Review: Michael Golden’s Unlock Congress: Reform the Rules – Restore the System

by Andrew Douglas // Published July 16, 2015

Unlock CongressAmericans agree that their Congress fails them, but there is little agreement on the sources of its dysfunction. Some will cite the influence of money, while others blame unfair elections, rising partisanship, or a host of other issues. Asking how Congress might be improved will net an even looser set of ideas, or worse, a cynical resignation that the system is broken and nothing can be done to fix it. This dynamic presents one of the primary obstacles to reform: the problems with Congress are numerous and poorly understood, and their solutions sometimes complex and technical, but meaningful reforms will only be possible when the American people recognize and demand them. Bridging this divide is the goal of journalist Michael Golden in his new book, Unlock Congress: Reform the Rules – Restore the System.

Acknowledging that the lack of trust in Congress “erodes civic participation and, in turn, our ability to fix the problem,” Golden’s book is designed to be approachable for readers whose mistrust of the system may have led them to tune out from politics in recent years. To bring these readers up to speed, the book begins with an overview of Congress’ role in American government, historical context for its current dismal approval ratings, and an overview of the myriad ways in which the performance of Congress has fallen short of our expectations.

Next, Golden lays out his view of the problem, which he calls the “D.C. 4-3”: four structural defects (money in politics, flawed elections, two-year terms in the House, and the filibuster) that lead to three negative effects (poor outcomes, a lack of negotiation and compromise, and the distortion of fair representation). Following a detailed explanation of these issues, Golden offers a clear platform for addressing them, through extending terms in the House to four years, abolishing the filibuster, empowering Congress to regulate campaign finance through a constitutional amendment, instituting public financing of elections, and, finally, fixing our flawed electoral system by mandating independent redistricting and adopting FairVote’s plan for fair representation voting—which would abandon winner-take all rules to elect Congress proportionally, using ranked choice voting in multi-member districts with three to five seats.

While many have bemoaned the pernicious effects of money in politics, the filibuster, or dysfunctional elections, Golden may be the first to perform the important feat of synthesizing not just the problems with Congress, but also their solutions, into a narrative that is clear and approachable, even for readers that might not consider themselves “political junkies.” He summarizes important research and recent political developments, like Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page’s work on the dominance of economic elites over average citizens in effecting policy outcomes, and the rise and role of Super PACs, all in plain English, and describes the options for reform in a way that is conducive to the mass understanding that will be necessary for their success.

Importantly, Golden draws on research to dispel some common misconceptions about political reform that must be addressed if we are to embrace more comprehensive solutions. First, he points out that the evidence on term limits – one of the reforms mentioned most often in public opinion polls – suggests that they would be unlikely to improve the function of Congress, and might in fact achieve the opposite.

Second, Golden makes the important observation that ending gerrymandering through independent redistricting, while an important reform in its own right, will not solve the most significant problems with congressional elections: the utter lack of competition in most districts, the exaggeration of the political polarization of the electorate, and the distorted outcomes in which the seats won by each party in Congress are not proportionate to their share of the national vote (in 2012, for example, Democrats earned the majority of votes in House elections nationwide, but Republicans retained a clear majority of the chamber’s seats).

While each of these problems is exacerbated by gerrymandering, they are primarily a result of the interaction of American political geography, in which Democratic voters are highly concentrated in urban areas and Republicans win smaller majorities most everywhere else, and our flawed system of winner-take all elections in single member districts. As the research of political scientists like Jonathan Rodden and Jowei Chen suggests, our current problems would largely persist even in the absence of gerrymandering.

Drawing on FairVote research, Golden explains how the geographical self-sorting of Americans into pockets of like-minded voters – some liberal, some conservative – means that U.S. House elections under our current single-member district system will rarely be competitive, no matter how the districts are drawn. Under the current system, the only meaningful elections in most districts are the party primaries, in which small groups of unrepresentative and particularly partisan voters select the candidate whose ultimate victory will be rubber-stamped in an uncompetitive general election. As a result, Congress is made up of representatives chosen by, and beholden to, only the most partisan of their constituents, with the preferences of independent voters and supporters of the party in the minority in each district consistently ignored. While voters themselves have certainly become more partisan, our current system leaves independents and moderate Americans without a voice in Congress.

Because more modest reforms, like open primaries, do little to disrupt the polarizing effects of winner-take-all elections, Golden explains that adoption of FairVote’s plan for electing the U.S. House through a system of fair representation voting offers the best chance of restoring the representation of the political center in the U.S. House, helping to bridge the gap between the parties while also ensuring more proportional and representative outcomes, and empowering all voters to participate in meaningful elections. By combining current House districts into multi-seat districts of three to five seats, and electing those seats proportionally, fair representation voting would ensure that moderates, like voters of all other political persuasions, could win a their fair share of representation. This would also mean the election of candidates from other currently underrepresented groups like Southern Democrats, New England Republicans, and others whose new perspectives could make them the bridge-builders our system currently lacks.

“Unlock Congress” is an important book, because truly impactful reform will only be possible with the support of an informed and discerning public. Golden’s synthesis of the sources of, and possible solutions to, the problems plaguing the legislative branch of American Government is an ideal introduction for citizens asking themselves just what’s going on, and what can be done about it. As the final chapter of the book makes clear, Unlock Congress aims to be more than an approachable summary of problem and solution, it seeks to start a movement, because the platform it advances can only be put into practice when Americans, with a unified voice, demand it.