Only 16% of Americans trust the federal government to do the right thing most or all of the time. Only 11% have confidence in Congress. Barely half of voters have a favorable view of either the Republican or Democratic party and more than half wish the U.S. had a third party. Huge majorities think wealthy individuals and special interests have too much power in Washington and ordinary citizens, too little.
What can restore faith in the system? Neal Simon, a 51-year-old businessman and community leader who ran a failed independent bid for the U.S. Senate in Maryland in 2018, has written a dazzlingly effective analysis of what’s wrong with our politics and has compiled the best list of specific changes I’ve encountered in several years of covering America’s growing political reform movement. The book is “Contract to Unite America: Ten Reforms to Reclaim Our Republic,” by Neal Simon. RealClear Publishing, 258 pages.
One of the book’s many virtues is its even-handedness. He’s tough on both parties for putting their own welfare (and that of their donors and allied special interests) ahead of serving the American people. He blasts them both for fostering hyper-partisanship, ideological extremism, division, and incivility — and for Washington’s deadlocked failure to solve almost any serious problem facing the country.
His book is also well-written, clear, forceful, deeply researched, and filled with historical background tales. And, at just 211 pages of text, it’s concise and accessible to the citizenry he believes must rally to change the system.
If the book has a flaw, it’s that Simon gives insufficient attention to the size and potential of the political reform movement, which could be as powerful in saving and expanding U.S. democracy as the Progressive Movement was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Early in the book, Simon does note that “thousands of would-be reformers have joined over 100 groups.” And he refers to about 30 of them and their leaders by name. Actually, there are tens of thousands of national, state and local activists working on various reform campaigns. They have attracted millions of petition-signers, supporters and voters.
I also believe that his solutions rely too heavily on federal legislation or constitutional amendments to fix things. Both require Congress to act – and gridlock on Capitol Hill is the problem right now, not the solution. The movement is changing America one state and city at a time, aiming to take on Washington from the bottom up.
That said, this book’s signal contribution is its organization around 10 discrete actions to reform the corrupted system, with compelling evidence of why each is necessary. At conventions of lead national groups — Represent.us, Unite America, Issue One and the National Association of Nonpartisan Reformers — activists describe dozens of projects they are working on, but Neal Simon is the first person I know of who’s itemized the most important.
They are as follows:
(1) Legislation requiring that all government-funded primary elections be open to all registered voters regardless of party affiliation. Now, 21 states allow only party members to vote in primaries — usually low-turnout affairs that favor the most rabidly ideological candidates.
Example: In 2018, socialist firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won the Democrats-only primary in New York’s deep-blue 14th Congressional District by attracting just 16,898 votes, 4.8% of registered voters. With assistance from the media — and Simon does not stint in his criticism of the press — she’s since been virtually anointed as the future of the Democratic Party.
(2) Legislation to create a nonpartisan Federal Debate Commission to manage presidential and congressional debates, replacing media organizations and the Republican- and Democratic-run Commission on Presidential Debates, which regularly excludes independent or third party candidates from the debate stage.
Groups campaigning for a nonpartisan FDC that would include independent commissioners — Level the Playing Field, OpenDebates.org and Open the Debates — contend it costs a fortune to build up the threshold 15% support and that the virtual impossibility of making the stage discourages potential candidates from even running.
(3) A constitutional amendment limiting U.S. senators to two six-year terms and House members to three two-year terms.
”Most of Congress runs in gerrymandered districts with closed primaries and have their campaigns funded by special interests who stand to benefit from their election and political parties that provide support if they toe the party line,” Simon writes. “It’s almost impossible to get rid of them.”
He’s right about that. Even in 2016, with Donald Trump riding a wave of anti-establishment populism, 93% of incumbent senators were reelected, as were 97% of House members. Simon notes that Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, age 69, has been in public office continuously since 1975. GOP Leader Mitch McConnell is 77 and, except for a few years as a lawyer, has been on public payrolls since 1968. Senate GOP leader since 2007, McConnell is proud of his moniker, “grim reaper,” for blocking Democratic legislation.
In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is 79 and has been in public office since 1987. Her deputy, Steny Hoyer, is 80 and has been on a government payroll since 1967. The average age of House committee chairs is 68 and they’ve been in Congress for 24 years. Those numbers for GOP leaders in the last Congress were only slightly lower.
Simon argues correctly that the Framers never intended Congress to be run by career politicians with little real-world experience. Eighty-two percent of voters favor a constitutional amendment to address this, made necessary by the Supreme Court’s 1995 rejection of state-imposed limits.
(4) Legislation requiring disclosure of any donation to a politician, committee or any political entity of over $100. That’s a low threshold, but full disclosure seems the only remedy available after the Supreme Court’s 2010 disastrous Citizens’ United decision opening the floodgates to unlimited corporate, labor union, and other special-interest spending on elections in the name of free speech. (Item 5 on his agenda is a constitutional amendment overturning the decision.) The high court itself recommended this as a remedy, but all such efforts have been blocked by Senate GOP leader McConnell.
The Supreme Court decision has given rise to “super PACs,” which can spend limitlessly to help candidates they’re not supposed to coordinate with, but often do. They are required to disclose their donors, but those donors can be “dark money” groups — often tax-advantaged 501(c)4 “educational” entities that do not disclose their donors. And those groups can also spend unlimited funds on “issue ads” not recommending election or defeat of a candidate, but attacking viciously and urging voters to “send a message.”
Showing even-handedness, Simon points out that in the 2018 elections — the most expensive midterms in history — liberal groups outspent conservatives, 54% to 46%. New Jersey and California have passed disclosure laws and a campaign is underway this year to add Alaska. National groups such as Take Back Our Republic, American Promise, the Brennan Center, the Campaign Legal Center and the Center for Political Accountability are leaders in the fight.
(6) (Number 5 is mentioned in the paragraph above.) Legislation to allow ballot access to any candidate for any office with more than 5,000 petition signatures.
As Simon shows, various states impose onerous requirements for independent or third-party candidates to make it onto the ballot, requirements that do not apply to Republicans and Democrats.
He recounts the extreme measures Democrats used to keep Ralph Nader off state ballots in 2004 (lest he take votes away from John Kerry) and those that Georgia Republicans used in 2018 to reject voter registration efforts by people who appeared likely to vote for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.
(7) Federal legislation requiring states to create independent commissions to draw legislative district boundaries without considering political affiliation. This item in Simon’s “contract” is aimed at ending gerrymandering.
In 2018, five states — Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Utah — switched to independent redistricting commissions in response to campaigns run by local groups assisted by Represent.us and other movement groups. In 2020, the movement has to work to keep Michigan and Missouri from backsliding, but efforts are underway to outlaw gerrymandering in Nevada, Oklahoma, and Virginia.
(8) Legislation to install Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV) in federal elections and, in states with more than one representative, to create multi-member districts.
RCV asks voters to rank candidates. Second choices of losing candidates are allocated to remaining candidates until one has a majority. Maine is the only state using it now, but several municipalities have implemented it successfully, including San Francisco and Oakland, Minnesota’s Twin Cities, and Santa Fe, N.M. New York City passed a referendum overwhelmingly last year to adopt the system in 2021.
In 2020, movement groups such as FairVote.org and Represent.us are helping local groups to try and get it adopted in Alaska, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Utah. “RCV encourages civility, guarantees a majority winner, opens the system to a wider pool of contenders and increases the likelihood that pragmatic candidates will prevail,” Simon writes.
He also advocates multi-member districts so that House seats can be apportioned according to the popular vote, giving all parties — and independents — fair representation.
(9) A rewriting of House and Senate procedures to encourage bipartisan legislation and cooperation and reduce the power of ideological fringes.
He’d ban the so-called “Hastert Rule,” named for disgraced former GOP House Speaker Dennis Hastert, whereby a bill could not gain a floor vote unless a “majority of the majority” favored it. Simon takes aim at the Senate filibuster, whereby 60 votes are required to pass any major legislation (because that’s the number required to prevent a bill from being threatened with endless debate). He also recommends that House speakers be elected by a 60% vote to make their selection bipartisan and that each chamber bring to the floor any legislation that has passed the other chamber.
(10) Last, he calls for “a culture of unity” whereby Republicans and Democrats stop treating each other as mortal enemies and go back to considering them policy adversaries.
“I’m calling for changes in behavior from four groups,” he writes: “presidential candidates, every Member of Congress, the nation’s educators and citizens themselves.” He calls for bipartisan presidential Cabinets (even presidential tickets), the signing of a “civility pledge” by congresspersons, better civics education in schools, and customary (but not mandatory) national service.
Right now, polarization is so severe that, according to one poll, nearly 60% of Republicans and a larger percentage of Democrats consider the other party “a serious threat to the United States and its people.” Simon accuses the media — especially social media, Fox News and MSNBC — of stoking the fires.
“Democrats blame our distressing state of affairs on Donald Trump,” he writes, “while Republicans like to condemn House Democrats. But our government was divided and dysfunctional before Donald Trump ran for office or Nancy Pelosi became Speaker. Simply replacing Trump, whom I do not excuse for making things worse, will not solve our problems. We have a warped electoral structure that elevates the wrong kind of politicians. We, the American people, must take responsibility … [and] dismiss discordant politicians, reject polarizing propaganda, listen to our ‘better angels’ and become active participants in our civic life.”
I think he makes good arguments for every change in his “contract.” It’s not a complete list. He doesn’t take a stand on reformers’ efforts to replace the Electoral College, for instance, or make voter registration automatic with any state interaction, allow felons to vote when they’ve served their time, and widen use of voting by mail.
But it’s a great start, and a handy roadmap for progress. Citizens dissatisfied with their government should buy this book and read it. Then they should also join the political reform movement, allying with one or more of its groups and causes, and work hard to make the slogan of Represent.us a reality. That mantra is simple: “Unrig the system.”
This article also appears in www.realclearpolitics.com.