President Obama's "recess" appointment of Richard Cordray as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has caused a partisan political flap. The GOP is threatening court action to redress what they see as an effort to circumvent the Senate's authority to confirm presidential appointments. The White House, with an eye on the 2012 election, responded that the people's business, particularly the business of protecting the middle class, will not be impeded by anti-consumer Republicans in Congress. A fine sentiment. But, if the White House only resists the partisanship of the Republicans, and never challenges the partisanship of both parties, it can have a hollow ring.
And so it goes inside the beltway. While the question of how to reform partisan politics looms large, No Labels, a political reform organization founded in 2010 and counting members and former members of Congress and government, businessmen, academics, pundits and political consultants among its founders and supporters, has weighed in on the controversy. Its solution: a 12-point package of Congressional rules changes announced in December that includes requiring the Senate to act on all presidential nominees within 90 days of their being named by the president.
Interestingly, while Obama made his controversial recess appointments to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board, he did not choose this moment to fill any vacancies on the Federal Elections Commission (FEC). The FEC continues to function, (badly, according to a January 6, 2012 New York Times editorial), with five of its six commissioners continuing to serve despite the expiration of their terms.
Democrats and Republicans in Congress, with the apparent acquiescence of the White House, prefer to let the agency continue in a state of bipartisan gridlock. The FEC has three Democratic and three Republican Commissioners. Legally, however, the Commission need not be bipartisan, the only requirement is that no more than three Commissioners are members of the same political party. It could be nonpartisan or multipartisan. The obvious solution, and one which IndependentVoting.org and other reform advocates such as Theresa Amato, executive director of Citizens Works, have advocated, is the appointment of several independents to the FEC (See February 2, 2010 op-ed in the Kansas City Star).
This and other "independent" solutions to overcoming partisanship inside (and outside) the beltway, including nonpartisan elections and open primaries, are back-burnered by No Labels and other reform organizations whose focus is on asking the partisans in Congress to reform themselves. No Labels had this to say when it announced its 12-point program for reforming Congress:
Our dozen proposals to make congress work mostly don't require new laws or any new spending, and they don't favor any party or particular cause. These are simple, straightforward proposals to break gridlock, promote constructive discussion and reduce polarization in Congress. They can be adopted, almost all at once, when the next Congress convenes in January 2013.
Leaving aside the difficulties inherent in asking Congress to reform itself, there is another set of reforms relating to how Congress gets elected, surely a critical component of engaging the question of who members of Congress should be accountable to -- the parties or the people who elect them. Appointing independents to the FEC is one way of breaking down the partisans' control of the political process itself. Shouldn't the 40 percent of the electorate who self-identify as independents have representation on the body that oversees the electoral process?
Others are Top Two primaries and nonpartisan redistricting reform. Top Two does away with party primaries that are dominated by small numbers of party activists, who tend to be more ideological. Instead, all candidates run on one primary ballot with the top two going on to the general election. Independents can fully participate, unlike the closed party primaries which bar them. Another outside-the-beltway reform is nonpartisan redistricting that aims to break up the current system which allows parties to bargain with each other for "safe" districts where the winner of the party primary is assured election in November.
Nonpartisan election administration, top two and redistricting reform take aim at the power of the parties themselves seeking to break their hold over the electoral and governing process. These reforms are premised on the belief that you cannot change what members of Congress do in Washington without changing how they get there.
Their advocates do not claim they can be realized "almost all at once... by 2013." They will be achieved by bottom-up fundraising, coalition building and organizing. The states that have adopted Top Two have done so in referendums in California and Washington state where the reform was adopted by a substantial majority. A petition drive to put a Top Two referendum on the ballot is underway in Arizona. States with Initiative and Referendum are also the most likely to enact meaningful redistricting reform.
Outside-the-beltway reform activists believe that the difficult and long-term effort it takes to achieve these reforms is a good thing. In the process of winning them and using them, the American people will become more developed and politically sophisticated and take direct responsibility for our democracy. Those who occupied Wall Street and Cairo's Tahrir Square were responding to the fact that career politicians who benefit from the status quo cannot be counted on to change it. Those interested in political reform should to take that to heart.