Democracy: Can the Senate

If we don't keep in mind what a working democracy would look like we won't achieve even the minimum changes we need to address our most pressing problems. It might be widely understood that the Senate is a failure as an instrument of governance, but, okay, we can't can it yet.

In the meantime, reform is the word of the day. Campaign finance reform. Electoral college reform. And, this week, filibuster reform. A point of order, supported by 51 votes, could get rid of the filibuster today. More likely, we'll have to wait til the Senate reorganizes next January. Will the Democrats, shellshocked from the shellacking they're going to suffer in November, still be in the mood for change by the new year? Will they even have 51 votes when they convene in January? While we wait to find out, we have Sen. Tom Harkin's chuckle-headed mini-reform to keep us busy.

Question: why doesn't the majority just call the minority's bluff and let them get out the bottled water and sleeping bags and filibuster if they dare? That would be fun.
Reforms should target two-party stranglehold, power of incumbency

George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley doesn't think the most widely supported reforms go nearly far enough. "For decades," he wrote in an op-ed the other day,
political reform in the United States has largely meant campaign finance reform. It is a focus the political mainstream prefers, despite the fact that it is akin to addressing an engine with a design defect by regulating the fuel.

Many of our current problems are either caused or magnified by the stranglehold the two parties have on our political system. Democrats and Republicans, despite their uniformly low popularity with voters, continue to exercise a virtual monopoly, and they have no intention of relinquishing control. The result is that "change" is often limited to one party handing power over to the other party. Like Henry Ford's customers, who were promised any color car so long as it was black, voters are effectively allowed to pick any candidate they want, so long as he or she is a Democrat or Republican.

Both parties (and the media) reinforce this pathetic notion by continually emphasizing the blue state/red state divide. The fact is that the placement of members on the blue or red team is often arbitrary, with neither side showing consistent principles or values.

The Supreme Court's recent decision to strike down restrictions on corporate campaign giving has prompted some members of Congress to call for a constitutional amendment to reinstate the restrictions. But that would merely return us to the same status (and corrupted process) of a month ago.

We can reform our flawed system, but we have to think more broadly about the current political failure.
On this page, we have made the point that without third parties viable representative democracy is impossible. Turley argues forcefully that barriers to third parties need to be removed or modified, including complicated registration regulations and impossible petition requirements. "Moreover," he writes,
we should require a federally funded electronic forum for qualified federal candidates to post their positions and material for voters. And in races for national office, all candidates on the ballot in the general election should submit to a minimum of three (for Congress) or five (for the presidency) debates that would be funded and made publicly available by the government.
Turley's list of needed changes is no less urgent for being familiar. He would end gerrymandering and require that congressional districts be apportioned uniformly. He would make it easier to run in primaries and mandate that the top two vote-getters in primaries would be the candidates in the general even if they were from the same party. He would abolish the electoral college. And he would require a majority for a president to be elected.
If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, there should be a runoff of the two top vote-getters -- as is the custom in most other nations. This would tend to force candidates to reach out to third parties and break up monopoly control of the two parties.
None of this is likely to happen any time soon, unfortunately. The small states will not willingly give up power, no matter how unfair their advantages, so putting together the required majorities in the Congress is a lost cause. Turley might be willing to risk a constitutional convention despite the likelihood that it would be dominated by corporate interests and could get sidetracked by divisive social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion.

Finally, I think Turley agrees that third parties offer the best mechanism for pursuing reform. Voters who live in states like New York and California that already have third parties in place would do well to get involved. For people residing elsewhere, it's time to get to work. If you've been persuaded by the argument that a third party vote is "wasted," consider this: there is nothing to be lost by combining strategies, for example, challenging incumbents in the primaries and then supporting third party candidates in the general election if they better represent your political values. Democratic primary candidates like Jonathan Tasini for U.S. Senate in New York or Marcy Winograd who is running against security state representative Jane Harman in Califoria are worthy of support, although it would be helpful to the causes they believe in if they would commit to supporting independent and third party pro-labor and anti-war candidates in November if their primary bids fail.

The rest of the story: Reforms should target two-party stranglehold, power of incumbency by Jonathan Turley (Baltimore Sun 2010-02-15)

See, also: Rachel Maddow On Busting The Filibuster (video - MSNBC)

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