No-Win Elections

When the Founding Fathers drafted the U.S. Constitution, they imagined the U.S. House of Representatives as the repository of the public will, a disorderly and raucous chamber capable of giving voice to the nation’s base democratic impulses.  Elections every two-years and frequent turnover would assure the House of Representatives closely reflected the public’s policy preferences. These preferences would be heavily filtered and refined in the more aristocratic Senate whose principal job was to assure that the bad ideas originating in the House of Representatives didn’t become bad laws.

Two-hundred and seventeen years post-ratification, the House of Representatives is mostly immune to collective democratic accountability.  The Washington Post recently mapped out the lack of competition in U.S. House elections using the ratings from the Cook Political Report. The picture tells the simple story: Throughout most of the country, there is no meaningful competition. Out of 435 House elections, only 26 House races are rated as toss-ups while the vast majority of seats (85 percent) are safely in Republican (209) or Democratic (161) hands.

Such a scenario might make sense were voters largely content but this is decidedly not the case.  Congressional approval stands at an anemic 13 percent, President Obama’s favorability ratings are at or near their low point, and only 27 percent of Americans say the country is heading in the right direction. While Republican candidates may have benefited more from this collective discontent, “Republicans in Congress” are even less popular than President Obama or “Democrats in Congress,” with only 1 in 5 Americans approving of the job they are doing.  Indeed, what is perhaps most remarkable about our collective discontent is that it has nowhere to go, no easy targets for attributing blame or affixing responsibility.

This isn’t the way that democratic elections are supposed to work. In a democracy, elections serve as an imperfect mechanism for translating voter preferences into policy outcomes.  At a bare minimum, elections should provide voters with the opportunity to throw the bums out. Yet, this election cycle of discontent will mostly reinforce a status quo of gridlock and intransigence, giving voters even more of what they believe do not want.

Voters are unquestionably part of the problem, their demands are often contradictory and their policy preferences uninformed and unstable. Dissatisfaction with the health care system, for example, means very little in terms of support for health care reform as policy preferences shift quickly when the public realizes they might actually have to actually pay the bill.

Yet, if the voters are partly to blame, the problem is also deeply structural.  Congressional elections provide very little in the way of collective accountability and almost no incentive for actually governing. Thanks to carefully drawn single-member districts, individual House members run in overwhelming partisan districts and win easily on party-line votes. Indeed, in contemporary politics, incumbent politicians are more likely to be punished than rewarded for working constructively across the aisle or effectively negotiating compromise on difficult and complex issues.  The safe political strategy is to stand firmly on the right side of the issues, denounce the other side, and get little or nothing done.

In some ways, this is nothing new. Congressional scholars have long noted the ability of individual representatives to succeed even as Congress as an institution flounders. Once upon a time, however, incumbents worked hard to represent their districts, secured funding for district projects, and gained seniority on committees and subcommittees to influence policy. Effective legislators kept their seats even as local partisan tides were shifting because they were effective legislators.

In contemporary politics, polarization and partisan districting have turned what was once a curious and distinct trait of American politics into a pathology.  In such an environment, serving as an effective policy-maker – rather than loudly and uncivilly representing the views of constituents – is a liability.   Ineffective legislators can succeed as long as they are faithful representatives of their very local and partisan constituencies.

We can fix this shortcoming but doing so requires rethinking our electoral process and the possibilities for reform. Advocates for campaign finance reform and term limits, for example, often target the lack of competitiveness in elections without getting to its source.  Remove all the incumbents and many districts would still overwhelmingly favor one party over another. Provide public financing in uncompetitive districts and you only marginally improve the level of competition.  Instead, the path to meaningful reform requires rethinking the incentive structures that reward individual politicians while undermining collective decision-making. I would offer three suggestions here:

  1. Replace single-member districts with proportional representation requiring members to represent more diverse constituencies.
  2. Create a set number of at-large seats (30-40) requiring the winners to represent national rather than local constituencies.
  3. Require a nationwide vote on performance of the U.S. Congress that would be binding on all members, effectively imposing term limits with an unfavorable vote. Such a vote would provide the sort of collective responsibility mostly absent from contemporary politics.

None of these solutions is perfect but each gets more directly at the problem than other well-intended but misguided reform efforts. If we can have an election defined by wide-scale disaffection and little or no competition, something is deeply wrong.  And, if we can have an election amidst this collective discontent that yields no significant movement in policy and that instead endorses an undesirable status quo, then our electoral process is indeed broken and needs fixing. We can fix the process or we can continue to be frustrated and dissatisfied with the representatives we continue to elect.