforms that self-serving political leaders balk at.
One often-mentioned proposal is for Florida to adopt an “open primary” system under which voters could vote in any primary they like, regardless of party registration.
Today voters registered as neither Democrat nor Republican account for 27 percent of the state’s electorate — up from 17 percent in 2000 — but are effectively shut out of voting in many races decided in taxpayer-funded primaries. Allowing them to participate would likely force candidates to reach a broader group of voters, rather than the activists who often dominate primaries.
“It makes both parties stronger and they recruit candidates who are stronger, rewarding candidates who can hold their own party but finally reach across the aisle and bring in independents and no-party affiliation voters,” Jolly said at USF.
“Just look at the Tampa Bay area. Kathy Castor is in a safe, Democratic seat in a closed primary. Charlie Crist is the same. Gus Bilirakis on the Republican side is in a safe seat with a closed primary,” he continued. “That will dictate their behavior in Congress. And if you’re the 40 percent minority party in their district don’t you deserve a voice as well? In the current system, you don’t have it.”
The Constitution Revision Commission, which every 20 years considers ways to revise Florida’s Constitution, is considering a watered-down “open primary” proposal to put on the 2018 ballot. It would allow all voters to participate in primary elections when only Democrats or Republicans are on the ballot. That’s supposed to be how it works now, but a loophole closes off the primary when a so-called “write-in” candidate files.
Altmire is among those who worship at the altar of centrism. Not all political scientists accept his view that voters registered without party affiliation tend to be centrists. There is considerable evidence that independents largely vote along partisan lines.
Still, hard-core partisans prefer gridlock to compromise. Altmire, Jolly and Murphy clearly are moderates who want to get things done, a type near extinction in Congress.
“To reduce polarization in Washington and state capitals, the two most important reforms are to increase voter turnout and to make it more difficult for ideologues to dominate the electoral system,” writes Altmire, whose book offers thoughtful, and occasionally radical, counterintuitive solutions.
- Restore bipartisan House-Senate conference committees as important parts of the legislative process.
- Becoming House speaker should require winning support from at least 60 percent of members. “Candidates for speaker would have to assemble their coalition from the center out, rather than from the extreme in.”
- Congress should adopt the Florida Legislature’s policy of barring fundraising while in session to encourage members to “spend their time doing their jobs rather than dialing for dollars and attending political fundraisers.”
- Promoting and requiring civics education should be a much higher priority.
- Allow people to give unlimited money to political parties so parties are not diminished so much by outside groups that can take unlimited donations and are more likely to push single issues or extreme ideologies.
- Make voting as easy as possible, perhaps by making election day a federal holiday or by making voting mandatory.
Talk radio personalities sneer at “low information voters” who don’t follow politics closely or make no effort to vote. Not Altmire. The more people participate, the better represented the country is, and the less likely legislators are to pander to the rabid partisans on the left and right.
“The problem is that today only those with the loudest voices are heard. The rules are skewed to advantage the extremes and freeze out those in the middle who would bring a much-needed sense of moderation,” he writes.
Even Trump offers some hope for fixing what ails Washington.
He hasn’t yet lived up to the promise of those who saw him as a nonideological dealmaker, but even some of Trump’s biggest critics suggest his presidency is creating the kind of crisis that ultimately brings people together.
“The election of Donald Trump could be one of the best things that ever happened to American democracy,” the authors of One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported, wrote in the Washington Post last month.
“We say this even though we believe that Trump poses a genuine danger to our republican institutions and has done enormous damage to our country,” E. J. Dionne Jr., Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann wrote. “But precisely because the Trump threat is so profound, he has jolted much of the country to face problems that have been slowly eroding our democracy. And he has aroused a popular mobilization that may far outlast him.”
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