Note: This was more or less written prior to the election — a time when I thought the campaign would end with Democrats having some power to create change. That ain't gonna happen for a couple of years. Still, for the sake of conversation....
Something’s gotta change.
That much is clear after an election that was one of the most divisive ever — one that left many of us feeling, as Alec Baldwin said on SNL, “gross.” Our governance and our politics have failed us. It is within our power to fix it.
These fixes aren’t marginal. So let’s admit up front that radical changes could have radical, unexpected consequences. But let’s also admit that a system that put Donald Trump in charge of nukes is a system that deserves radical reconsidering, at the very least.
Seven ideas to fix it all:
• Scrap the presidential system, replace it with a parliament. I suspect a lot of frustration in the land right now is that nobody really has the power to get things done. Dems get frustrated because President Obama was limited in carrying out his agenda by a Republican Congress; Republicans are frustrated that Congress was limited in carrying out its agenda by a Democratic President. Everybody has a little power, but not enough to actually make proactive changes. That’s frustrating for everybody.
You’ll notice, too, not many thriving democracies have duplicated the American system over the years, even though we’re the oldest democracy. So. Let’s build a parliament. Two houses: Congress and the Senate. The Congress would be voted in like it is now — from districts in each state. The majority party (or coalition) in Congress would then appoint the executive from within its own ranks. One big benefit? It greatly reduces the likelihood that somebody like Donald Trump, with zero record of public service, could come so close to running the show. But the structure would put Congress and the executive — we could still call him or her “president” in order to — in the hands of the same party. That party would then be held accountable by voters for how it implemented its agenda.
(One other item that’s important to note here. I was going to suggest a requirement for a pause on legislative branch investigations while the executive is in office. But only some investigations — anything involving items that transpired before the executive took office — and the pause would only last until the executive left office. We don’t need Hillary haunted by a thousand more Benghazi investigations, for example. Investigations would be reserved for actions taken by the executive and his/her representatives after they’d taken office. That leaves current accountability in place while reducing a lot of petty harassment that goes on with these things. I’m not sure this requirement is needed, though, in a parliamentary setup: One party is unlikely to harass its own executive with unnecessary investigations.)
On a related note:
• Scrap the Electoral College. Or make the electoral vote apportionment in each state equal to the popular vote: The college is a relic of pre-Civil War times when the “nation” was more like a confederation — more like the European Union, say, than France. Twice in 16 years, now, the popular vote has been overridden by the Electoral College. I’m not sure the system can withstand it happening again anytime soon.
• But what about checks and balances? You’re right: We don’t want crude majoritarianism to reign. How to put the brakes on a runaway majority? And how to incorporate a form of strong-states federalism that our conservative brethren will no doubt clamor for?
That’s why we have the Senate. But let’s go back to populating the Senate the old-fashioned way: Appointed by their respective state governments to represent state interests. But the Senate won’t be a co-equal of the House of Representatives, as it is now. What we’re aiming for is a House of Commons-House of Lords situation, where the House of Commons does the real work of passing bills and the House of Lords has limited powers to slow or halt legislation it doesn’t like. Let’s work out the details later — my initial, throw-it-out there proposal is that the Senate would require votes representing two-thirds of the states in order to block House legislation.
Federalists: If you want an additional role in this process, let’s talk about giving the states a role in directly proposing or scotching legislation. Again, they’d have to meet a high bar — with agreement from the majority of legislatures in two-thirds of states. We can tinker with this; let’s keep talking.
And, oh yeah: We’d still have a Bill of Rights in our new Constitution.
• Won’t gerrymandering ensure a permanent majority for one party? Not if our new Constitution requires House districts to be drawn the way they do in California now, with an independent commission drawing boundaries according to populations and community interests instead of with the intent of protecting “safe” seats for either party. The result of that reform is that more California seats are competitive than was the case under the old system.
Not only is this good in small-d democratic terms, it also has a side benefit in reducing polarization: A Republican who has no fear of running against a legitimate Democratic opponent is a Republican with incentives to run as far right as possible, in order to stave off primary opposition. Competitive races would require candidates who operate closer to the center.
• As long as we’re at it, let’s require that House candidates campaign entirely using public funds. There are two big problems with today’s money-driven politics. First, it gets our representatives in the mindset that they’re representing the money and not the constituents. Second, our representatives spend godawful amounts of time raising money for their next campaign. So. Get them out of the business.
Note to conservatives who weep about the death of the First Amendment here: Spend all the money you want advocating for the candidate you desire. But the candidate won’t be able to receive your donations to spend at their own discretion, nor would they be allowed to coordinate with you or political action committees. This leaves money more influential in the process than I’d like, but it’s probably impossible to get money out of politics entirely. So. Let’s at least insulate our elected officials from it.
• One more House reform: Ranked-choice voting required in all House races. This could allow for the emergence of third parties that might more properly represent the range of American politics than just the A-to-B spectrum of Democrats and Republicans.
• Finally, term limits for Supreme Court justices. If such limits existed, I have to believe that Donald Trump’s support in this election might’ve slipped somewhat. As it was, there were too many people who weren't ready to let Hillary Clinton have possible control over the court for generation. And frankly, this isn’t a bad idea: Merrick Garland excepted, the parties have been appointing younger, less-experienced jurists to the court in order to maximize their chances of serving 30 years, maybe more.
So. Limit justices to a single, 18-year term. Rotate the seats so that one comes up for approval every two years. And let the nominations come, as they do in some states, from independent panels, with the president picking the candidate from (say) three finalists, subject to approval from the House.
Yeah, this is all kind of crazy. It’s a dramatic reimagining of our governance. But drama is too much of our political lives these days. These six steps might help reduce that drama.