The Only Way to Fix Congress

Ideas
Drutman is the author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America. He is a senior fellow at the think tank New America, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, the co-host of the podcast Politics in Question, and the co-founder of Fix Our House, a campaign for proportional representation in America.  
Wahl is the Deputy Executive Director of Fix Our House. He has led a variety of advocacy campaigns, including Save71, an organization he founded to promote accountability at his alma mater, Liberty University.

In the 18 days since House Republicans removed their Speaker, Congress has been effectively useless. Representatives haven’t negotiated a plan to avert the impending government shutdown. They haven’t worked on aid packages to Ukraine or Israel. They haven’t made progress on vital legislation like the farm bill, to keep basic necessities like milk from skyrocketing in cost. Instead, they’ve been voting over and over to elect a new Speaker, and they’ve gotten nowhere.

All the while, Washington, D.C. has been abuzz with creative theories about how Republicans can escape this mess with a new Speaker and a functional House. Sensing an opportunity, Democratic Speaker-in-waiting Hakeem Jeffries made an attention-grabbing proposal shortly after the chaos began: Republicans and Democrats should form a bipartisan coalition in the House and govern together.

That proposal was dismissed at first, but a version of this idea has become more enticing to some on Capitol Hill as House Republicans have continuously failed to elect a Speaker. It seems like exactly the kind of cooperation that three-fourths of Americans say they want to see in Congress. What’s not to like about a bipartisan deal? Perhaps nothing, but good luck getting it passed. The parties are simply too divided. 

America’s sharp division isn’t just about policy disagreements or ideology. Much of it comes down to the science of how Congress is elected. Winner-take-all elections have produced a fully-sorted two-party system in America that pits two sides against each other, incentivizes performative conflict, and punishes compromise. With the existing electoral and party system, we may as well invest all our money into a colony on Mars as hope for a bipartisan coalition leading Congress right now.

The silver lining is that America is not stuck with this broken system. Preserving the failing status quo is a choice. Winner-take-all elections are nowhere in the Constitution, and Congress has the power to change them. Multi-party coalitions work well in many other countries, and they can work in America, too, if we are willing to confront the root causes of Congress’s brokenness.

And the brokenness has rarely been clearer. Right now, voting to share power with Democrats could be career-ending for a Republican. Only seven Republicans represent districts that Inside Elections rates as “toss-up” districts in the next election, and the overwhelming majority of representatives (about 90%) come from districts that are totally “safe” for their party. That means Republicans don’t need to worry about winning over Democrats in their districts in order to win re-election, and would have little chance of doing so anyway. 

Instead, members of Congress need to worry about placating their primary voters, who tend to be much more intensely partisan and really, really dislike compromise. Shortly after McCarthy was removed, conservative talk radio host Mark Levin neatly summarized the position of the right-wing base: "I would not negotiate with Hakeem Jeffries and these Democrat Marxists and the Squad and all the rest of them if you put a gun to my head. These people are destroying our country at every turn. They are the enemy." 

Similarly, after some Republicans floated the idea of temporarily giving Speaker powers to the current Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry, the party’s right flank drew a line in the sand. Heritage Action, the advocacy wing of the far right Heritage Foundation, announced that they would consider any vote for empowering McHenry a “key vote” that would seriously harm the members’ scorecards. That’s no small thing. House Republicans’ careers can be made or ruined by the grades they get from conservative organizations and commentators, because it’s the primary, not the general election, that often determines whether they keep their job. And the competition within the party is real, too. Former Rep. Mark Meadows famously manipulated other Republicans into voting against Heritage Action recommendations so that his score would look better in contrast. In this hyperpartisan environment, even most moderate Republicans are motivated to lean as far to the right as they can in order to get through their primary elections. 

Today, any candidate for speaker only has one viable path to victory: getting 99% of their party to vote for them. And because recent electoral margins have been razor thin and are likely to remain thin, the party in power needs to be almost perfectly unified. That of course gives potential holdouts a tremendous amount of power – power that became clear when only eight Republicans without much of an agreed-upon strategy removed Speaker McCarthy, and Congress screeched to an immediate stop.

This situation is a unique product of two evenly balanced, deeply divided parties. This in turn flows from our system of winner-take-all elections, where one candidate is elected to represent an entire district. 

It’s a very inaccurate form of representation. All five of Oklahoma’s representatives are Republicans, even though about a third of Oklahoma voters consistently vote for Democrats, and all nine of Massachusetts’ representatives are Democrats, even though about a third of Massachusetts voters consistently vote for Republicans. Because the minority party doesn’t make up a majority of any one district, they never have a voice in Congress. That means that primary elections in these states effectively determine the general election outcome, making it easy to win for extreme candidates, harder for moderates, and impossible for anyone in the minority party. 

This is one reason why the overwhelming majority of the world’s democratic countries use proportional representation for their elections, where districts elect multiple representatives to Congress in proportion to their party’s share of the vote. In America, it would allow more voters to have a say in who represents them; if a party wins 40% of the vote, it would get about 40% of the seats. Oklahoma liberals and Massachusetts conservatives would have a voice. That would mean more moderates in Congress. Members of the far right and far left would be elected, too – but in accurate proportion to their amount of support. 

Proportional representation would also alter the incentive structure for representatives. Reflexive opposition to the “enemy” would no longer be the way to win elections, because voters would have more than a choice between the lesser of two evils. This would allow more ways to form a coalition in Congress capable of compromising and governing with a lot less infighting and chaos. This is one reason why last year, more than 200 political scientists, historians, and legal experts signed an open letter to Congress calling for the adoption of proportional representation.

Moving to a new election system would require a long and hard process. But it may be necessary if we want our legislative branch to work. Without change we’ll wind up with more of the same: narrow margins in the House that give extremists tremendous leverage to remove speakers at will, shut down the government, and litter the legislative process with dysfunction. Really, it’s our choice. 

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