In the 218 days between May 17th and December 21st of 2020, Americans became painfully aware of crucial flaws in our country’s policy making process. The first COVID relief package, the CARES Act, had passed rapidly in March, but it soon became clear that another round of relief would be warranted. Unemployment and food insecurity remained tragically high, not to mention that Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, an overwhelming majority of independent economists, and 80% of registered voters wanted another stimulus package. On May 17th, the House passed a second major bill in response, but it wasn’t until late December when a bipartisan group of Senators reached a deal and the package, dubbed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020, was signed into law. Meanwhile, 8 million Americans fell into poverty, mostly due to the expiration of CARES programs that were keeping them on their feet. It had been over seven months.
American political leaders have been complaining about gridlock for centuries. However, political scholar Lee Drutman points out that the current political environment uniquely impedes Congressional action in part because “the national balance of power is extremely close” with party control of either the Presidency, House, or Senate changing in 11 out of the last 15 elections. Combined with a growing ideological split between the parties and historically high negative partisanship, this constant electoral competition makes legislating in today’s Washington an increasingly difficult task. The long and rocky negotiations over COVID relief provide a clear illustration of the dynamics that inhibit Congressional action, even during national crises, and the devastating impacts of that inhibition.
A December 2015 report from FairVote and the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) identifies the core issue as a lack of civility, defining civility by “efforts to achieve genuine as opposed to gestural respect, an openness to compromise and collaboration, a presumption of mutual good faith, and a willingness to separate ideological disagreement from personal antagonism.” Notably, many Americans are used to hearing pundits and politicians use ‘civility’ to refer to ideological moderation or convergence on policy goals. The actual definition consists of characteristics that legislators of any political persuasion can exhibit, and that help them reach solutions reflective of Americans’ wants and needs. Our report with the BPC analyzed state legislatures around the country and found several practices that increased bipartisan cooperation and legislative productivity.
Luckily, there are ways to bring these practices to Congress. Interviews with Maryland and Illinois state legislators illustrate how reforming the way members of Congress are elected could incentivize their adoption, as well as improve the body’s responsiveness to Americans’ needs in other ways. The Fair Representation Act (FRA), which was just reintroduced in Congress, provides a mechanism to bring about the necessary changes: proportional ranked choice voting and multi-member districts. These changes are indeed necessary because however good a more civil Congress sounds, changing the institution is impossible without first changing the electoral incentives that drive its members. Good elections yield good governance. Currently, voters elect one Representative from a district designated by their state legislature. These districts are often gerrymandered so that a certain party is guaranteed to win (only 10% of House races were competitive in 2020), which allows Representatives to focus on winning the small portion of their district that votes in partisan primaries (less than a fifth of all voters in 2018) rather than appealing to the district as a whole. The FRA would combine Congressional districts (in states with more than one) to create larger districts with multiple Representatives, require that the districts be drawn by independent commissions rather than partisan legislatures, and require that all members of Congress be elected through ranked choice voting (RCV). Changing Congressional elections in this manner would lead to the election of more bipartisan-spirited politicians, allowing for the institutional changes that will make Congress function better as a policymaking body.
Multimember districts and RCV greatly increase the electoral incentives for members of Congress to practice civility and build relationships across party lines. In the current system, a Representative can usually win their district by appealing to the small group they need to win the primary. That means that the same two small, unrepresentative primary electorates are selecting almost all of Congress, which naturally leads to partisan rigidity that makes legislating difficult. Under the FRA, the same district would get combined with others nearby and its voters would choose several people to represent them, using a voting system that allows for the varying beliefs of the district to be reflected by its Representatives. With this increased political diversity comes more opportunity for members, regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum, to come together and create bipartisan majorities on certain issues. Gerrymandered, single-member districts harden party lines— the FRA would soften them.
The impacts of multi-member districts and RCV on civility are well-documented. A survey of candidates in several municipal elections found that those competing under RCV were less likely to say that they portrayed their opponent negatively or had been portrayed negatively by their opponent, a clear boon to cross-partisan relationships. Until 1980, Illinois had a system for electing members of their State House of Representatives similar to that created by the FRA for Congress, and according to one Illinois government official, “it resulted in a much less partisan legislative body, one that was much more open to dealing with members on the other side based on the strength of ideas rather than the party relationship.” Proportionally elected legislatures have proven successful in building cross-partisan relationships in the past.
Multi-member districts even have benefits beyond a more efficient and representative legislative process. Having representatives on multiple committees means that when constituents come to their legislators with a concern or request, “there’s a better chance that one of [the legislators] is kind of in deep on that issue,” and can therefore address it successfully, according to Maryland State Delegate Lorig Charkoudian. Multi-member districts can also allow for greater diversity in the legislature. Whereas “it might be difficult for some diverse members or women to run district-wide and win if it was just one seat,” according to fellow Delegate Jheanelle Wilkins, multiple seats create more opportunities for a delegation to reflect its district’s demographics. Better gender and racial representation along with better response to constituent issues would be welcome changes to Congress that multi-member districts can help create.
To be clear, it is highly unproductive to blame the people in Congress for problems that run much deeper in the structure of American democracy. Elected officials themselves agree real change is needed; no one runs for office to become entangled in a partisan quagmire, struggling to deliver for the people who elected them. Members of Congress should see the FRA not just as a way to make day-to-day legislating easier, but as an opportunity to repair their institution's relationship with the American people by giving them a better way to have their voice heard. This year revealed that even with substantial public pressure and expert consensus, America’s broken politics greatly impede members of Congress from doing their job. Substantially changing election processes is the only way to fix those broken politics and thereby enable legislators to make policy change, whether in responding to a pandemic or addressing the long list of other issues facing the nation.
Image source: History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives, “70th Congress Opens,” https://history.house.gov/Collection/Listing/2008/2008-130-002/ (June 15, 2021)