There is no silver bullet for the problems confronting our democracy, but it is crucial to begin by recognizing that the political arena is intended to be a venue for disagreement and contention. Our political system now feels dysfunctional – not because we have forgotten how to agree with each other but because we have forgotten how to disagree constructively. Our two major parties spend too much time talking about each other and not enough time talking to each other.
At the national level, only Congress can change this. Congress is designed as an arena for productive disagreement, where members who represent the diversity of the American polity can make accommodations and come to agreements on behalf of their disparate constituents. When it works properly, Congress builds common ground in American life.
It would be an understatement to say that Congress does not do this today. And it is hard to see any way we could improve the health of our democracy without helping Congress function better. That could mean creating incentives for people more inclined toward legislative bargaining to run for Congress – for instance by experimenting with electoral reforms like ranked-choice voting. And it could mean reforming the work of the institution to make traditional legislative negotiation more appealing to the ambitious men and women who run for Congress – for instance by re-empowering the committees.
More specifically, committees in both chambers could be given some direct control of floor time, as happens in some state legislatures, so that the work the committees do wouldn’t feel like a dead end. Or Congress could eliminate the boundary between authorizing bills (which create programs) and appropriating bills (which spend money) so that all members, and not just the few who are appropriators, could be involved in meaningful legislating with real-world consequences.
There is no shortage of ideas about how to move power from party leaders to rank-and-file legislators, but there has long been a shortage of will. Yes, electoral and congressional reform isn’t exciting work, but it’s essential for the future of our democracy. And we should want our politics to be a little less exciting anyway.