Verne C. Johnson, chair
AMERICA'S POLITICAL PROCESS
IS IN GRAVE DANGER
September 6, 2005
America's widely admired democracy is showing signs
of serious decay at the very time the US is working to assist in promoting
democratic societies throughout the world and especially in Islamic nations.
What these other nations are seeing in the US threatens to undermine our basic
foreign policy and, even more importantly, the fundamental democratic system
in the US.
Those who have been following the U.S. political
process have ample justification to be alarmed at the trends. This, for
example, is what we are seeing:
1. Voter turnout is low--Voter turnout in
elections has been declining steadily since the 1960s. Turnout was nearly 65
percent of the adult population in the 1960 presidential election and stood at
only 51 percent in 2000. In 2002, turnout was 39 percent in the November
election and a mere 18 percent in the congressional primaries. This negative
trend was reversed in the 2004 presidential election. Nevertheless, dramatic
differences in voter turnout in 2004 were evident in different segments of the
population. For example, fewer than one-fourth of persons with less than a 9th
grade education voted, compared to three-fourths of persons with college
2. Citizen interest in elections is
dropping--Fewer and fewer potential voters are watching presidential
debates on TV, dropping from 60 percent of US households in 1960 to below 30
percent in 2000. None of the presidential debates in the 2000 presidential
election was broadcast in prime time with the result that fewer than two
million viewers watched the average debate, which is only a fifth of the
audience of a typical prime-time broadcast program.
3. Negative advertising is increasing--Negative
advertising in campaigns has nearly tripled since 1960, accounting for more
than half the ads featured in most presidential and congressional campaigns.
4. Press coverage is more negative--When John F.
Kennedy and Richard Nixon sought the presidency in 1960, 75 percent of their
coverage was favorable. By the late 1980s,
presidential coverage was mostly unfavorable and has remained so. On evening
newscasts during the 2000 election campaign, George W. Bush's coverage was 63
percent negative while Al Gore's was 60 percent negative.
5. The nature of journalistic reporting has changed--
The descriptive style of journalism, in which journalists told the audience
what newsmakers had said and done, was poorly suited to television. By the
1980s interpretative reporting, in which journalists explained the "why" not
just the "what" of events, had displaced descriptive reporting. This change
inevitably produces expression of opinion by writers and broadcasters.
6. Political party platforms have changed--Political
party platforms formerly consisted of broad statements of principle. For
example, the 1948 Democratic and Republican party platforms were less than
3000 words in length. By the 1980s they had exceeded 20,000 words, catering to
nearly every voting group.
7. Campaigns are too lengthy--The length of
modern day campaigning is turning voters off. In earlier years the candidates
normally began campaigning following the party conventions. Voter polls show
that voters regard campaigns today as theater or entertainment rather than
something to be taken seriously. Most political messages far in advance of an
election are targeted at voters not yet ready to seriously tune in.
8. Current approaches for establishing boundaries of
congressional districts give enormous advantages to incumbents-- The power
of congressional incumbency has become all but impossible to overcome. The
number of competitive districts in the US House of Representatives has been
reduced to fewer than10 percent. In the 2004 election only seven congressional
incumbents were defeated. And four of these were in gerrymandered districts.
The result is the effective disenfranchisement of more than 90 percent of the
voters. In most states the process of setting district boundaries enables US
House members to choose their voters, rather than voters choosing House
members. A few states have assigned the reapportionment responsibility to
judicial commissions. Such a proposal is on the California ballot this fall.
9. The nominating process is more and more
automatic--The political party process for nominating candidates for
Congress has become increasingly automatic. The participation level, the
financial advantage of incumbency, and the need for party endorsement have all
but made it impossible to replace a member of Congress and have rendered the
independent voter all but powerless.
10. Extreme views on the left and right are
dominant--Trends in the political process all but preclude the nomination
and election of candidates other than those with views on either the far right
or the far left, making compromise all but unattainable, and resulting in
increased and dangerous polarization and paralysis of the legislative process.
This produces congressional incumbents who cater to single purpose and special
interests to the detriment of the general interest.
11. Expenses for political campaigns have increased
dramatically--In 2004 the total price of presidential and congressional
elections was at least $4 billion, according to the Center for Responsive
Politics, a non-partisan research group that tracks money in politics and its
effect on elections and public policy. In 2000, the price was $3 billion; in
1996, $2.2 billion, and in 1992, $1.8 billion. The more money that is involved
in running for office, critics say, the more influence that interest groups
and wealthy individuals have over elected officials and public policy.
12. Political Action Committees (PACs) have
proliferated--The influence of Political Action Committees (PACS) has
grown dramatically to the point of approaching domination of political
campaigns. The number grew, for example, from 400 to 4,000 within a decade,
with up to 85 percent of PAC money ending up in the campaign funds of
13. Congressional staffs have grown--Congressional
staffs have grown significantly over the years with an estimated more than 50
percent devoted to public relations, constituency service and other activities
that serve primarily to keep congressmen in office.
14. Earlier primaries are diminishing the role of
most voters in selecting nominees--The trend to earlier and earlier
presidential primaries has effectively disenfranchised the majority of voters
as well as negatively influencing upcoming congressional races. Key early
primaries effectively determine the outcome, making subsequent primaries of
little significance. Not since 1980, for example, has a presidential candidate
who raised the most money before the New Hampshire and Iowa primaries lost the
nomination. Correspondingly, turnout in the later primaries was a third lower
than in the earliest primaries.
15. Elected office is becoming lifetime office--In
contrast to earlier years in our democracy, when individuals first established
their careers and then gave part time later years to public service, today we
are seeing a dramatic increase in full time service together with lifetime
careers as members of Congress. Although we have term limits for President and
for many governors, we have none for Congress. This trend of full and long
time service has caused multiple inadequacies in our system. Statesmanship has
become the exception rather than the norm.
16. Committee chairs are enormously powerful--The
length of service as committee chairs in congress had made for an imbalance of
power and has all but rendered junior members powerless. Their impact too
frequently is primarily related to rewards for following the leadership.
17. Special interest legislation is growing
rapidly--The degree of so called "pork" legislation-- rewarding members of
congress for projects in their home districts in return for party loyalty--
has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years to the point where it becomes a
trading device and has contributed to excessive governmental expenditures for
less than worthy projects. For example, the 2006 transportation legislation
totaled $24 billion dollars, up dramatically from earlier years. "Pork"
legislation totaled $6.4 billion in 1998 and $9.4 billion in 1998.
18. Numbers of single-issue voters are growing--The
Federal government has so broadened its scope and impact over the years that
today a high proportion of voters have a significant pecuniary interest in the
decisions of congress. This dependence has promoted a tendency to become
single issue voters, supplemented by the formation of political organizations
who lobby for these special interests. Passage of unencumbered general purpose
legislation has become the exception rather than the rule.
19. Balanced budgets in the federal government are
disappearing--The above cited pressures and trends have made it
exceedingly difficult for the President to present a balanced budget and even
more challenging for Congress to adopt one. Most people now consider our total
federal deficit, and the recent trends, to be unsound and leading to serious
problems in the future.
* * * * *
At the very moment of greatest urgency our public
leaders appear oblivious to the problem or they are paralyzed to do much about
it. It is imperative that someone must "seize the moment" by placing priority
on this vital issue. Common Cause, a national citizens organization, has been
pushing for change. Yet, we see little evidence that other organizations are
doing much to build momentum for the urgently needed improvements in the
It is in this vein that the Civic Caucus will be
placing its highest priority over the coming months on creating a sense of
understanding, urgency and momentum for improvement of the national
government. Many of the problems also apply to state and local government.
We have developed the preceding preliminary list of
the key symptoms causing concern and the adverse impact they appear to be
having on our democratic process. The potential cures listed below include
those most commonly suggested. We intentionally have not yet given them
consideration nor drawn conclusions.
We will begin our process over the next several
months by hearing from experienced thought leaders, primarily former public
officials from both political parties.
This document is being prepared for the purpose of
stimulating thought and directing the focus of these sessions. The document,
currently in preliminary form, will be sent in advance to each invited thought
leader, seeking their views on the critical areas most in need of improvement,
the degree of urgency, the practicability of implementation and whether these
thought leaders will join in this initiative. We then will consider next steps
for the Civic Caucus.
THE POTENTIAL CURES
Many cures have been proposed in recent years. We
list below, in no particular order, the most prominently mentioned of these.
It is important to stress that we as a caucus have not begun to select and
prioritize among the potential cures. Following is a list of the most
1. Shift responsibility for redistricting?--Congress
could require states to create independent judicial commissions to redraw
Congressional districts once each decade. It is intolerable that those
directly impacted by the result likewise have the greatest influence on the
2. Limit frequency of redistricting?--Redrawing
boundaries more frequently than once every ten years could be prohibited.
3. Require more competitive districts?--To
reduce the advantage that incumbents currently have over challengers, a key
criteria in redistricting could be to create as many competitive districts a
4. Add new provisions to redistricting?--Proportional
representation and multimember districts could be allowed when redrawing
5. Set time limits on campaign spending?--A
time limit could be placed on the number of days before an election that
campaign advertising and promotion dollars can be spent.
6. Limit dollars spent on campaigns?--A
dollar limit could be placed on how much candidates, political parties, and
committees can spend during the permitted time period.
7. Limit special interest political spending?--The
amount of money that special interest groups can spend on political activities
could be significantly restricted.
8. Extend House terms?--House of Representative
terms could be extended to four years, with one-half of the House being up for
election every two years (just as one-third of the Senate is now).
9. Impose term limits?--The number of terms a
person can serve as a member of Congress could be limited.
10. Change Congressional fringe benefits?--Congressional
health and retirement benefits could be changed to mirror those of other
persons on the federal payroll.
11. Establish a national presidential primary?--A
national primary could replace the existing systems of primaries and caucuses
used in the various states to select delegates to the national conventions.
12. Require proportional distribution of electors?--The
system of choosing Presidential electors could be changed from winner-take-all
in a state to a proportional distribution of electors based on the actual
13. Enact direct election of the President?--The
system of choosing electors could be replaced by direct election.
14. Permit same day registration?--Voters could
be allowed to register near or on the same day as they vote, as several states
15. Enact second choice voting?--Voters could be
allowed to indicate their second choices.
16. Allow stay-at-home voting?--Voters could be
allowed to vote from home by computer or phone.
17. Eliminate or modify cloture?--A
Senate rule requiring a 60 percent majority to agree to vote on a given piece
of legislation or Presidential appointments could be eliminated or modified.
18. Restrict actions of committee chairs?--Actions
that a chair can take without approval of a majority of the committee could be
19. Give some subpoena authority to the minority?--Minority
members of congressional committees could be given some authority to subpoena
20. Require a balanced budget?--Congress could
be required to adopt a balanced budget each year. Exceptions to a balanced
budget could be limited to times of war or national recession, with a
two-thirds vote being required in both Houses to approve such deviations.
Even more effective and creative cures can be found
to again assure that our democratic process becomes an inspiring witness to
how a free society should function. We are confident, that, out of this
process, they will come.