Democracy is under attack, and we must defend it. Our next president and Congress need to take power in January and then give it away.
In four of the last seven presidential elections, the winner received less than 50% of the total votes cast. Nearly every Supreme Court nomination turns into a bitter battle royale. Congressional gerrymandering has gone nearly unchecked, resulting in vitriol and disfunction.
The outcome of this November’s elections is already being undermined, and even the Postal Service has been enlisted as a weapon. Vital government agencies, like the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Weather Service, have been politicized for inappropriate purposes.
Roman Consul Cincinnatus gave up power twice, and George Washington is referred to as the American Cincinnatus for refusing the offer to become king and voluntarily stepping down after two terms. He was the personification of virtuous democracy, selflessly sharing power.
That founding democratic principle has been eroding for years, and now it is being assaulted directly.
The core thrust of American democracy is to spread power among the many, rather than concentrate it with the few. The very concept of federalism is to decentralize power.
Our next president, House and Senate can make true reforms, mostly through simple statutory changes, in order to re-distribute political power in the U.S. and make democracy great again:
Revamp Congress: The structure of our Congress is a relic of the Constitution’s codification of slavery and the relative power of slave states. It allows an empowered few to wield inflated influence over our legislative process and too often results in gridlock.
Despite overwhelming, bipartisan public support for basic policy solutions like infrastructure investment, Medicaid expansion, lowering drug prices, universal background checks, the switch to renewable energy and the legalization of marijuana, Congress has become a moribund institution where its members spend more time tweeting than passing laws to solve the nation’s problems. A series of steps must be taken to broaden the base of political power in the First Branch of government and to ensure that it is responsive to the people:
Quadruple the Size of the House of Representatives: The Great Compromise of 1787 saved our Constitutional Convention by creating a proportionally represented House and a state-equal Senate, quelling the dispute between the populous and small states.
It was necessary to create the United States, but it undermined the core democratic tenet of “one person, one vote.” Vermont’s two senators have the same vote as Texas’ in our nation’s upper chamber of Congress, although Vermont has 1/48th the population.
With 580,000 residents, Wyoming has three Electoral College votes, while 39 million Californians have 55 Electoral College votes. That means a Wyoming citizen’s presidential vote is worth 3.5 times as much as a Californian’s.
The House of Representatives grew steadily until 1913, when it was frozen at 435 for logistical reasons. The U.S. population has more than tripled since then. At the same time, potential restraints on expansion have been eliminated through technological advances like cell phones, Zoom and the internet, which make group communication and organization easier and instant.
The Senate cannot be restructured without a Constitutional Amendment, but the House of Representatives can be changed through mere legislation.
The next Congress and president can amend the Permanent Apportionment Act to reset the size of the House. Quadrupling the membership to 1,740 would shift the Electoral College closer to the popular vote without reducing states’ rights, since the Electoral College is based upon the number of House and Senate members from each state.
If this structure had been in place in 2000, Al Gore would have won majorities of both the national vote and the Electoral College, while Donald Trump still would have won in 2016, because he carried populous states like Florida and Pennsylvania.
In short, it would amend the Electoral College without eliminating it. Additionally, much smaller districts would allow closer relationships among members of Congress and their constituents, while reducing the potential for partisan gerrymandering.
Outlaw Partisan Gerrymandering: Creating congressional districts for one-party domination has disenfranchised minorities, subverted fair representative government and accelerated partisan acrimony in Washington.
When a primary winner is nearly guaranteed to win the general election, those members of Congress are beholden only to their core partisan supporters, with no incentive to engage or compromise with the other side or even independents.
It all but eliminates the possibility of moderate members of Congress. A lack of moderates and aversion to compromise is the foundation for congressional disfunction.
While changing the size of the House, Congress and the president can create requirements for drawing congressional districts. In addition to equal size, contiguity and compliance with the Voting Rights Act, the federal government can require states to draw as many competitive districts as possible.
Four states have already imposed the competitive district requirement on their own redistricting processes, and it is time for it to be mandated nationally. Truly competitive races would buttress representative democracy and allow for the re-growth of moderate members, which are essential to compromise and coalition building.
Impose Term Limits: The president has been limited to two four-year terms since the 22nd Amendment passed in 1951, and it has been deemed a success. More than a dozen states have imposed term limits on their own state legislatures.
Democracy has a rich history of term limits from ancient Greece and Rome through the American colonies. Twelve-year limits, six terms in the House and two terms in the Senate, would create valuable turn-over without discarding experience.
Although it would be an uphill battle to change the Constitution through a two-thirds vote of each chamber and three-fourths of the states, the mere initiation of a genuine process would educate the public about the fragility of democracy and the need for reinvigoration.
Amend the Senate: The “world’s greatest deliberative body’” is painfully undemocratic. All of Wyoming has fewer residents than Denver, but Wyoming has the same Senate representation as Florida.
Therefore, Wyoming does not have “one person, one vote” in the Senate compared to Florida; it has “one person, 39 votes,” due to their relative populations.
It is appropriate to have statewide six-year terms to balance the fluidity in the House, but it is time to change the outdated state-equality provision. Increase the total number of senators to 150, with each state having at least one senator and others getting two or three, depending on their relative populations.
The reapportionment would occur after each decennial census, just like in the House. This would make the Senate slightly more democratic, and it would shift the Electoral College vote a little closer to the popular vote.
Eliminate the Senate Filibuster: Allowing one member of the entire federal government to stop a piece of legislation is the ultimate concentration of power. While it made for good drama in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” its harms outweigh any potential good.
In 2013 and 2017, Senate Democratic and Republican majorities, respectively, triggered the “Nuclear Option” by eliminating the filibuster in cases of presidential appointments to the executive and judicial branches. A new Senate majority can easily eliminate the filibuster in its entirety through the same cloture rule change.
Increase the Supreme Court in a non-partisan manner: After fluctuating in size during the first 80 years of its existence, the U.S. Supreme Court has consisted of nine seats since 1869. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to “pack” the court by creating eight new positions overnight, to be filled with new members sympathetic to his agenda.
The proposed legislation was killed by his own Democratic-controlled Congress, as it was deemed too much of a partisan power grab. The number of Supreme Court cases filed has risen sharply to around 7,000 per year, but the high court hears only 100-150 per year.
Because there are so few justices, each new appointment takes on monumental importance and fierce battles. The gravity of each may be reduced by nearly doubling the size of the court over time.
Through simple legislation and without a constitutional amendment, Congress and the president can increase the number of justices to 17, adding two per presidential term for the next four terms.
As opposed to President Roosevelt’s court-packing attempt, this increase would take time, with appointments spread among the next four presidents, likely to be both Republicans and Democrats.
With the 6-3 conservative majority on the court expected soon, a President Biden would not have the power to change control in one term. This would lower the stakes for each individual appointment and eventually diffuse the rancor of the process.
Grant Statehood D.C. and Puerto Rico: An adult on the northern side of Western Avenue in Chevy Chase, Md., is a full United States citizen, while her neighbor 50 feet away on the south side has only nominal voting rights and inferior congressional representation, despite being obligated to pay taxes under the same federal system.
Washington, D.C., has a population of over 700,000, which is roughly equal to North Dakota and Alaska and larger than Vermont and Wyoming. In 2016, Washingtonians voted 86% in favor of D.C. statehood.
D.C. could become a state, while carving out a federal district to include the Capitol, White House and most of the D.C.-based U.S. government buildings. With nearly three million residents, Puerto Rico would become the 31st most populous state. Puerto Ricans will vote on another statehood referendum on Nov. 3, the same as the U.S. general election day.
The process for adding states is quite simple under Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution — it requires neither a constitutional amendment, nor approval of other states.
Assuming the Puerto Rico referendum passes, D.C. and Puerto Rico would simply petition Congress, which could enact the legislation for the president’s signature.
The United States regularly admitted new states for almost two centuries before abruptly stopping, and there is no legitimate basis to preserve the undemocratic status quo, which only serves to marginalize the voices of millions of Americans of color.
Political power in the United States has been increasingly accumulated by few, who care only about their own influence, rather than the spirit of democracy or the people it is supposed to serve.
From Tom Delay’s gerrymandering through Mitch McConnell’s current hypocrisy on Supreme Court appointments, the core United States’ doctrine of equality has been subverted – equal vote and equal representation do not exist in what was President Reagan’s aspirational, yet unfulfilled, vision of American democracy as a Shining City on a Hill.
Congress can share its power among more members and more equitably. The president can grant new Supreme Court appointments to future presidents. American citizens can share power by expanding citizenship to those Americans who are separate, but unequal.
One thing we have learned from President Trump is the strategic benefit of going for lots of big changes at once, rather than little efforts incrementally. We are in a national crisis warranting broad, substantial, legal and fair changes.
While some may disagree with individual components of this multi-pronged proposal, the concept of a broad, power-sharing package is most important. In the spirit of George Washington, our next president and Congress need to take power in January and then give it away through a Democracy Restoration Package.
Tom Downey is a regulatory lawyer in Colorado. He was an Assistant Attorney General, ran Al Gore’s presidential campaign in Colorado, represented the House Democrats for Congressional Redistricting and ran Denver’s licensing department.
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