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11.05.11

How Obama Can Win

President Obama has decided to make an attack on Congress the centerpiece of his reelection campaign. But as John Avlon argues, he also needs a positive message for reform.

On the campaign trail, President Obama is already offering flashes of his favorite 2012 narrative: “Give ‘em Hell, Harry” redux, running against the “Do-Nothing 112th Congress.” It is the hyper-partisan Republicans in the House, he says, who have stopped his good-faith effort to be the antidote to political polarization he promised back in 2008. 

It’s an attractive target—after all, congressional approval is at historic lows—but it won’t work on its own. Instead, it will sound like a weak president complaining about his impotence as a leader—exactly what the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue doesn’t want to communicate.

Here’s a solution: The president should not campaign simply against Congress but for congressional reforms that could cure the underlying culture of hyper-partisanship that has made this divided Congress the most dysfunctional in modern memory. That means proposing specific rule changes that could have bipartisan appeal, at least beyond the Beltway.

Below are a few modest proposals that could help improve our capacity for self-government going forward.

Filibuster Reform. Remember the climactic scene of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where Jimmy Stewart conducts a one-man seminar in democracy by standing up and speaking until he collapsed? Well, the current U.S. Senate apparently doesn’t. That’s because the filibuster has gone from a rare physical endurance test to a routine parliamentary maneuver. Consequently, the filibuster is invoked more than ever before—from roughly one a year between 1920 and 1970 to an average of 70 times a year now. This takes the threshold for governance from a simple majority to a super-majority of 61 votes—giving the minority party the ability to block legislation from coming up for a vote. “Back in the 1960s, Strom Thurmond had to risk his bladder to filibuster,” says Congressman Jim Cooper (D-TN). “Now no senator has skin in the game. They just ask a staffer to file paperwork.” The solution is to re-impose the old tried-and-true rules that required senators to filibuster in person a bill they don’t like. By adding to the hassle factor, senators will be less likely to invoke this nuclear option. It will again be a special occasion rather than a first reflex.

End Secret Holds. Right now, any single senator has the power to hold up any bill or appointment indefinitely. It is the “power of no” on steroids—and it’s set up to be sneaky, offering senators the ability to do the bidding of any special interest in secret. A lobbyist only needs to call in one favor to block a bill or an appointment indefinitely. At the outset of this Congress, the Senate voted to end secret holds but created a loophole where the hold would be filed under the name of the party leader rather than the individual senator. This courtesy has made the reform effort impotent. (Curiously, the biggest fans of the secret hold seem to be the Senate Tea Party troika of Jim DeMint, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul.). The solution is to end secret holds entirely—if senators want to put a hold on legislation, they should own up to it publicly. After all, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Ideally this practice should be ended altogether. It gives bad actors the power to hijack a national debate and hold the entire Senate body hostage to their individual demands.

A Threshold for Up or Down Votes. Right now, just because an idea has broad support doesn’t mean that it will come up for a vote in Congress. Instead, it needs the special dispensation of a party leader or speaker. This is undemocratic; if a bill achieves a certain high threshold of support in the form of 100 co-sponsors, it should be granted an up or down vote. Likewise, any presidential nomination should receive a hearing within 90 days. Instead, from Clinton to Bush to Obama we’ve seen presidential appointments blocked for purely political reasons by the opposing party. This reform in the process would ensure that important positions within the federal government and federal judiciary can be filled—so that the business of government can go on and presidential prerogative can be restored.

Obama should work for reform of Congress using the power of the bully pulpit, challenging members of Congress to show whether they are part of the problem or the solution.

A Five-Day Work Week. This doesn’t sound too radical on the surface. After all, it’s called a normal week at work for most Americans. But currently Congress is only in session three days a week—with votes scheduled for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday—and one week a month off entirely. Nice work if you can get it. “I calculated that I worked 90 days last year in Washington D.C.—that's a part-time job for most folks,” concurred Congressman Cooper. A regular work week would also help encourage members of Congress to get to know each other—and it’s always more difficult to demonize members of the opposition when you know them personally. Another idea would be to limit the number of taxpayer subsidized trips home that members of Congress can take each month—saving money while keeping them a little closer to the capitol.

Speaker of the Whole House. Here’s a big idea, championed by former Congressman Mickey Edwards (R-OK) in his upcoming book How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans—elect the Speaker of the House with a supermajority, requiring him or her to gain a portion of votes from the other party. This would help depolarize Congress and highlight the speaker's role as someone who represents the entire institution of Congress rather than just the majority party. It would require concessions and constructive deal-making across party lines. Additionally, it turns out that under the Constitution, the speaker of the House doesn’t even need to come from Congress—it can be a prominent and unifying figure from the broad cloth of America. It’s a long-shot, sure, but it’s better than the choice between John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi, with Eric Cantor looking on jealously from the wings. We can do better.

There’s a reason Congress has historically low approval ratings right now—it has become a symbol of division and dysfunction. But it’s not enough to simply run against the system—we need to propose positive solutions to save it. This won’t happen overnight, as David Frum told me, “It took a long time to break Congress and it’s going to take time to fix it.” 

The president can advance this debate with the power of the bully pulpit and then challenge members of Congress to identify publicly, pro or con, whether they are part of the problem or the solution. Good policy can be good politics—in this case, it’s a way for members of Congress to harness the energy of this anti-incumbent year constructively. And because these reforms will apply to whatever party is in power after the election, it will effectively force Congress to think about what’s the right thing do to rather than simply sharpening the cycle of partisan revenge. 

That’s the final reason congressional reform should be a core part of our debate this election season—it will force politicians to start thinking about the national interest instead of special interests. And that’s change we can all believe in.