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Why Congress Doesn’t Work

Lawmakers’ avoidance of accountability undermines self-government.

Faced with a complex, hard-to-solve problem, there is a natural human tendency to solve a much simpler, easier one instead. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, dubs this cognitive process “substitution.”

We know our political system is broken. The signs are everywhere: knee-jerk partisanship, massive debts and unfunded liabilities, widespread citizen dissatisfaction, trillion-dollar deficits, rampant public and private corruption, and a federal government that has less support than King George III at the time of the American Revolution.

But fixing the system is a staggeringly complex undertaking. The causes of its dysfunction are deep and obscure.

So what do we do? We use substitution: we focus on electing a president who promises to solve all our problems. Conservatives did this in 2000, progressives did it in 2008, and both sides are doing it again in 2012.

But it won’t work. There is no silver bullet, no shortcut, no Superman who will save us. In fact, by focusing almost exclusively on the presidency, we are making the problem worse, not better.

Our nation’s core political problem is a loss of self-governance, and the restoration of self-governance cannot come from the election of a single leader who will fundamentally transform America. It will only come from changing the way we think about political conflict, breaking the cycle of incumbency that has destroyed electoral accountability, dispersing power that has become too centralized, and re-engaging citizens in the political realm. The biggest impediment to these changes is not the president—it’s Congress.

This is not to say that the presidency is irrelevant. But Congress is the most powerful branch—it writes the laws and holds the purse strings—and it is utterly unaccountable for reasons that are widely misunderstood. Perhaps the greatest mystery of American politics in the 21st century is how Congress can have an approval rating that dips into the single digits while, on average, more than 90 percent of incumbents win re-election.

If Congress is unresponsive, restoring self-governance is impossible. But lawmakers will not reform themselves. Thus the critical first step in returning to self-governance is making congressional elections work—reconnecting the ballot box and the people’s will. This is a difficult task, but not impossible. Primary elections are the key.

This year, I have worked with a small group of committed men and women on a simple mission: to use a SuperPAC to defeat, in primary elections, unpopular congressional incumbents in “safe” districts.

Our organization, the Campaign for Primary Accountability, has targeted Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. In its first three months, we engaged in nine primary contests and won four. To put this in perspective, only four incumbents out of 396 lost their primaries in all of 2010.

We have beaten an establishment Republican in Ohio, a Tea Party-supported Republican in Illinois, a Blue Dog Democrat in Pennsylvania, and a mainstream Democrat in Texas. In the process, we have been called conservatives, liberals, Tea Partiers, anarchists, right-wingers, and both pro-Obama and anti-Obama. We are the political equivalent of Schrödinger’s Cat.

There have been two principal responses to our campaign: fear and confusion. This essay will hopefully alleviate the latter—and thereby enhance the former.



Let me be clear from the outset. On the familiar right-left spectrum, I’m a conservative. Asked to characterize my position, I typically respond that I’m a “conservative communitarian,” but that still makes me a conservative.

For example, I am for lower taxes, a smaller public sector, a strong military, more reliance on prices and markets, and less regulation. I am pro-life, highly skeptical of government-provided welfare programs, and a supporter of choice and competition in public education. There are policy areas where I am closer to my progressive friends—criminal justice, anti-trust, campaign-finance reform, and a few others—but any fair-minded observer would view me as a conservative.

Yet I firmly believe that a more conservative Congress will not save America. In fact, a conservative Congress will probably make things worse.

If this strikes you as cognitive dissonance or some bizarre form of philosophical self-hatred, you’re not alone. Most people think that if you hold certain policy views, you should support a Congress that would put those policies into effect.

I disagree.

The major challenges facing the United States today are not problems of policy, but problems of governance. Our system is broken because we have imposed policies from the center that should be decided locally. Making those centralized policies more “conservative” will not improve our system; in fact, that will likely make things worse by increasing support for a bad governance structure. And a good policy under a bad governance structure ultimately morphs into a bad policy.

The “horizontal” fight over what is decided is a diversion from the more important “vertical” fight over who decides. The vertical fight will determine whether we restore the American system of self-governance or continue our progression toward the Bismarckian procedural state.

But shifting the focus from horizontal to vertical confuses those who are embedded in traditional politics. Their goal is to elect a national government that will impose their policy preferences on all 300 million Americans. For them, politics is about power and policy.

For the self-governance movement, however, who decides is more important than what is decided. This framework allows us to create alliances across the ideological spectrum. We might disagree on policy, but we can unify on governance.

And that unity creates fear in Congress. As well it should.


Congress Is the Problem

My personal political journey began about five years ago when I was sitting at a business luncheon in Houston, listening to a presentation by the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Richard Fisher. He showed a series of slides with typical Fed fare: deficits, interest rates, home prices, mortgage markets.

This was before the financial crisis, and the economy still seemed strong. But Fisher was not so optimistic, and his talk was a little unnerving. At the end, he said words to the effect, “All of this probably sounds scary, but the next slide that I’m going to show you is the one that keeps me up at night. If you are concerned about your country, it should keep you up at night too.”

On the screen appeared one number: $84 trillion. “That is the unfunded liability of Medicare,” Fisher said.

I quickly ran the math and realized this was almost $300,000 for every man, woman, and child in the United States, including my wife, my five kids, and me. I was stunned.

After the luncheon, I made my way through the crowd to find Fisher. I expressed my bewilderment and said the number couldn’t possibly be true. “It’s true, “ he replied. “It’s one of the first questions I asked my research staff when I joined the Fed, and it has been checked and double-checked.”

“How did this happen?” I asked.

He looked at me and said one word: “Congress.”

With that word, Fisher awoke me from my dogmatic slumber.

It is ironic to recall that the Founders gave the power of the purse to the House of Representatives because, being more responsive to the people, it would protect their pocketbooks from the extravagances of the executive branch. For the first 100 years, it pretty much worked that way, with federal spending about 4 percent of GDP.

Today the House is a spending machine—it spends $10 billion each day and more than 25 percent of GDP. Money can’t buy love, but it can buy power: in November 2010, Congress had an approval rating of just 17 percent, while the re-election rate in the House was 86 percent.

This disconnect between approval and re-election rates is the clearest sign that the congressional accountability system is broken. But there are several underlying causes:

The problem of scale. When the Framers met to write the Constitution, there were about 3 million inhabitants in the 13 states. Virginia, the largest, had a population of some 700,000 (of which 280,000 were slaves). The largest city, Philadelphia, had a population of 40,000.

At the Constitutional Convention, there was considerable debate about the size of House districts. When a proposal was made for districts of 40,000, George Washington rose to speak for the first and only time. He opposed the large size and recommended 30,000. His amendment was adopted.

Today, House districts average over 700,000—more than the entire population of Virginia in 1780. This growth alone represents a 96 percent dilution of citizen influence since our Founding.

The problem of primaries. The average margin of victory for incumbents in general elections is 26 percent, and only 15 percent or so of House districts are competitive in the general. For the other 85 percent, the outcome is decided in the primary. But the primary system does not hold incumbents accountable.

During the 19th century, all politics truly was local. Congressional candidates were nominated through a caucus and convention system controlled by local parties and their bosses. The caucuses were non-binding, but they allowed bosses to gauge support for each candidate. Local control also allowed for forced rotation, so that representatives did not serve more than a couple of terms, thus assuring fealty to local parties.

Unfortunately, many local bosses were corrupt, using their power in “smoked-filled rooms” to line their own pockets. Primaries were seen as a way to end that corruption, and they did. But they also gutted the local parties and led to the centralization of party power, first at the state level, then nationally.

Reform was needed, but primaries had unintended consequences—one of which is that incumbents rarely lose. This fact was not lost on incumbents themselves: after progressive Republicans instituted the first primary in Wisconsin in 1904, primaries spread quickly across the country. By 1920, almost all congressional candidates were chosen in this way.

Incumbents still rarely lose. In the four elections between 2002 and 2008, only 12 House members were defeated in primaries. Over the same span, 13 died in office. God creates higher turnover in the House than primaries do.

The problem of money. With districts so large and candidates selected via primary, a member of the House could not win re-election without the substantial financial resources needed to communicate directly with voters. A big differential in funding virtually determines the outcome of a primary.

But money also creates huge advantages for “safe seat” incumbents who face little or no general-election competition. Freed from having to worry about their own campaigns, and assured of the longevity that leads to seniority and power, House members in safe districts amass huge war chests and use that money to help their party win in swing districts, thereby garnering loyalty from the candidates they support.

These war chests deter competition in their own primaries as well: in 2010, 62 percent of incumbents had no primary challenger, and those who did won by an average margin of 66 percent. The vast majority went on to face no serious opposition in the general.

The most powerful members are therefore the least accountable. Their money advantage is a big reason for that.

The problem of “campaign reform.” The last hundred years have seen a steady stream of campaign-reform legislation. Incumbents have consistently used these “reforms” to erect barriers to keep local party leaders—who are now supplicants, not bosses—the local business community, and everyone else from impeding their re-election. They have transferred control of elections to the government bureaucracy they fund and control, created complex ballot-access laws, switched to the Australian ballot to weaken local parties, outlawed corporate contributions, and imposed contribution limits to make it hard for opponents to fund a credible challenge.

That these reforms protect incumbents by lessening competition is perfectly predicable: in what universe would you expect incumbents to pass laws that make it easier for them to lose?

The power of incumbency. As a result of these changes, incumbency is now golden. Throughout the 19th century, the average tenure in the House at the start of a session was about two years. By the early 21st century, the average starting tenure had risen to 10.2 years.

With larger districts, primary elections, the greater influence of money, and a series of reforms that discouraged challengers, House members were freed from the accountability system that had held them in check. Incumbents used to be agents of the local party; today they are free agents.

Incumbents used to be controlled by party bosses; today they are the party bosses.



“Reforms” That Will Not Work

None of this will surprise the careful observer of American politics. But diagnosis is only the first step. What is the remedy?

Several therapies have been prescribed and, in a few states, even tried. But none of them have cured the disease and restored accountability.

Curtail gerrymandering. The most common prescription is to change the process by which congressional districts are drawn. We are promised that if we just eliminate the gerrymander, we abolish the safe seats that protect incumbents.

Clearly, gerrymandering is offensive, but it is almost as old as the republic—the term was first used in the Boston Gazette in 1812. If it were the root problem, its effects on the behavior of the House would have appeared long before the late 20th century. Moreover, detailed academic studies have shown that the number of competitive House elections is virtually unaffected by redistricting.

Surprisingly, partisan redistricting results in more competitive elections than bipartisan or non-partisan redistricting. To understand why, consider two adjoining House districts, one a suburban district that is 70 percent Republican, the other an urban district that is 60 percent Democratic. If Republican legislators were in control of redistricting, what would they do?

They would try to shift 10 percent of GOP voters from the suburban to the urban district. This would leave the suburban district with a safe 20-point advantage and put the urban district in play. As a result, both districts would become more competitive. This outcome is due to the natural incentive partisans have to increase the potential number of House seats for their party at the cost of the margin of safety.

So why since the 1960s have incumbents enjoyed re-election rates of about 90 percent? Alan Abramowitz and his colleagues at Emory University, who have written on the shift toward uncompetitive elections in the House, came to the following conclusion:

This shift has not been caused by redistricting but by demographic change and ideological realignment within the electorate. Moreover, even in the remaining marginal districts most challengers lack the financial resources needed to wage competitive campaigns. The increasing correlation among district partisanship, incumbency, and campaign spending means that the effects of these variables tend to reinforce each other to a greater extent than in the past. The result is a pattern of reinforcing advantages that leads to extraordinarily uncompetitive elections.

The problem is not gerrymandering but a system that has created “reinforcing advantages” driven by money, incumbency, and low voter turnout (which tends to accentuate partisanship).

Enlarge the House. Among functioning democracies, our legislature is the least representative body. In Japan, each member of the Diet’s lower house represents about 245,000 people. For members of the German Bundestag, the ratio is 1 to 123,000. For the French Assembly, 1 to 100,000. For Canada’s House of Commons, 1 to 96,000; and for the UK’s, 1 to 89,000.

After the 1920 census, the House of Representatives for the first time refused to enlarge itself to accommodate a larger population. In 1929, it formally fixed its membership at the current number. The population has tripled since.

If we had held to the Framers’ original limit, the House would now have over 10,000 members. Clearly that would be impractical. Various proposals have been made to enlarge the House to 1,200 members, reducing the average size of a district to around 200,000.

There is just one problem: only Congress can make this change, and it has no incentive to do so. If the House would not consent to its enlargement in 1920, why should it in 2012? The perks, the power, and the money have only increased since then. Why risk diluting those benefits?

The only recourse is a constitutional amendment. But constitutional amendments do not cause political change; they are a consequence of political change. Arguing today for an amendment to reduce congressional power would be akin to arguing in 1840 for an amendment to free the slaves. Slavery ended because of the abolitionist movement and the Civil War, not the Reconstruction Amendments. The war is first won, and then the victors codify the result.

Institute term limits. From 1990 to 1995, the term-limit movement won many battles, with 23 states imposing limited terms of office on their elected representatives, including members of Congress. But by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that only Congress could limit its own terms.

That was not the only reason for the movement’s collapse. Skeptics can now offer a one-word rebuttal to term-limits enthusiasts: California. Although there are many reasons for the Mess in the West, 20 years of term limits for state legislators have not kept California from hurtling toward fiscal disaster.

Reform campaign finance. Given the role that money plays in elections, why not directly try to “get money out of politics”? This is a very popular idea among progressives, who see the corruption within the system and view shutting off the cash flow as the obvious solution.

There are several reasons why this will not work. First, as with all “campaign reforms,” no law will pass Congress that adversely affects incumbents. And since the current finance system favors them, there is no reason to believe they will make the kinds of changes to funding rules that would increase electoral competition.

Second, the Supreme Court has been very clear that political spending is a form of political speech and is therefore protected by the Constitution. You might disagree with their jurisprudence, but unless and until the justices change their minds, money will continue to flow into super PACs and other independent-expenditure entities.

Finally, given how much money Congress appropriates, it is practically impossible to eliminate the money others spend to influence lawmakers. Outlawing money in politics wouldn’t stop the flow; it would simply push it underground.

So, if eliminating the gerrymander, increasing the size of the House, term limits, and campaign reform won’t break the cycle of incumbency, what can we do?

Two things, neither of which requires the consent of Congress:

First, change the political narrative.

Second, use primary elections to restore Congress’s accountability to the citizenry.


Defining the Alternatives

E.E. Schattschneider once wrote, “The definition of the alternatives is the supreme instrument of power.” Political alternatives are defined through narratives.

It is fashionable to bemoan the “lack of bipartisanship” that has resulted in “gridlock.” The conventional narrative goes something like this: The Tea Parties and Occupy Wall Street are responsible for the increased polarization of political discourse, which makes it impossible for bipartisan consensus to emerge. These extremists pressure legislators to accept no compromise, but without any compromise, we are left with gridlock.

This story has a certain internal logic. But it is not the best explanation for the failures that have left Congress with a lower approval rating than polygamy.

An alternative narrative goes something like this: There is a broad bipartisan consensus in Washington, D.C. on the most important political question today: Who decides? Both parties agree that Congress should decide, and they cooperate to protect and expand this power. By arrogating these decisions to themselves, lawmakers are tackling problems they cannot solve and pre-empting the search for diverse local solutions by others. There is gridlock because Congress tries to force a single solution on the entire country, when no politically acceptable solution exists.

Each narrative is rooted in one dimension of politics: the conventional wisdom is “horizontal,” the alternative narrative is “vertical.” And that defines the real conflict in American politics today, which is not between the parties or between the right and the left, but between centrocracy and self-governance.



Consider the increased share of federal and state spending and decreased share of local government spending over the past 100 years as shown in the above figure. Is there any doubt that government decision-making has become more centralized over this period? This is what happens under a centrocracy.

But that is not the American system, which was designed as a self-governing republic, not a procedural republic like the one established by Otto von Bismarck for the Second German Reich.

The transformation of our system from a self-governing to a procedural republic is the result of a series of Progressive Era reforms that began around the turn of the 20th century. These created a self-reinforcing loop of incentives that moved power from individuals, families, communities, local governments, and states to the federal government.

Changing the narrative from left vs. right to centrocrats vs. citizens is a necessary step. But it is not sufficient: Congress will not happily give up its power. That power must be taken away. One way to do this is to turn one of their own advantages against them: primary elections.


How to Break the Cycle of Incumbency

The primary is the weakest link in the chain that keeps the centrocrats in control. If the objective is to break the feedback loop that leads to centrocracy, the primary is the place to do it.

Here a distinction may be useful. As the readers of this magazine know, there is a difference between conservatives and conservative Republicans. There is also a difference between progressives and progressive Democrats. Many progressives are repelled by the growth of the national-security state, and they believe Congress has abetted Wall Street in the looting of the financial system. These progressives, many of them young, have been at the forefront of the movement toward localism in areas such as food, urban design, and community engagement, while being globally connected through the Internet—the independence and freedom of which they cherish. They are deeply suspicious of centralized power.

Anti-centrocracy conservatives and progressives are natural allies in a long war to dismantle centralized power. They may not agree on policies, but they can agree on who decides these policies. Both understand that the two political parties have a financial stake in keeping decision-making in Washington, D.C. Conservatives may speak of “federalism” while progressives speak of “local control,” but they are anchored in the same underlying sentiment: a desire for self-governance.

Alliances can be made, and are being made. Intrepid and sophisticated warriors on both sides are beginning to realize that policy battles are stage fights, used to divide us and weaken our efforts against the centrocracy.

A practical place for anti-centrocrats to start is by increasing turnout in primaries, which is abysmal. In 2010, about 12 percent of the voting-age population cast ballots in Republican primaries and about 8 percent did so in Democratic primaries. This is the tiny base on which the centrocracy rests. By encouraging people to participate in primaries—voting when the decision as to who represents them is actually made—citizens can restore accountability and bring the centrocracy to heel.

We are testing this thesis in the 2012 primary cycle. So far our efforts have been able to materially increase turnout in targeted primaries.

But increasing turnout is not enough: we also have to close the funding gap between incumbents and challengers. Only then will we create a truly level playing field that will force incumbents to pay more heed to Main Street than to K Street.

Ultimately the key to this long war will be attracting candidates from both parties to the self-governance movement. They will not have to abandon their party or policy preferences, but we will show them that they can win elections by siding with the citizenry against the centrocracy.

The centrocracy is the enemy. Bring it down, move decision-making closer to the people, and the real policy debates between left and right can begin. But this time, those debates will take place where they should: in the hearing rooms of the state legislatures, in town-hall meetings, in city council chambers, in neighborhoods and living rooms.

If enough conservatives and progressives realize that they have been conditioned to view the world through partisan lenses, and that they have been used by the parties to increase the power of a ruling elite, we can start to turn the tide. And if these people also engage in primaries—whether as candidates, funders, or local activists—we can restore self-governance.

This may sound naïve, but consider that the leaders of the American Revolution did not agree on policy. Samuel Adams, Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, John Adams—they had many different visions for our new nation, and their disagreements were serious and fundamental.

But there was consensus on one point: decisions about America should be made in America, not in London. The rallying cry “No Taxation Without Representation” was not about tax policy; it was about governance. And on governance, on who decides, there was complete agreement—we should govern ourselves.

We’ve moved away from that agreement over the past 100 years, but the experiment in self-governance is not over. It has only been interrupted.

Leo Linbeck III is CEO of Aquinas Companies, LLC, and serves on the faculty at Stanford Graduate School of Business and Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business. He is co-founder of the Campaign for Primary Accountability.