Three Fixes for American Democracy

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Friday, March 10, 2006
By a quirk of scheduling, the U.S. Supreme Court has just heard arguments in two cases that illustrate the core problems that ail Congress and our democracy. The Court seems an awfully slender reed upon which to rely, however. These are matters that will demand political will to resolve, not a judicial remedy alone. 

The court cases involve Vermont's law imposing strict limits on spending and fundraising in political campaigns, and a challenge to the mid-decade congressional redistricting pushed through in Texas by former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. These issues — the chase for campaign dollars and the gerrymandering of congressional districts — form two of the three most glaring shortcomings in our political system at the moment. The third is the no-holds-barred lobbying atmosphere that, until recently, enshrouded Capitol Hill. Address these forthrightly, and we'll have gone a long way toward shoring up our troubled democracy. 

Anyone who is paying attention can come up with a long list of reforms that would help Congress and our republican form of government function better, from fixing the budget process to banning privately funded congressional travel. But the three big things that most distort the behavior of our elected officials and the functioning of our system are campaign money, lobbying, and gerrymandering. 

Let's start with money. The Court ruled 30 years ago, in a case known as Buckley v. Valeo, that limiting campaign spending amounted to placing limits on free speech. We can go around and around on whether its logic was justified or not, but the results are obvious to anyone: a campaign-spending smackdown that gets more brutal with every passing year. 

It now costs a huge amount of money to run credibly for Congress. This makes it hard for challengers to mount effective campaigns, and demands that incumbents spend absurd amounts of their time and attention raising money, rather than focusing on the matters we send them to Washington to focus on. Even worse, it also makes incumbents reliant on those who can help them raise money — you'll be stunned, I'm sure, to learn that K Street lobbyists excel at this — and fundamentally distorts the entire process of generating legislation. 

As long as Buckley v. Valeo is the final word on the matter, there are only limited steps we can take to remedy the matter. But there's another possibility. Former U.S. Senator Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina has proposed a constitutional amendment authorizing Congress to regulate or control spending in federal elections. Constitutional amendments are justifiably difficult to enact, but we are in dire straits, and Hollings'idea deserves support. 

Even if we were to end the campaign financing arms race, though, special interests with money to spend will still find creative ways to cozy up to legislators. So at the very least, we must resolve right now to make all lobbying as open and transparent as possible. 

We live in an age when the web and powerful databases make it eminently possible to follow the activities of lobbyists, the "grassroots" efforts they fund, and the legislators they try to influence or with whom they interact. Lobby disclosure laws at the moment are an open joke in Washington, and though there are several reform proposals that would create a disclosure regimen with teeth, they are still controversial. 

They shouldn't be. Lobbyists and special interests should be required regularly to detail what they spend on influencing legislation and how they go about it: which specific members of Congress they meet; which grassroots campaigns they fund; which anonymous-sounding organizations they create to pressure Capitol Hill; how much they spend on dinners, lunches, meetings...You get the idea. 

All of this should be available with a few taps on a keyboard to anyone who wants to look it up, and all of it actually needs to be enforceable — that is, any disclosure law must be accompanied by provisions for enforcing it, so that the activities of special interests are made known, and violations of the rules enforced. 

There is one more piece of business that needs addressing. Our election system is becoming obstructed by redistricting efforts that, in the last two election cycles, made it possible for 98 percent of incumbents running again to be re-elected. Competitive elections for the House are rare. Districts drawn to favor one party over another make it almost impossible for voters to express their opinion about the direction the country is taking, and allow incumbents to behave very differently than if they have to justify their actions to a skeptical audience. 

Back in 2003, an aide to a Texas congressman sent a memo to his colleagues explaining the benefits of the partisan gerrymander. "This has a real national impact that should assure that Republicans keep the House no matter the national mood," he wrote. Does that sound like a recipe for democracy to you? It is time for all 50 states to follow the example set by a handful of them, and put redistricting in non-partisan hands. 

So there you have it. This is a reform moment in Washington, and we should use it to focus on the most important steps we can take to fix our Republic. Get control of spending on elections, enforce complete disclosure of lobbying activities, and end the partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, and we will have gone a long way toward that goal. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)