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.
Crosscut archive image.

Junius Brutus Stearns' "Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787," signing of U.S. Constitution.

UW legal scholar Hugh Spitzer explains seven constitutional amendments that would promote democracy and force D.C. to operate more openly.

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.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Hugh Spitzer

Hugh Spitzer

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