The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Five Delusions About Our Broken Politics

American political dysfunction is both wide and deep, and the perennial, mostly GOP-hatched delusions aren't helping repair the damage.

Published on June 10, 2012


Finding an American who does not think our politics are dysfunctional is much harder these days than finding Waldo. Approval of Congress hovers around 10 percent, limited, John McCain often jokes, to “paid staff and blood relatives.” Of course, Congress rarely enjoys a high approval rating, even when things are operating well. But to the two of us, with more than 42 years each of experience immersed in the corridors of Washington at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, this dysfunction is worse than we have ever seen it, and it is not limited to Capitol Hill. The partisan and ideological polarization from which we now suffer comes at a time when critical problems cry out for resolution, making for a particularly toxic mix.

It is not going to be easy to find structural fixes to our problems because many of them flow from an increasingly corrosive culture, not just from institutional breakdowns. We have many ideas for significant reforms and other changes, but before we can consider remedies for our political dysfunction, we need to rid ourselves of much seductive wishful thinking. Here are five bromides to avoid.

The American Political System Will Correct Itself

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he first variety of wishful thinking resides in the wholesale rejection of the assertion that the political system is dangerously broken. Such a charge, the argument goes, lacks a proper appreciation of the magnitude of the problems confronting the country in the wake of the global financial crisis and the Great Recession, the struggles of democracies worldwide to deal effectively with comparable problems, the similar patterns of subpar performance and political dysfunction that America has overcome in the past, and the unrecognized strengths of the U.S. constitutional system in adapting to new circumstances.

This defense of the current system reflects the considered judgment of many who have devoted their professional lives to the study of American political history. Several scholars of contemporary American politics have defended the durability and adaptability of the constitutional system, especially those who specialize in the study of Congress. The eminent Yale political scientist David R. Mayhew, for example, has chided those who bemoan the gridlock in divided party government, finding that legislative productivity—measured by significant laws enacted and congressional investigations conducted—did not differ significantly between unified and divided party governments from 1946 to 2002.1

In Mayhew’s 2011 book, Partisan Balance: Why Political Parties Don’t Kill the U.S. Constitutional System, he argues further that the peculiar American systems responsible for the election of the President, Senate and House have over the past sixty years produced largely majoritarian outcomes, “microcosms of the national electorate” that render each of the three institutions both representative and functional and with no significant bias favoring one party over the other. He also examines the success rates in Congress of Democratic and Republican Presidents’ domestic policy proposals during their first two years in the White House. Here, too, he discovers a healthy harvest for Presidents of roughly 60 percent, the same under unified and divided governments, and with only modest and explainable differences between Republicans and Democrats. He also surprisingly finds no confirmation of the widespread view that the filibuster-empowered Senate is largely responsible for the defeat of presidential proposals. More generally, Mayhew finds little evidence that anti-majoritarian procedures in either the House or the Senate prevented Presidents from garnering approval of proposals that a majority of their members favored. Mayhew concludes,

Most of the imbalances I have observed in this work have not been major, permanent systemic problems. More precisely, at least during recent generations, many alleged problems have proven to be nonexistent, short-term, limited, tolerable, or correctable.

Americans, he argues, look for change at the next election rather than through institutional fixes or constitutional reform. And, presumably, that option is sufficient both to assuage their concerns and to produce policy-making responses within the range of sufficiency and public acceptability.

Mayhew’s argument is a comforting reminder of how, over many years, unlovely political processes and institutions have represented majority sentiment, adapted to changing contexts, grappled with serious problems, overcome policy impasses, and produced more of a “shrug” from the public than demands for structural change. The reminder is perhaps too comforting, however. Consider the poor fit of the first three years of the Obama presidency with Mayhew’s story of popular sovereignty and institutional self-correction:

• Sharply asymmetric polarization, with an insurgent Republican Party far from the mainstream of American politics.

• The virtual disappearance of regular order in Congress.

• The widespread denial of the elected President’s legitimacy.

• An unbending opposition-party strategy of obstructing, demonizing and nullifying presidential initiatives, accomplishments, and appointments during economic crisis.

• Following a decisive public embrace of change in the 2010 elections, a dramatic decline in legislative productivity from the unified 111th Congress to the divided 112th.

• The hostage-taking of the full faith and credit of the United States.

• The first-ever downgrade of U.S. securities.

• Non-negotiable demands producing gridlock on issues of prime importance, including economic recovery and deficits and debt.

• Record low levels of public approval of Congress, trust in government, and confidence in the capacity of political leaders and institutions to deal with pressing problems.

• A large majority believing that dire economic conditions will not improve.

We hope Mayhew is right that this difficult current patch will prove to be routine, short term and self-correcting, or at least easily correctible. But we, who have long counted ourselves among the optimists in this field, rather doubt it. These perilous times and the political responses to them are qualitatively different from what we have seen before. There is no guarantee that the country’s troubles will be short-lived and the political system self-correcting. Indeed, the magnitude of the problems in the wake of the most serious economic crisis since the 1930s and the difficulty other democracies are experiencing in trying to mitigate its devastating effects should strengthen America’s resolve to fix its dysfunctional politics. Complacency instead demobilizes us.

Third Party to the Rescue

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or those fed up with the political order, another logical but ill-considered response is the third-party candidate. In recent decades, Ross Perot, John Anderson and George Wallace have served that purpose, though only Wallace won any electoral votes. Third-party or independent presidential candidates often arise to fill a vacuum in the structure of the major party competition, but never themselves come close to occupying the White House. (Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 coincided with the emergence of a new Republican party to replace the failed Whigs.) New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and the Washington Post’s Matt Miller have each written a series of articles that lay out their case for an independent presidential candidate.2 That person might not win the election, but the candidacy itself would mobilize the “radical center”, a large segment of the public they see as fed up with polarized partisan politics and yearning for pragmatic, problem-solving leaders. Their preferred vehicle for achieving this objective is Americans Elect, a new 501(c)4 organization that policy and business entrepreneur Peter Ackerman created. Ackerman hopes to attract millions of registered voters in nominating an independent presidential candidate via an internet-based convention, but recently admitted that strategy had faltered.

We don’t question the policy goals that inhere in the idea of a third-party candidacy. We do, however, question the notion’s political acuity quotient. We doubt the assumptions behind the analysis and note its proponents’ failure to anticipate the counterproductive consequences that could result from such an effort.

Let’s start with their readings of public opinion. They and many others supporting an independent or third-party movement believe that a large majority of Americans have contempt for the major parties and are clustered in the political center. Courageous political leaders speaking honest truths can persuade them to embrace enlightened proposals to tax carbon; cut entitlements; make critical public investments in education, scientific research, infrastructure and clean energy; reduce or eliminate tax credits and deductions while lowering rates; and generate new revenues sufficient to drastically reduce deficits and stabilize public debt.

Alas, reality suggests otherwise. While sizable majorities of survey respondents typically voice antiparty sentiments in response to pollsters’ questions, roughly 90 percent of voters identify with or lean to one of the two major parties. Most self-identified independents are closet partisans. Moreover, these voters view the political and policy worlds through their partisan lenses and loyally support their party’s candidates at the polls. The public has not been immune to the polarizing dynamic that created the wide gulf between the two parties over the past several decades. Pure independents or swing voters make up barely a tenth of the electorate, and their presumed centrism or pragmatism in most cases reflects political disengagement and a lack of knowledge about the parties, candidates or policy choices rather than a considered position in the center. They are classic referendum voters: When times are bad, their instinct is to throw the bums out, not to carefully attribute responsibility or parse alternatives.

There is therefore simply no reliable evidence to support the belief that voters would flock to a straight-talking, centrist, independent or third-party candidate who articulated the favored policies of Friedman, Miller and countless other individuals advocating nonpartisan or bipartisan initiatives. Consensus does not exist and is not easily built, and a candidate independent of the two parties cannot sweep away the political and institutional obstacles to enact “responsible” policies. Candidates have to contest differences in values, interests, public philosophies and policies directly in the electoral arena, not submerge them in a nonpartisan feel-good centrism. Parties have always played and will continue to play a vital role in all democracies, America’s included, in framing choices for voters and in organizing governments to act on their collective decisions. We must address the flaws in the electoral system and in the rules and procedures of political institutions directly, so the flaws are not end-run by a chimerical knight on a white horse.

This isn’t to say that independent presidential candidates can’t play a meaningful role; indeed, some have effectively used the bully pulpit in a visible presidential campaign to raise the profile of an important issue. Ross Perot did that in 1992 on the issue of deficits and debt. His message resonated with many voters. The economic plan that the new President Bill Clinton crafted in 1993 paid more attention to deficits than his campaign plan had, and that plan was enacted by Congress. Economic experts subsequently recognized it as a huge contributor to the budget surpluses that followed. So Perot had an impact, even though his persuasiveness in the campaign did not convince a single Republican in either house of Congress to vote for Clinton’s economic plan, which eventually limped home by a single vote in each chamber. And we now look back on that time as less partisan and less polarized than today.

Another flaw in the reasoning of those who would advance an independent or third-party presidential candidate comes back to a failure to acknowledge the asymmetry of the two parties. Barack Obama has favored most of the policies embraced by those longing for a “grand bargain” to stimulate the economy in the short run and deal with the long-term deficits. Every Republican candidate for President in 2012 and every Republican leader in Congress rejected those policies. Obama is the kind of centrist candidate that champions of a third-party presidential candidate seek. One of their complaints is with his failure to explicitly embrace proposals such as the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction commission or a carbon tax that might form the basis of a “grand bargain” including tax reform. But this is simply disagreement over tactics and timing.

Given unified Republican opposition to anything the President publicly supports, we suspect Obama has the better argument. Advocates for a third-party candidate also complain about Obama’s failure to deliver on the policies they espouse. But here the complaint is misdirected. Better to generate public pressure on the GOP to break their lockstep opposition to Obama’s entire agenda, abandon their no-new-taxes pledge and change the Senate filibuster rule to reduce its new and regularized obstructionist role than to cling to a false equivalence between the parties and blame them equally for policy failure. Those advocating a third-party or independent presidential candidate fail to offer any plausible scenario for how such a successful candidate could govern effectively, given the state of the parties in Congress and the supermajority hurdles in the Senate.

This brings us to the potential dangers of an independent or third-party strategy. Without a system of runoff elections or ranked preferences, a third-party candidate could well produce a spoiler outcome that a majority of voters would not favor. In 2012, a centrist third-party candidate would be more likely to siphon votes from Obama, given the policies he has supported and those Republican candidates espouse. When you have two centrist candidates running against one conservative, the advantage will clearly go to the latter despite his lacking majority support.

Americans Elect’s goal of using the internet to provide millions of registered voters an opportunity to participate directly in the nomination of a presidential ticket seems well intentioned. We have no doubt that Peter Ackerman and his son Elliot, who is running Americans Elect, have honorable motives. But the more we look at the behavior of this nascent organization, the more questions we have. For an organization dedicated to accountability and transparency, its decision to switch from a 527 political organization to a 501(c)4 social welfare organization whose donors are not subject to disclosure through the Federal Election Commission (FEC) raises serious questions. A deliberate move to hide the identity of donors is not a commendable path for a “reformist” organization.

There is reason to doubt the even-handedness of its leadership, too. Americans Elect board member (and its primary source of public opinion data) Douglas Schoen has collaborated with another estranged Democrat, Patrick Caddell, in a series of columns in the Wall Street Journal and pronouncements on Fox News that are harshly (and, in our view, inaccurately) critical of Obama. Even assuming the best of intentions, the organization is not constituted to produce a responsible and accountable outcome. It suffers from a serious democratic deficit, in which founding members and self-appointed committees play a disproportionate role in its governance.

Moreover, the design of the nomination process makes it exceedingly vulnerable to efforts by other candidates and their well-heeled donors to influence the choice of a nominee. We don’t see anything to prevent hordes of Democratic and Republican activists, who have no intention of actually supporting an independent candidate in the general election, from becoming “delegates” for Americans Elect and casting their internet ballots strategically to advance their own party’s interest.

Whatever the mechanism for nominating an independent or third-party presidential candidate, this solution to dysfunctional politics would actually reduce the public’s ability to resolve a critical debate shaping the country’s future. A plurality, not a majority, of voters would likely determine the identity of the next President (if the country is fortunate to avoid the horrors of an election by the House of Representatives, where each state’s delegation would cast a single vote for president, making Alaska, South Dakota and Wyoming combined three times as powerful as California). The victorious ticket would have little basis in electoral mandate or support in Congress to lead the country forward.

In response to criticism, Miller proposed focusing the efforts of this movement on electing members of Congress—going into the swing districts to empower independents sufficiently to create a new centrist caucus in the House. Most of the target districts actually happen to be ones where the remaining moderate Blue Dog Democrats either have been elected or have a chance of victory against arch-conservative Republicans. This movement would be far more likely to drain votes from centrist, center-left or center-right Democratic candidates or incumbents and thus provide more victories for extreme Republicans (or in at least a few instances harm center-right or right-center Republicans in order to elect very liberal Democrats).

A Constitutional Amendment to Balance the Budget

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nshrining a requirement for an annual balanced budget in the Constitution is yet another futile and probably dangerous response to overcoming America’s dysfunctional politics. Nonetheless, it is a centerpiece of congressional Republicans’ plans to deal with deficits and debt and has been endorsed by Mitt Romney, as it was by all the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. Yes, some version of this amendment is part of 49 state constitutions. Yes, more than three-quarters of the public consistently support its addition to the U.S. Constitution. Yes, Federal budget deficits have reached record levels in the past several years, and public debt as a share of the total economy now threatens the country’s financial integrity. And yes, the regular congressional budget process during this period of time has only nibbled at the edges of the problem despite its obvious and growing seriousness.

The 2011 House Republican plan to “Cut, Cap and Balance” the Federal budget requires that Federal spending be capped over ten years at 19.9 percent of GDP and makes it contingent on passage of a constitutional amendment, which requires spending and revenues to be balanced and a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate to approve any increase in taxes and in the debt ceiling. Republicans brought the plan up for a vote in the House and intend to do so again. Most Republican presidential candidates endorsed it.

It is not, however, the only balanced budget amendment out there. The amendment that most House Republicans and every Senate Republican have endorsed is even more draconian. It would cap spending at 18 percent of GDP, but based on the previous year’s GDP, meaning, according to Republican economist Donald Marron, an effective cap of 16.7 percent of GDP in Federal spending. Were it to be added to the Constitution, this amendment would require drastic cuts in every area of spending, from health research to food safety to defense and homeland security to Medicare and Social Security, taking America’s social policy back to pre–New Deal territory. The caps could be overcome only via a formal declaration of war or when Congress recognizes a military conflict is underway, and any increased spending over the cap would have to be applied to the military action.

So what’s the problem with a balanced budget amendment? Huge cuts in Federal spending and/or increases in taxes would be required immediately following ratification. The supermajority requirement for tax increases makes it highly likely that only spending cuts would be on the table. Few of those who support a balanced budget amendment have any idea that these sudden, drastic cuts are perforce part of the deal. By way of comparison, the ambitious, conservative budget resolution crafted by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and approved by House Republicans, which includes deep cuts in discretionary domestic spending and a major restructuring of the Medicare and Medicaid programs, would not reach a balance for decades.

If the amendment were ratified quickly, these cuts would be made at a time in which the economy remains at risk of relapsing into deep recession. Such an austerity program would likely further slow economic activity, diminish Federal revenues and clearly increase the deficit rather than balance the budget. This underscores the importance of fiscal flexibility over the course of a business cycle, whether by automatic stabilizers such as unemployment benefits or discrete steps by Congress, to prevent economic downturns from spiraling into extended recessions or depressions. Fiscal flexibility is especially critical in a Federal system in which states are obligated to balance their budgets. The states’ balanced budget requirements guarantee substantial fiscal drag during a downturn because they require pro-cyclical spending cuts and tax increases at the most inopportune times, leaving only the Federal government to provide countercyclical balance. A modern economy must have the capacity to use deficits and debt strategically for its well-being.

Of course, this assumes that Congress could or would successfully implement a balanced-budget amendment. The odds of that happening? Zilch. There is a reason many politicians are much more eager to support a constitutional amendment than to take specific steps to balance the budget. Supporting the amendment allows them to proclaim their fiscal virtue with little chance of ever having it tested. As far as the public is concerned, it means cutting waste, fraud and abuse while eliminating unspecified (but surely worthless) governmental programs. Thus for politicians the balanced budget amendment is deflectionary sophistry, and for most voters who support the idea it amounts to a form of magical thinking—pronounce some powerful incantation and the problem goes away.

In reality, of course, if the amendment were ratified and legislators moved to implement it, their constituents would surely raise a hue and cry, and Congress would soon realize that no realistic political route of implementation exists. Where will the congressional majorities to cut these programs come from? How about the supermajorities to raise taxes? Neither would materialize, meaning that we would doubtless witness presidential and congressional gimmicks to move more and more significant parts of Federal spending off-budget (as has occurred in the states), lawsuits against Congress, Federal courts assuming the power of the purse, and continuing artificial crises with the debt limit and threat of default. Taken together, all of this would reinforce and extend our political dysfunction, not ameliorate it.

Perhaps more important, the whole idea of a balanced budget amendment relies on highly simplistic assumptions about the relationship between government revenue and spending, economic growth and job creation. Amid the complexity of these relationships, we have figured out how to keep deficits from mushrooming out of control without a constitutional balanced-budget amendment. We can do so again just as, in the past, America has run up deficits and taken on increased debt during times of war and economic distress, and then managed to keep that debt from burdening the country as temporary spending increases receded and the economy grew at a healthy pace. Elected officials are not waifs amid unassailable forces. The misleading and factually incorrect rhetoric of budget amendment advocates like Mitt Romney and Mitch McConnell contends that government spending grows inexorably, that tax increases inevitably diminish economic growth and that tax cuts automatically promote it. None of this is factually correct, as an examination of the actual record of the past twenty years shows. Similarly, tax cuts do not force reductions in spending (“starving the beast” doesn’t work), nor do tax increases foster spending increases. The relationships among taxes, spending, deficits and economic growth are highly contingent on a host of other factors. 

The message of the balanced budget amendment is, “Stop us before we tax and spend tax again.” But the system, when it was functional, showed that it can manage matters quite well without changing the Constitution. The argument that government is so out of control that only a nuclear option of this sort will work is entirely bogus. The amendment would not end or reduce the dysfunction. It would diminish the Constitution and render the country less capable of effective self-governance.

Term Limits

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he quintessential bromide for curing the ills of American democracy is to limit the number of terms anyone can serve in Congress and in state legislatures. Whenever public ratings of Congress drop from their normal bad to horrible or disastrous, count on someone to trot out this hardy perennial. And so it is again today. 

The case is a familiar one: Career politicians representing safe seats lose touch with their constituents, become beholden to the Washington establishment, feather their own nests and fail to act in the broad public interest. Term limits would supposedly replace professional politicians with citizen legislators whose brief time in office would maximize their incentives to act on behalf of their fellow citizens, inoculate them from the allures of lobbyists and other Washington elites bearing gifts, and restore Congress to its intended role as the citadel of deliberative democracy.

The last time term limits were all the rage was in the early 1990s, when the House bank and postal office “scandals” coincided with Newt Gingrich’s aggressive push to end the near-permanent Democratic control of Congress. Conservative columnist George F. Will wrote a well-regarded book, Restoration (1993), which provided the intellectual firepower for the term limits movement. Advocates proposed initiatives in states where they were able to impose term limits on their legislatures, almost all of which the public approved.

Twenty-three states also adopted provisions that effectively limited the terms of U.S. senators and representatives in their respective state delegations. These provisions pertaining to Congress were declared unconstitutional by a 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court, which ruled that neither Congress nor the states could add such a qualification for serving in the House or Senate. As a result, only a constitutional amendment could impose term limits for members of Congress, though not for state legislatures. Candidates (mostly Republicans) ran for office pledging to support a constitutional amendment and to limit their service in office if such an amendment were not adopted and ratified. The amendment subsequently failed to garner the necessary two-thirds vote in the House, and some but by no means all of those members honored their pledge. 

The Supreme Court decision severely weakened the political force behind term limits for Congress, but the final nail in its coffin was the 1994 Republican landslide. Republicans had finally seized the reins of power in Congress, which led many term-limits supporters to lose their zeal. The limiting case was George Nethercutt of Spokane, Washington, who beat Speaker Tom Foley by calling him out of touch after being too long in office, and made his six-year term limit pledge the centerpiece of his 1994 campaign. When he approached his third reelection campaign, he reneged on his pledge. He was not alone.

This seems an unlikely time for term limits. Congress has just experienced three successive elections that brought many new faces to Washington and twice shifted party control. Populist Tea Party members fit almost perfectly the profile of citizen legislators that term-limit advocates favor and are making their presence felt. If anything, their determination to stick to their principles has reinforced partisan polarization in Congress and further weakened its deliberative capacity. What is most lacking in Congress today are members with institutional pride and loyalty, who understand the essential and difficult task of peacefully reconciling diverse interests through processes of negotiation and compromise. Newcomers are not as good at that as veterans.

George Will’s embrace of term limits as a means of restoring deliberative democracy has always struck us as bizarre. An admirer of Edmund Burke and the framers of the Constitution, he is an odd champion for a centerpiece of the Anti-Federalist agenda, which opposed ratification of the Constitution and preferred to instruct and, if necessary, recall their representatives rather than have them exercise their own judgment in Congress. Theirs was a platform to weaken the republican features of the proposed new government, to keep the public’s government on a tight leash by strengthening direct democratic controls. The Anti-Federalists lost the battle over the ratification of the Constitution, but they continue to be an animating force in American politics—in the Gingrich-led Republican Class of 1994 and most recently in the Tea Party-powered takeover of the House in 2010. So it is no surprise that limiting terms of legislators continues to reappear on the reform agenda.

Fortunately, we now have some actual experience under term limits with which to assess their likely effects. Between 1990 and 2000, 21 states adopted limits on the number of terms their legislators can serve (six ultimately overturned the limits). Scholars have evaluated their effect on the legislators’ responsiveness to their constituents, the expertise of legislators relative to others such as staff and lobbyists, and the power of the legislature relative to the executive. Ardent supporters of term limits cannot help but be disappointed by their findings.

Term limits did not usher in a new era of citizen legislators. They neither altered the characteristics of those elected to office nor dissuaded them from pursuing other elected offices, building professional careers in politics or becoming lobbyists. If anything, the limits amplified the corrosive effects of ambition on the legislators, who focused from day one on how best to use their limited time as a springboard to their next post. That produced incentives to go for a big, short-term splash and leave the long-term mess to their successors. A legislator who spent less time in a legislative body acquired less specialized knowledge and relied more on others. Legislative party and committee leadership weakened, and legislatures lost ground to governors and their staffs. Term-limited legislators actually became less beholden to the constituents in their geographical districts and more attentive to other interests. And term-limited legislatures were less productive and less innovative in the policies they formulated.

Limiting the terms of public office is, in our view, utterly unresponsive to any significant dimension of our dysfunctional politics. It belongs in the same trash bin as smug reverence for the status quo, independent presidential candidates and balanced budget amendments.

Full Public Financing of Elections

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nother suggested solution to our dysfunctional political system is the public financing of elections. We take very seriously the problems surrounding contemporary campaign finance law and practice, and are greatly dismayed that Chief Justice John Roberts’ Supreme Court has effectively shredded the regulatory system and returned campaign finance to a state of nature. The opportunities for vast aggregations of individual and corporate wealth to influence government and the policies it produces have multiplied, and the transparency of such donations and expenditures has sharply declined. Fund-raising considerations dominate the normal routines of elected officials and political parties. The presence of so much interested money in campaigns contributes to the public’s loss of faith in the integrity of decision-making. 

These and related problems associated with money in politics merit the attention and energy of advocates working to counter them; we include ourselves among this group. But full public financing of elections is not the answer. We understand the appeal of the argument that eliminating private funding would reduce the power of special interests, an argument powerfully made by Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig in Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress and a Plan to Stop It. His diagnosis of what ails America’s representative democracy (not evil villains, but good souls corrupted) and his prescription for healing it (breaking the dependency on campaign funders) appear at first blush to be a strong antidote to dysfunctional politics. Lessig’s signal achievement nonetheless provides an opportunity to explain why we believe too narrow a focus on money and politics is likely to prove unproductive.

Interest-group politics influence policymaking in Congress, and the financial resources that interest groups bring to bear on the election of its members are a very important, but by no means only avenue of that influence. Economic interests like corporations, the Chamber of Commerce, community bankers or labor unions can mobilize constituency support or opposition; hire former members, congressional staffers, and other seasoned operatives to gain access and deploy policy expertise within their lobbying operations; and invest heavily in shaping the broader policy community. Groups like the National Rifle Association and the AARP can mobilize powerful collections of single-minded and passionate members and followers to alert lawmakers to the consequences of failing to heed their message. Campaign donations and expenditures are a relatively small part of the resources they invest in government relations.

Moreover, governing is about much more than interests. Ideas and, especially in recent years, political ideologies matter. Indeed, the ideological polarization of the parties is at the center of our dysfunctional politics, and this is not simply a phenomenon of political elites. Ideology motivates much of the money deployed in campaigns, and ideology does not operate in lockstep with a narrow definition of interests. Institutions matter as well. Money is not responsible for the mismatch between parliamentary-like political parties and the governing institutions in which they contest for power and policy. Reducing the role of filibusters in the Senate may be more productive than altering rules of campaign finance.

This brings us to a second point: Whether or not campaign money is the key to the influence dynamic in Washington, restricting the flow of private money in politics has proven devilishly difficult, and the actions of the Roberts Court and the feckless Federal Election Commission have made it virtually impossible. We are now witness to an explosion of so-called independent spending groups raising hundreds of millions of dollars from wealthy individuals and corporations that are in many respects appendages of a party or presidential candidate, or formed for the sole purpose of electing or defeating a particular congressional candidate. Candidates’ direct financing of campaigns could well become a small part of the funding game in the near future. Incumbents will become ever more concerned about the spending effort that these groups might launch against them. They will be keen to keep their options open for raising large sums to counter that possibility.

Under these conditions, therefore, any effort to limit candidate fundraising to small donations and public supplements is quixotic at best. Full public financing of campaigns, or the clean-money versions that have become the focus of recent reform efforts, depend upon candidates voluntarily opting into a system that requires them to limit their fundraising to small donations (usually set at a maximum of $100) plus public matching funds or $50 democracy vouchers that all registered voters may allocate to candidates as they wish. That increasingly looks like unilateral disarmament. Until there is a different majority on the Supreme Court or a constitutional amendment giving Congress the power to regulate donations and spending in Federal election campaigns, more modest efforts to encourage small-donor fundraising are the only ones with any chance of succeeding. 

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he extreme and asymmetric partisan polarization that has evolved over several decades, initially reflecting increasing ideological differences but then extending well beyond issues that ordinarily divide the parties to advance strategic electoral interests, fits uneasily with a set of governing institutions that puts up substantial barriers to majority rule. To improve that fit—either by producing less polarized combatants or by making political institutions and practices more responsive to parliamentary-like parties—we as a people need to think about ambitious reforms of electoral rules and governing arrangements. The former can include, for example, focusing more on the demand side of campaign finance than on the supply side. The latter can include, for example, arrangements providing for thumbs up/thumbs down votes on budgetary and other issues, after the model of “fast-track” trade and the BRAC legislation. Other democracies have such arrangements, and there is no constitutional basis on which to reject them for our system.

But for now the transformation of the Republican Party into an insurgent force in American politics—one that has proven quite destructive to the process and substance of policymaking in these troubled times—requires an immediate response. We need to identify ways of improving the performance of voters and politicians within the existing system, starting with the 2012 elections. But we are unlikely to be able to do that with scales on our eyes in the form of unjustified complacency, third-party fantasies, balanced-budget amendment non-starters, term-limits foolishness and campaign finance chimeras. 

1Mayhew, Divided We Govern: Party Control, Lawmaking, and Investigations, 1946–2002 (Yale University Press, 2005). To be sure, his findings have not gone undisputed. Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution, mounted a powerful response by presenting evidence in support of her argument that divided control of government increases the stalemate in Congress. Binder, Stalemate: Causes and Consequences of Legislative Gridlock (Brookings Institution Press, 2003).

2See also Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), chapter 15.

Thomas E. Mann is senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This essay is excerpted from their book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.