Fixing Congress; a Radical Proposal

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif. gestures toward outgoing House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio during a new confe
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif. gestures toward outgoing House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio during a new conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015. McCarthy is assuring Republicans he can bring them together, even as emboldened conservatives maneuver to yank their party to the right in the wake of the leader of the U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner's sudden resignation. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

There are huge challenges facing our government. Climate change is happening, whether or not the far-right believes in it. Income inequality is being felt by a vast majority of voters in both parties, and the changing economy, moving from a manufacturing base to an information age, has made many people who want to work unable to find work at a living wage. The world of international politics is rapidly evolving, and failed states not only invite civil war and untold civilian deaths and displacements, but bring refugees in huge numbers flooding into parts of the world that struggle to meet the challenge. But what is it that our House of Representatives finds most important for discussion, in the midst of these challenges? Abortion. Benghazi. Really?

The Republican party, supposedly running the House, has been victimized by a minority pretending to be a majority, and they have remade the House of Representatives into a feckless debating society that cannot govern. John Boehner's historic resignation should wake us up to this fact: our politics are broken, and it is not just partisanship that has changed. Something structural has shifted, and the Congress is now an ungovernable mess. Members of the House from Republican districts don't fear facing a strong Democrat in a general election; gerrymandering has taken care of that for almost 90 percent of incumbents of both parties. What each House member fears is a challenge in the primary election, where a slice of a slice of the electorate has power far out of proportion to what they ought to have in a democracy. Just ask the man who was supposed to be Speaker, Eric Cantor.

The Republican House seems ungovernable, a fractious nest of infighting, while the Republican Senate is much more stable. Why? Again, the answer is structural. The split we see exposed between Republican Senators and Republicans in the House reflects the fact that Senators are largely insulated from the effects of a slice of a slice of the electorate, because even in party primaries they must win by appealing to an entire state. Republicans in the House are acting rationally, keeping their activists happy, whether their activists are rational or not. They do not need to appeal to the middle, ever. And they know it.

House members also know they stand for election every two years, which not only means never-ending fundraising, but the sure knowledge that half of their elections will take place in so-called "off-year" elections. When there is no presidential election, a much smaller slice of the electorate turns out even in the general election. So the House member not only has to constantly appeal to the base of the party for primary elections, but also for turn out in these non-presidential years, when only the most active voters show up. And the best way to increase turn out in these traditionally low-turnout elections, is to get the base angry about an emotional issue, like abortion, or gays, or guns, or immigration.

If we really wanted to reform our national politics so our public servants would be rewarded for focusing on the real problems in our civil society (not our moral or religious society), there is a radical reform that might make our politics healthy again. Imagine this: what would happen if we eliminated the House of Representatives entirely? Then we would not have a branch of government so beholden to a slice of a slice of a slice of the electorate. And that branch wouldn't have the power to gum up the business of government with endless useless committees on Planned Parenthood, Benghazi, whatever is the hot-button emotional issue of the moment.
Instead of a side-show appealing to "the base," we'd be much more likely to have legislative politics that would be forced, as democracies are supposed to be forced, to pay attention to the majority. Super Pacs and big donors would still have power, but the candidates they backed would have to appeal to the majority in order to win.

We are a much, much larger country than the Founders ever imagined. Jefferson expected every generation to come up with its own Constitution. It's long past time to redesign the structure of American government. There is a remedy for the tail of minorities in Congressional districts wagging the dog of the US Congress, and we ought to use it.