Can this government be fixed? Three steps that might help

WASHINGTON – The third threatened government shutdown this year was narrowly averted. Congress' deficit “supercommittee” is apparently on a track to nowhere. And there has been contentious debate but little action on the proposals to help the jobless.

Can this government be fixed?

Americans are increasingly frustrated by the disconnect between what they say they want in their government, and what they see happening in Washington. A majority want compromise; they see polarization. They want economic and other problems addressed; they see gridlock and a series of perils-of-Pauline cliffhangers. By a record 4-1 ratio in a new Gallup Poll, they express dissatisfaction with the way the country is being governed.

“We are in this period of great anxiety because of economic uncertainty … and that has people worried about their future,” says Dan Glickman, a former Democratic congressman and Cabinet secretary affiliated with the Bipartisan Policy Center. “What they need is confidence building, and what I don't think they sense from our government system is confidence building. Everything they see is division.”

The result, he says, has “got people either nervous as hell or disengaged.”

While President Obama and congressional leaders wrestle over immediate crises — a stopgap deal approved by the Senate late Monday has put off the latest budget showdown until Nov. 18 — a growing number of think tanks and advocacy groups with such names as No Labels, Americans Elect, Third Way and are trying to address underlying factors that fuel Washington's partisan stalemate.

They note three “wave” elections in a row shifted political power but failed to fundamentally change the way Washington works, or doesn't work. They have some ideas for steps that could help.

Perhaps the most significant would change the way congressional lines are drawn, making more districts competitive and increasing the odds that centrist candidates could prevail. Revising the rules for Senate filibusters could prevent a few senators from routinely blocking action supported by a majority. And changing the congressional calendar could encourage legislators to build personal relationships with colleagues from the other party.

“No one of them would turn the world upside down,” William Galston, a former White House adviser now at the Brookings Institution, says of a laundry list of ideas collected in a joint study by Brookings and the Hoover Institution. “But if you did a few of them, you would probably see some changes in a relatively short period of time.”

Below, three measures some experts say could make a government that often seems dysfunctional work better.

Drawing the lines

The center aisle that divides Republicans and Democrats in Congress has become a chasm.

There was a time when the Democratic caucus included Southern conservatives and the Republican caucus included New England moderates, making it easier to forge bipartisan coalitions.

No more.

These days, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, is more liberal than the most moderate Republican, Susan Collins of Maine. A National Journal study concluded political polarization is the highest in the three decades it has analyzed congressional voting patterns. The Brookings-Hoover study concluded it was the worst since the 1890s.

One reason: Many congressional districts are drawn to be overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic, in part to protect incumbents. That means one party's nominee is virtually assured of winning the general election, so the only contests that matter are the primaries — and primaries tend to be dominated by the most conservative Republican voters and the most liberal Democratic ones.

Even with the turmoil of redistricting, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates only 53 of the nation's 435 congressional districts as competitive in 2012, plus 61 more that might become competitive. In other words, control of three-fourths of the House isn't considered in question.

“As the threat to elected officials comes more from primary challenges than general-election contests, the lack of cooperation seems to have become more evident and more consequential,” says GOP pollster Whit Ayres, co-founder of a group called Resurgent Republic. “The people who are willing to work across the aisle and the people who are within shouting distance of the center of the political spectrum have gotten fewer and fewer.”

In the wake of the 2010 Census, states are redrawing congressional lines to reflect population changes. A few have launched efforts to devise districts driven more by geography than politics — likely resulting in more competitive contests and, more centrist lawmakers.

California voters last year overwhelmingly approved a landmark initiative that turned redistricting over to a citizens' commission, charged with defining districts that share a “community of interests.” Florida voters passed ballot amendments that required districts reflect existing governmental and geographical boundaries.

A few other states — including Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey and Washington — have tried various approaches to reduce partisan manipulation of redistricting, with varying degrees of success.

They are, however, the exceptions. “The majority of states, from the perspective of most good-government reformers, are continuing to move in the wrong direction,” says David Wasserman, who tracks congressional redistricting for the Cook Report.

Texas Republicans have drawn a map that chops Travis County among five congressional districts to divide Austin's Democratic voters and weaken an incumbent Democrat. Maryland Democrats are considering a plan that would split the state's western congressional district three ways to weaken an incumbent Republican.

Another experiment being tried in California: open primaries, in which the top two finishers run against one another in the general election, regardless of party affiliation. That could give voters the option of more centrist contenders even in solidly Republican or Democratic districts. Washington state adopted a similar system in 2008.

“Watch over time,” says Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, “and I think California may lead the way, as it has on some other issues.” On Monday, former Phoenix mayor Paul Johnson filed papers for a ballot initiative in 2012 that would establish open primaries in Arizona.

Changing the rules

When Tom Udall was elected to the Senate from New Mexico in 2008, he was dismayed at the difficulty of getting things moving even when most senators supported a measure.

“People want us to work with each other; they want us to put aside our differences and find common ground,” he says. “But now we have an entrenched group that is very ideological, and they are putting sand in the gears.”

Republicans routinely use filibusters to block action in the Democrat-controlled Senate, threatening endless debate that can only be cut off by commanding 60 votes. It is a tactic Democrats used, albeit not as often, when Republicans were in control.

What once was a rarely used maneuever has become routine. The Senate historian's office reports that cloture motions — efforts to shut off debate — rarely were filed more than a few times a year in the 19th century. That number began to expand dramatically in the 1970s and then exploded in the late 1980s.

In the last session of Congress, there were 91 cloture votes on everything from the health care overhaul to the START nuclear treaty to a string of presidential appointments.

At the beginning of this year, Udall and several other Democratic senators offered a plan, which they said could be enacte
d by majority vote, aimed at reducing the number of filibusters. The proposal would have limited filibusters to final action on a bill, not to procedural motions, and would have required senators to remain on the floor during a debate designed to block a bill.

“It's like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” the 1939 Frank Capra classic in which Jimmy Stewart wages a filibuster on the Senate floor, Udall says. “The core of our proposal would be to force senators to stand up and talk.”

The plan won the support of 44 and 46 senators on key votes. Udall hopes to pursue the changes down the road.

“The system is broken and dysfunctional,” he says, “and everyone knows that.”

Meeting the other side

Former vice president Dick Cheney disputes those who say that Congress in some bygone day was a better, more cooperative place.

It has become ” the conventional wisdom that 30 or 40 years ago times were much pleasanter in Washington; people got along; Republicans liked Democrats and so forth,” he told USA TODAY in an interview about his memoir, In My Time. “Well, 40 years ago, when I came to town, in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated; Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated; we had gone through the Tet offensive in Vietnam; we had elements of the 82nd Airborne guarding the Capitol building with machine guns. It was not a warm and fuzzy time.”

The one-time congressman from Wyoming said the system “was designed for conflict.”

Even so, others see changes in Washington's culture that have prevented the sort of personal relationships that can help foster a deal, or at least reduce the demonization of the other side.

“Much of the blame for the disconnect between the parties goes to the congressional calendar, where you have members scurrying home (to districts) on Wednesday nights or certainly by Thursday nights,” says Matt Bennett of Third Way. “They're not around on the weekends, and the demands of fundraising means they are separated from each other the minute the votes are over. They don't interact at all.”

The centrist think tank sent an open letter to congressional leaders in January urging them to end the practice of having all the Republicans sit to one side of the House chamber and all the Democrats on the other during the State of the Union Address. Several lawmakers took the suggestion and scrambled the seating, at least for that night.

Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, co-author of a book that labels Congress The Broken Branch, suggests a schedule that would have lawmakers meet for three weeks, then take one week off to return to their districts. He'd build apartment buildings on the sites of two old hotels on Capitol Hill, rent them to members of Congress and provide child-care facilities to encourage them to move families.

Ornstein also endorses an Australian law that requires citizens to vote or face a fine, guaranteeing turnout by more than activists. And the odds of that particular idea being implemented?

“Slim to none,” he acknowledges, “and slim just left the building.”

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