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Why Doesn't Your Congress
Look Like Your Nation?

Pie chart of voters' party affiliations Pie chart of Congress's party affiliations
You
Your Congress

Do you ever watch CSPAN? Do you see anyone on the floors of congress who looks like you and your neighbors? Or like people in other neighborhoods close to you?

The People
From their attire, to their genders and ethnicities, even their ages, they look like a different breed from the citizens who elected them. But the problem goes beyond what is so painfully visible. Think about their ideologies and philosophies? When they speak, do you hear yourself expressed in their words, concepts or attitudes?

The Parties
Let's start this discussion with the simple idea of party alignment. These people are politically elected. Wouldn't you think their political party membership should look at least a little like the party affiliation of the nation? It doesn't, of course. I wonder if you'll be as surprised as I was to see just how different it is.

The Pew Center reports political affiliations of Americans, as expressed in political polls. For February 2008, they reported that 34% of us call ourselves independents, and another 8% belong to a minor party—not Republicans or Democrats. A total of 42% are not allied with either major political party. It looks like the chart on the left at the top of the page.

And Congress? Two Senators call themselves independents (though they caucus with the Democrats). No Representatives are independent. Neither house of Congress has any minor party members. So 42% of the American voting population is essentially unrepresented in Congress—as shown in the charts above.

Gender & Ethnicity
Then let's look at two other differences between us and our Congress: gender and ethnicity. Since the late colonial period, America has been more or less half female. Women have had the vote since 1920. The feminist revolution of the sixties and seventies is fading into history. And yet look how white and male Congress still is:

 
Population*
House
Senate
Women
51%
17%
16%
White
68%
83%
94%
(*percentages of the population, not just citizens or voters)

Would America be a significantly different place if Congress looked like us? Of course. It might be profoundly more successful. Whatever short term difficulties might result from an evening-up process could quickly give way to a more peaceful and productive society and culture. And while the most profound changes will result from full participation of women and non-white ethnicities in our political process, I'm convinced that the route to those changes runs straight through that nonsensical disparity in party alignments.


A Solution in Party Alignment
Imagine with me a Congress with the same party divisions as our current electorate. Suppose we all wake up the day after an election in some mythical future year, and learn that the new Senate will have 34 Independents, 33 Democrats, 25 Republicans, and 8 members of minor parties. Scrolling down, we see that we've elected a House with 147 Independents, 143 Democrats, 110 Republicans and 35 members from minor parties.

What would happen?

Well, the changes will begin long before the January swearing-in, as the party caucuses meet to settle questions of leadership, committee assignments and new House and Senate rules. Yes, new rules—today's Congressional rules are based on one party holding an absolute majority in each house, and in our mythical new congress, there are no majorities. The 147 Independents in the House, for example is only a plurality. A majority is 218.

Let's jump ahead to the January 4th after this election. What will Congress look like when these new Representatives and Senators start to work? The first change we'll notice will be in the leadership. The new Speaker of the House might be a member of any political party, or none at all. The Speaker will be the person who has convinced at least 218 Representatives that they will thrive politically under her or his leadership. And that convincing will be an act of leadership in itself, because she won't win the confidence of a majority by siding with any one party or other faction.

Genuine Leadership
And who will be the Majority Leader in the Senate? Woops—there's no majority. There may be party leaders in this new Senate, but no Majority Leader. The Majority Leader is not a constitutional position, like the Speaker of the House. The leaders are established by Senate rules, which will have been rewritten to accommodate the new realities. In both houses, the parties will probably have something like the current assortment of leaders and whips, but they will function within their parties, and will have little at-large influence.

So who will run the Senate? The Constitution sets up the Vice President in that role. Can the Senate decide by rule to create a leader similar to the House's Speaker? It's debatable—that will likely require a constitutional amendment. So, we might see the Vice President actually functioning as Senate leader on a daily basis. And the critical business of scheduling legislation in committees and on the Senate floor may be done by some sort of joint committee.

Fundamentally Different Organization
How about Committees? We'll quickly see huge differences there. By today's rules, committee chairs in both houses are selected by the majority party. We can't predict how the new rules will be written, but I don't expect the parties and the independents to hand committee control to one party. Instead, we'll see the committees apportioned. For example, the House currently has 26 committees, with about 100 subcommittees; the chairs of all those committees are Democrats. But chairmanships in our hypothetical new Congress might look like this:

 
Committees
Subcommittees
Independents
9
34
Democrats
8
33
Republicans
7
25
Other
2
8

Today, the majority of members on each committee is also from the majority party. But with no majorities, no party will dominate any committee.

The business of Congress will be done in an entirely different way. When bills are assigned to committees by a joint process, no one party will be able to block that process. In committee, the chairperson will be less able to block hearings. One party won't have enough members on a committee to defeat a bill. Instead, coalitions can be formed on a measure-by-measure basis to vote a bill out of committee. Once on the floor of the House or Senate, coalitions can accomplish passage; one party won't be able to control the vote.

Of course manipulations and shenanigans will still be possible, and you can bet they'll be accomplished. Politicians will still be politicians. But no one party will hold all the power—and more importantly, no party will be completely powerless.

Legislation by Consensus
The creation of legislation will be different, too. Congress members will know they have to have coalitions in order to pass anything, so they will form those coalitions during the drafting process, and work to write bills that have broad enough support for passage.

Will Congress Ever Look Like You?
And how do we get to this new kind of Congress? Is it possible? Is it doable? Actually, the most improbable part has already happened: 42% of American voters have left the two-party duopoly. The foundation has been laid. And getting the rest of the way may not be all that difficult. It doesn't have to happen all at once.

A change of party alignment by only a few members in only one house can change that chamber. The Senate is tantalizingly close. If the two independent members would actually leave the Democratic Party, and not join the Republican Party, we'd be there. In reality, they're not going to do that unless they have a reasonable expectation of support from home, and the likelihood of future growth of their independent contingency. That could happen, if one or two other Senators, or even Representatives could be elected as independents.

It's far more likely that new Representatives, rather than Senators can win election as independents. Congressional districts vary widely in their makeup. Some are urban, some suburban, some rural. They have vastly different composition by age, education, ethnicity, etc. Some are almost entirely Republican, some almost entirely Democratic. And a few are closely divided. Political realities also differ from district to district. Some have popular Representatives, who are widely supported by most of their constituents. Others have somewhat demagogic Representatives, who are kept in power more by their parties than by their constituents. In all of this variety, there are possibilities for change. For example, some of those demagogic Representatives, not in the habit of actually listening to constituents, might well be upset by popular, charismatic independents.

It Begins with You
Like everything else in politics, this change begins with you. First, consider your party affiliation. Do you really support the party you've belonged to for years? Does it support you? Do you really endorse the political and legislative strategies your party uses? Do you feel like you and your needs are actually represented by your Representative? If a bunch of those answers are "no," change your affiliation to independent—now.

Congressional approval ratings are abysmally low right now. A wave of re-registration of dissatisfied Democrats and Republicans could raise the number of independents to all-time highs, easily more than 50%. At some point, rising independent affiliation will attract viable independent candidates.

In fact, one of those candidates could be you. It's not out of the question. An independent candidacy in a compact urban district—where many voters are registered as independents—might be relatively inexpensive. It wouldn't have to depend heavily on television. It could take place in parks and meeting halls, with neighbors talking and listening to each other. It could utilize true grass-roots tactics. I think that's the kind of politicking many independents really want.

So look at your Congressional District. Does it fit this description? Would a campaign to re-register people as independents have any hope of success? Is there a popular, independent city council member or school board member who might be ready to step into Congress? Are you that person?

It doesn't take a lot of these campaigns to wrest majority control from the major parties. Can such a movement in your neighborhood be the first?

How Do We Create
Independent and Third Party Power?


Perhaps a Third Party Think Tank?

 
copyright © 2010, J. C. Adamson