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Seven ways to break D.C. gridlock

UW legal scholar Hugh Spitzer explains seven constitutional amendments that would promote democracy and force D.C. to operate more openly.
Junius Brutus Stearns' "Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787," signing of U.S. Constitution.

Junius Brutus Stearns' "Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787," signing of U.S. Constitution. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts/Wikimedia Commons

Almost all American voters — both Democrats and Republicans — readily agree on one thing: It’s time to end partisan bickering and gridlock in Washington D.C.  Voters also agree that Congressional operations could stand to be a lot more transparent. For example, people are also tired of Senate filibusters and the practice of anonymous “holds” by senators that block legislation and confirmations. Most Americans would also like to stop the practice of “logrolling” unrelated topics into a piece of legislation, and  hiding substantive amendments in long and complex bills.   

Ending partisan gridlock, and increasing transparency and real democracy, depends first and foremost on people — on lawmakers who are willing to listen to each other, willing to avoid knee-jerk responses to the other party’s proposals, and willing to compromise. But a few structural changes could create a framework more conducive to democracy, transparency, and just plain working together to solve problems. Here are seven proposed constitutional changes that might help end the gridlock in Washington D.C.

  1. Amend the Constitution to ban supermajority vote requirements in either house and secret “holds” that keep legislation from coming to a vote. In other words, ban the filibuster and require up-or-down majority votes on all legislation — no exceptions other than Senate treaty ratifications, impeachments, declarations of presidential disability, and constitutional amendments.
  2. Add a “single subject” requirement for all federal legislation. More than 40 states limit legislation to a single subject, and most of those require that the subject be clearly stated in the bill’s title. This prevents logrolling legislation with multiple topics to garner votes, and it keeps legislators from hiding unrelated subjects in the same bill. Transparency in legislation will force Congress to take up-or-down votes on specific policy choices, so they can make choices and move on to the next issue for action.
  3. Require that amendatory legislation set forth the entire section amended, and clearly show what words are being added and which are being deleted. The constitutions of a majority of states, including Washington, have this type of provision. By contrast, federal bills are hard to read and to follow, leading to lots of hidden legislation. Sometimes bills bill add the word “not” between two other words in an existing statute, but by reading it you wouldn’t know the subject matter or what’s being changed. We deserve transparency.
  4. Extend House terms to four years, with half the House reelected every two years. If a member of Congress didn’t face re-election every two years, he or she might  have time to get something done.
  5. Make the Senate better reflect each state’s population. For example, every state could be guaranteed at least one senator, but not two, and allow up to four senators for the largest states. There’s no longer any justification for Vermont, with a 2010 population of 625,741, to have the same number of senators as California, with 37,253,956 residents. Making the Senate more democratic would mean that senators from sparsely populated regions could no longer hold up bills backed by the vast majority of voters.
  6. Elect each president just once — but for a six-year term. This is how it’s done in Mexico, for example. A longer term enables the president to get something done. And a one-term-only limit enables each president to focus on what he or she wants to achieve rather than worrying about re-election. While we’re at it, let’s dump the confusing Electoral College and go for election by a simple majority of all Americans.
  7. Give the president the power to dissolve the House of Representatives once in a presidential term, and only in an odd-numbered “off year.” Most countries have a mechanism for dissolving parliament when lawmakers are gridlocked.  We could do the same, and enable the president to go straight to the electorate for a change in congressional make-up when lawmakers refuse to work together to pass legislation.

Constitutional changes aren’t easy, because they require a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress. Lawmakers won’t readily yield their power to stall. Amendments also must be approved by three-quarters of the states, and smaller states might not want to give up senators and presidential electors. Furthermore, constitutional amendments won’t by themselves stop all gridlock or guarantee democracy and transparency — quality lawmakers and a willingness to work collaboratively across party lines is every bit as important.  But a package of constitutional amendments could make a real difference, and it’s worth serious discussion and public action.

Hugh Spitzer teaches both federal and state constitutional law at the University of Washington School of Law.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Nov 19, 6:04 a.m. Inappropriate

Don't we have "single subject" rules already in Washington State? They are only enforced when it goes against what the One Party Monopoly wants. Rules are only as good as the people enforcing them.

I still recall Mr. Spitzer chairing a panel discussion at UW about the ACA right after it passed and how it wasn't a problem and the everything in it was Constitutional. There was no basis for a challenge.

Cameron

Posted Mon, Nov 19, 11:36 a.m. Inappropriate

I would far prefer that congress be limited to 2 terms; the original intent of congress was to have citizen participation in governement as opposed to "professonal politicians." This body should constnatly rotate. I do like the president elected once for 6 ears....so not havign to run for office the entire first term

lpatrick

Posted Mon, Nov 19, 11:41 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm sure that the author would propose all these changes under a Republican Administration and Republican controlled House and Senate.

animalal

Posted Mon, Nov 19, 12:23 p.m. Inappropriate

Getting rid of phony "filibusters" and anonymous "holds" is a heavy lift. So let's call that "step one" and when it is accomplished we can look at some of these other ideas. "Log rolling" is a bad name for a reasonable practice. By any other name, it is called "negotiation" and someone wrote a book about it called "Getting to Yes." Affordable Care Act is a good example. Sometimes to get, you have to give.

Posted Mon, Nov 19, 1:10 p.m. Inappropriate

The filibuster can be addressed by changing the Senate rules; it does not require constitutional action.

Earmarks, another source of public frustration with the Congress, can also be tamed by changing the rules. The $3 Billion (approx.)of directed appropriations that Congress earmarks each year without scrutiny can be controlled by adopting a modest proposal:

Provide legislators with discretionary spending authority, say $500 thousand to congressmen and $1 million to senators. Then by House and Senate rule accept only (a) appropriations that have received full committee consideration; or (b) appropriations made under each representative's discretionary spending authority.

This procedure would limit discretionary appropriations to about $300 million/yr. That would be a small price to pay for fiscal accountability!

Queenanne

Posted Mon, Nov 19, 2:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Well put and very doable, if they really want to. In the last 10 years we've had both parties in complete control at one time or the other, and your common sense solutions, unfortunately, haven't seen the light of day in D.C.

Djinn

Posted Mon, Nov 19, 5:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Professor Spitzer offers up some interesting suggestions, but two of them undermine the very fabric of the Constitution. Like them or not, fooling with them is like shifting the first floor of a high-rise, "just a little".

The first is the realignment of the Senate. Eliminating those pesky junior senators from small states might ease gridlock, but it also makes the Senate more population-based, a move that compromises the ability of medium and small states to protect their own local interests. It also increases the already monumental influence of states like California and New York, and by implication, of huge urban centers. The whole concept of a bicameral congress is that the representational bases are different. Making them more alike in the name of efficiency bears too high a price.

Similarly, giving the President the power to dissolve a sitting House does damage to the most basic concept of checks and balances. The creation of such a clearly controlling threat throws the balance careening into power politics to a degree not seen since Marbury. One might equally fear the idea of the Supreme Court deciding a presidential election... oh, wait...

If a bicameral congress and the separation of powers are compromised just a little, will the edifice stand?

Slidezone

Posted Tue, Nov 20, 8:54 a.m. Inappropriate

I generally tend to be wary of process changes because they tend both to not work as intended and to cause unintended effects. Think of the Pendleton Act, which brought about what were admittedly much needed reforms to the civil service. One of the consequences was, with patronage no longer the dominant force in political campaigning, the door was open to the dominance of election by big money. Think of the initiative system that West Coast states have adopted during the Progressive Era to allow the public to bypass the influence of railroads; now it is used by businesses to bypass the Legislature.

The opposite extreme of partisan gridlock is instability. Imagine if we really had "real democracy", which entails straight up majority rule in Congress. Every Tea Party policy you can imagine would now be the law of the land, though by next summer it would all be repealed. You don't have to work too hard to imagine; this is exactly what happens in Britain or other parliamentary countries.

Posted Sat, Nov 24, 8:37 a.m. Inappropriate

The professor I feel attempts to do legislation by amendment. Rather than attempting to pass seven amendments, he should support only one. In this case I recommend the IRR proposal of the state of Wisconsin submitted in 1929. That proposal would create an initiative, referendum, recall system in the federal government. By use of that system, the obvious legislative changes sought by the professor could then be obtained.

This application, along with 747 others by the 49 submitting states, can be read at www.foavc.org. The professor should have mentioned the fact the states have already applied in sufficient number to cause a convention call. He failed to do this as well as failed to mention the alternative method of amendment proposal at all. This failure would lead his readers to assume that under no circumstances could his proposals, all of which are good by the way, ever actually occur. The facts speak differently and the professor should have mentioned them in his article as to do so only strengthens his arguments as he provides a means whereby they can be accomplished.

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