The Bipartisan Policy Center launched the Commission on Political Reform in 2013 to investigate the causes and consequences of America’s partisan political divide and to advocate for specific reforms that will improve the political process and that will work in a polarized atmosphere.
The commission met at public and private institutions across the country to hear from interested citizens, political leaders, and issue experts about the problems and potential solutions. It is clear that Americans are concerned about the lack of civil discourse and the increasing inability of the U.S. political system to grapple with the nation’s biggest challenges. These shortcomings put the nation at risk of losing its standing in the world.
This report, Governing in a Polarized America: A Bipartisan Blueprint to Strengthen our Democracy, is the culmination of the commission’s public and private deliberations, but it is not the end of its work. Our recommendations provide a realistic path forward to strengthen U.S. democracy. The commission does not pretend to have discovered the cure to all that ails democracy. But, 29 Americans have come together as part of our commission to embrace a truly bipartisan reform agenda.
The commission identifies reforms in three specific areas: the electoral process, the process by which Congress legislates and manages its own affairs, and the ability of Americans to plug into the nation’s civic life through public service. We chose to focus on three broad areas of reform, because the polarization in the United States runs deeply through its institutions, affects the ways Americans elect political leaders and how the institutions of government operate, and even puts in danger Americans’ deep-seated desire to serve their nation.
The commission is deeply concerned about the distrust that permeates the entire electoral process and that reverberates through both federal and state legislatures. Americans must be able to trust that their electoral system is fair. States will need to take the lead in reformulating an electoral system that earns back the people’s trust.
Legislative districts are drawn in an overly partisan manner. States should adopt redistricting commissions that have the bipartisan support of the legislature and the electorate. Voter turnout in congressional primaries is too low and the electorate is confused about when states’ primary elections occur. States and political parties should strive to dramatically increase the number of voters who cast ballots in political primaries to 30 percent of eligible voters by 2020 and 35 percent by 2026.
States should create a single congressional primary date in June.
Inaccurate voter-registration lists. Improve access: identify eligible unregistered voters and contact them with an opportunity to register to vote.
Ensure integrity: states should encourage direct opportunities for voters to input their own registration information and to update their addresses and conduct crosschecks with other states’ lists and with other databases to eliminate ineligible registrations or to correct mistakes on registration rolls.
Americans don’t know who are financing elections. Disclose all political contributions, including those made to outside and independent groups. Members of Congress focus too much time on fundraising at the expense of governing. Congress should pass legislation requiring detailed disclosure of spending by congressional leadership PACs and mandate that leadership PAC funds be used solely for political activities (such as donations to other candidates) and not for personal use. Leadership PACs should be limited to the top three congressional leaders of each party in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The commission, consisting of 29 thought leaders, puts forth recommendations that foster a modern, strong, and vibrant political system that accepts the strongly held differences of opinion among citizens and channels these differences in productive ways. Congress has shown that it can still come together on a bipartisan basis to move substantive legislation.
This is not an effort to return Congress to the “good old days.” Commissioners recognize that hyperpolarization pervades not just Congress but the electorate as well. However, the commission believes that Congress can function more efficiently despite that polarization. The commission’s recommendations are incremental, politically viable, and, most importantly, achievable if citizens and our leaders are ready to confront the structural and system-wide weaknesses in a fair and bipartisan way.
There is not enough time spent legislating. The House of Representatives and the Senate should schedule synchronized, five-day workweeks in Washington, with three weeks in session followed by one-week recesses. Interparty and inter-branch communication has been nonexistent. The president should hold regular, monthly meetings with congressional leaders; similarly, congressional leadership should invite the president to attend joint caucuses twice a year. Power in Congress is too centralized, which marginalizes individual members willing to formulate compromises. Committee chairs should solicit the views of all committee members— especially those in the minority—well in advance of a committee markup. To reconcile differences, full-fledged conference committees between the chambers on important legislation are essential to ensuring greater member participation in the policy process. Threats in the Senate to change the filibuster rules to eviscerate minority rights further raise the temperature in an already polarized body. The Senate should only make changes to its rules at the start of a new Congress. These rules changes will only take effect when two-thirds of the Senate agrees to them. The Senate minority is shut out of the legislating process to the detriment of good policymaking. The Senate should establish a process that gives priority consideration to a minimum of ten amendments offered by and alternating between senators of both parties The Senate is gridlocked by a normalization of the use of threatened or real filibusters. The Senate should eliminate filibusters on motions to proceed by limiting debate to two hours. Congress has failed to complete the appropriations process on time for more than a decade. Congress should adopt a biennial budget process that includes two-year budget resolutions and appropriations bills, with expedited consideration given to enacting into law two-year discretionary spending ceilings for enforcement purposes.
Successful democracies require an educated citizenry who actively participates in civic life. Americans must re-engage in ways that reinforce the notion that, as Americans, we are all part of a common enterprise that requires a lifetime of civic engagement.
Fewer and fewer Americans aspire to careers in public service. All Americans ages 18 to 28 should commit to one full year of service within their communities or at a national level through military service, civilian service, volunteer service, or by running for office. Younger Americans are less likely than those in previous generations to pursue careers in community, national, and public service. Schools should refocus on their original civic missions to provide the core values, knowledge, and ideas from U.S. history in civic learning that will equip the next generation of active, engaged citizens. Colleges and universities should reaffirm their missions to develop engaged and active citizens and encourage service in formal and informal programs. Federal service opportunities, like the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, turn away thousands of volunteers each year for lack of available positions. The federal government must leverage additional resources to increase the supply of available positions in AmeriCorps, VISTA, and the Peace Corps.
The public and private sectors should create a nationally recognized “qualified-service” opportunity program to match the supply of existing yearlong service opportunities to the demand of applicants.
The appointments process discourages many of the most qualified individuals. Presidential administrations should open political appointments to the widest possible pool of applicants by streamlining the process and not imposing overly burdensome pre- and post-employment restrictions.