America’s mounting challenges are on the minds of many Americans. Crumbling infrastructure, dismal educational outcomes, a shifting economy, stifling regulations, rising threats abroad, and more have been accumulating for decades.
Given the behavior of many elected officials, it’s not hard to see why many people put the blame for an unacceptable status quo on Congress. The 2020 book, The Politics Industry by Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter, examines how the incentives created by our political system stand in the way of solving these seemingly intractable problems.
The authors identify a number of specific ways that partisanship and grandstanding have replaced pragmatic problem-solving in Washington, and they have a solution: change how we conduct our elections to encourage more ideological competition.
Their solution uses final-five primaries and ranked choice voting, ideas with bipartisan support. Reps. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, a Republican, and Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, a Democrat, join in writing the book’s foreword.
Published in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the authors point out the dismaying staying power of political opportunism and self-interest. Even during COVID-19, when answers are needed most, our politicians seem incapable of rising above a system that rewards grandstanding and punishes pragmatism.
The events of this year have made clear the need for a functioning political system and proactive lawmaking. One silver lining from the year of COVID-19 could be a new impetus to redefine our politics using the reforms laid out in The Politics Industry.
Throughout the book, the authors insist that the status quo in politics is not inevitable but we, the people, have to be clear-eyed about the challenge. They do this by relaying a “fish story” from renowned author David Foster Wallace in his commencement address at Kenyon College:
“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”
Gehl and Porter elaborate, “The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” Our political system surrounds us, like water, so we can’t afford to ignore its health.
The health of our system is at a low point for a number of reasons. One issue is that less than 20 percent of eligible voters participate in most congressional primaries. Also, about half the states have primaries that are closed or semi-closed to non-party affiliated voters, so citizens who do not register a party affiliation can’t vote in these contests. Candidates have a strong incentive to appeal to the extremes of their party in order to win, producing more polarized contests.
California was a case-in-point. Democrat primaries throughout the Golden State determined who would eventually sail to victory in November’s general election “coronations.” Unworried about ever losing their seats except in partisan primaries, left-wing politicians in Sacramento ran one of the most dysfunctional state governments in the country, according to Pew Charitable Trusts. This problem is, of course, not relegated only to liberal states.
Washington, D.C.’s revolving door is another problem, an example of how partisans in the two-party duopoly have optimized the rules of the game for their own benefit—often at the expense of the national interest.
Gehl and Porter note that 42% of retiring members of Congress between 2009 and 2015 joined a lobbying firm, and another 25% took a job at a company involved with lobbying. That’s just former members of Congress, to say nothing about all the other former government employees like congressional staffers and regulatory agency officials.
Another example of how the two-party system sets rules favorable to itself are so-called “sore loser” laws, some version of which are on the books in 47 states. These laws say that anyone who loses a partisan primary can’t run as an independent or on another party’s ticket in the general election. The authors point to the electoral debacle of Delaware Rep. Mike Castle, a pragmatic Republican who almost certainly would’ve won Joe Biden’s former U.S. Senate seat. But he was defeated in the GOP primary for U.S. Senate by a candidate who was trounced in the general election.
Rather than a Republican pragmatist from Delaware—of all places—this law ensured the elevation of another partisan liberal, Chris Coons.
Partisans have gone to Washington and changed the rules for their own benefit there, too. Back to the late 1960s, liberal Democrats angry their bills weren’t passing Congress formed the Democratic caucus, where partisans met to discuss partisan schemes. Prior to that, most rank and file members had little contact with party leaders once in office. The way things worked prior to this change is almost unfathomable today—think “what the hell is water?”
The book goes on to describe the consolidation of power within Congress by partisan leaders, especially the Speaker of the House. Over time, Democrats mitigated the power of the committee chairs, transferring power to party leadership. Choosing rank-and-file committee members was transferred to the Speaker and party leaders. Seniority was replaced by fundraising prowess in determining powerful chairmanships.
Such power moves haven’t been relegated to ambitious liberals who controlled the House until the early 1990s. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich cut by one-third the professional staff of House committees and service agencies like the Government Accountability Office and Congressional Research Service. Meanwhile, resources for the Speaker’s office increased, consolidating even more power in a partisan office, Gehl and Porter note.
Public hearings in Congress have also too often devolved from efforts to collect public input into partisan circuses. Between 1994 and 2014, the number of public committee hearings plunged by half. In the 113th Congress, about 40% of substantive bills bypassed the committee process entirely.
The way Obamacare was passed was a low-water point in this devolution. President Barack Obama decided the GOP’s failure to completely capitulate constituted an excuse to ram the bill through entirely along party lines rather than negotiating.
The Politics Industry outlines the incentives of our system to elect the most extreme partisans who go to Washington and stack the rules in favor of other partisans. Gehl and Porter present one possible solution: Top-five primaries and ranked choice voting.
In this system, closed primaries are replaced with ballots which place all candidates of all parties on one ballot in the primary. The top five vote-getters move on to the general election.
Then, in the general election, voters rank their preferences from 1-5 (or however many candidates there are). If a candidate gets more than 50%, they win. But if no one gets a majority, an “instant runoff” occurs where the fifth-place candidate is disqualified and their voters’ second-place choices are tallied among the remaining candidates. This process is repeated until one candidate crosses 50%.
Earlier, I mentioned the dysfunction in California. But in 2012, the state implemented a similar top-two system, immediately resulting in a doubling of the number of competitive races for state legislative seats.
Partisans hate this system. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said California’s top-two reform, “is not a reform. It is terrible.” Meanwhile, the state’s last Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, co-wrote that, “Political parties hate top-two, so voters should love it.” And because top-five primaries encourage more competition than California’s system, it’s a step better.
As a believer in the free market, I know that competition results in better outcomes. That’s why I’m working with colleagues in the legislature on both sides on a bill to bring top-five and ranked choice voting to certain elections in Wisconsin.
I’m a pragmatist, so I know there are no silver bullets that will solve every problem overnight. But in the spirit of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who once said that the states are laboratories of democracy, it’s up to the states to explore new ways to address the partisan dysfunction in Washington.
This election reform promises to be one step toward that worthy goal.
RightBooks with Dale Kooyenga is a monthly feature at RightWisconsin. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) represents Wisconsin’s 5th Senate District in the state legislature. He is also a Certified Public Accountant and an Army Reserve officer.