Let's Make Fixing Political Institutions the Political Issue of 2016

If international development organizations like the World Bank or the IMF were to overlook their GDP qualifications and advise the United States during the run-up to the 2016 election, the first medicine prescribed by both would be: "Fix your broken political institutions. You are not going to have fair and robust economic growth until you do." They would be right. We, however, have no ready access to their prescription; we only have ourselves, our democracy, and a national election coming up.

Our best, but infrequently used, recourse is to repeatedly and consistently ask what each presidential and congressional candidate will do to fix our broken democracy. Just blaming government won't work anymore. What specifically are YOU Mr. or Ms. Candidate going to do about it?

But first we need clear answers ourselves to the questions of what these political institutions are, why they are important to fair and robust growth, how they got broken and how we can start to fix them.

Let's begin with an in-depth answer to the first question. Democratic political institutions are arenas that have a set of rules allowing us to solve shared problems of the citizenry. They require broad and fair access to influencing and becoming decision makers. Getting good solutions (policies, laws, regulations, judicial opinions, etc.) require that the rules are universally applied, transparent, accountable and not susceptible to corruption. The rules must continuously try to balance the will of the majority with the rights of minority. The rules must also live under the shadow of the future, where today's decision presumes thousands of future decisions made under the fair rules of democratic institutions.

The World Bank does indeed use criteria similar to these to judge if a development investment has sound institutional underpinnings and thus will be more likely to promote shared economic growth. The "rediscovery" of American inequality might find useful lessons from international development evaluations.

Unfortunately, the US has been systematically breaking these institutional rules for democratic policy-making at an alarming rate for a generation. This rule-breaking almost always favors some groups over others: a specific political party, a clan or candidate or interconnected economic or political elites.

Our elective process itself has become a perfect example of a broken political institution and its consequences. Let's start with the money. Allowing the buying of elections is greatly limiting the pool of people who can become political decision makers. The Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court cases equated money with free (thus protected) speech and effectively removed federal campaign spending limits for individuals and organizations. Billions of dollars will wash through all the 2016 campaigns, increasingly drawn from rich, and sometimes immensely rich, individuals. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fl) personally announced his candidacy for president in a call to donors. A donor call!

Beyond money, political gerrymandering to create safe legislative districts is an example of breaking the rule of broad and fair access to becoming a decision maker. Estimates of safe congressional districts range from 66 percent to 75 percent. Safe districts induce primary candidates to cater to the fringes of their parties, making political compromise, the main objective of the institutional rules for democratic governance, unlikely in the extreme. The Hastert "rule" is an informal but powerful practice in the current congress that lets Republican House Speakers keep bills in committee that do not have the support of a majority of Republican House members. This "rule" is made possible in part by safe districts. Legislation that could pass with bi-partisan support never reaches a vote.

Postponement substitutes for safe districts in the Senate. Every year of the Obama presidency about 100 presidential appointees requiring Senate confirmation -- from judges to ambassadors to cabinet secretaries -- fall into the abyss of Republican delay, eroding citizen trust in government itself.

Few candidates seriously acknowledge the popular disgust with gridlock and money in politics. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who is considering running for president, supports a constitutional amendment to reduce the place of Super PACs in elections. Among the declared candidates, only Democrat Secretary Hillary Clinton made campaign finance reform one of the four pillars of her candidacy, even if it required a Constitutional amendment. Clinton and Graham know full well that adopting such an amendment is virtually impossible. As they acknowledge the loathing Americans have for "bought-and-paid-for" elections, both still court Super PACs for contributions. Implicitly, they concede that little legislative or court reform can be enacted in this election cycle.

We can still make a big difference. Let's make campaign finance reform the question candidates cannot escape. Let's move from grumbling at meetings and Tweeting about fresh outrages. Instead, every citizen, journalist, researcher and pollster can repeatedly ask candidates how they plan to make the institutions they hope to serve in stronger. The PBS Newshour offers one example. Brooks and Shields, and Ifill and Woodworth are well placed to probe all candidates on what they will do, in concrete terms, to bring American political institutions closer to democratic ideals.

Some suggestions from candidates might further erode effective political institutions. The risks are worth taking if the country is widely mobilized to keep asking "How?" everywhere and every time.

Timely solutions are key. Again, PBS could also initiate an American Institutions project like those on science and education, perhaps profiling the success of Massachusetts, Washington and Maryland in regularizing campaign spending at the state level. American foundations could fund research on fair and effective political institutions at home as well as abroad. Universities can convene practitioners and scholars who can contribute to the repertoire of short- and long-term solutions.

No one denies the great difficulties in changing political institutions that have been broken intentionally to advantage some candidates and parties. Winning candidates quickly become incumbents dependent on the status quo. Nonetheless, the problem of fixing American political institutions is only too hard until we consider the consequences of letting this election opportunity pass. It's time to lean in, lean in very hard.