Congress is too stagnant, divided and corrupted to do its job – and the American people are demanding reform. The left says “the system is rigged.” The right demands Washington “drain the swamp.” Both sides need to work together to demand change in our broken national political system that will benefit us all.
Young people have grown up in this broken system – where conflict is profitable and short-term political gain gets far more attention than concern for our future. As a result, we are disproportionately disillusioned by politics.
A survey by the Pew Research Center found that only 26 percent of millennials say politics and government is one of their top three interests, compared to 34 percent of people in Generation X and 45 percent of baby boomers.
And a Rasmussen Reports poll released in July found that among all likely U.S. voters, only 15 percent said Congress is doing a good or excellent job, while 56 percent said Congress is doing a poor job.
There has never been a better moment since the period following President Nixon’s resignation in 1974 in the Watergate scandal for fundamental Congressional reform. We need reform that will incentivize constructive leadership and restore public faith in political institutions. Today’s levels of dysfunction and public distrust in Congress are fundamental threats to our republic.
A terrific new book released by former Republican Congressman Chris Gibson of upstate New York, titled “Rally Point,” highlights needed fixes to our political system.
Gibson, who was in the Army for 24 years and retired as a colonel, served as one of the most bipartisan members of Congress from 2011 to 2017. He left Congress after fulfilling a commitment to self-impose term limits.
Among the reforms that Gibson highlights is the need to change how we finance campaigns. This issue was a common concern of voters for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in last year’s presidential race.
The most frequent refrain I heard from Trump voters last year was their call for a president “who is not beholden to special interests.” Sanders repeatedly said the system is rigged for “millionaires and billionaires” and called for campaign finance reform as his top priority. Clinton campaigned for a comprehensive plan to achieve the same goal.
The constant need to raise cash takes up enormous amounts of time and energy from candidates for Congress. They don't have time to govern and build bipartisan relationships. As one young Republican member of Congress recently lamented to me: “I came here to govern – not to spend all my time raising money.”
In “Rally Point,” Gibson calls for “capping Congressional spending limits, full disclosure of all donations, and the prohibition of all outside spending” on campaigns, including from political action committees (business, labor, outside groups, and Super PACs).
Take Back Our Republic, a conservative group led by Virginia Republican Congressman Dave Brat’s former campaign manager, has advocated campaign finance reform including tax credits and deductions that empower small-donor contributions.
The second key area of political reform is nonpartisan redistricting. We must build a bipartisan case rejecting the practice of political parties and incumbent politicians choosing their voters, instead of voters choosing their leaders.
As Gibson mentions in “Rally Point”: “The whole point of our founding was to put the citizen at the center of government.” He proposes an independent redistricting amendment to the Constitution, with implementation left to the states.
Nonpartisan redistricting is a cornerstone of a “Bipartisan Plan to Drain the Swamp” reform agenda proposed by House members Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., and Ro Khanna, D-Calif. They are members of the Congressional Future Caucus, the nonpartisan caucus for millennials.
Finally, to change the culture in Washington, Gibson and the Gallagher-Khanna plan call for term limits and an end to the so-called “revolving door,” where powerful federal lobbying firms employ former members of Congress to advance industries that they previously regulated.
The pressures and incentives to stay in office for a long time or go to federal lobbying paradoxically lead to costly, short-term policymaking. Simply look to our dangerous inaction on the long-term debt and climate crises as evidence.
Among the most common critiques of term limits is that professional staff will take over policymaking. To address that, we can make term limits generous enough so that elected members still drive legislating, as opposed to the staff.
Gibson and Gallagher-Khanna propose capping congressional service at 12 years, and perhaps we should consider limits as generous as 18 years. That would be long enough for a legislator to make an impact, while allowing fresh blood and new ideas to push America toward the future.
In addition, Gibson and Gallagher-Khanna propose extending the current one-year ban on members of Congress from entering federal lobbying to five years, which is currently in effect for the executive branch. The point is that we need legislators to come in with purpose and urgency to solve politically difficult, long-term problems and embrace the founders’ vision for a “citizen legislature.”
As I have traveled across the country for the Millennial Action Project, which engages millennial lawmakers across partisan lines, I have noticed a divide on term limits and other reforms.
Outside of Washington, I have been amazed by the tremendous support from across the spectrum for these ideas, especially from young people. The most pushback comes from people who have been influencing government in Washington for decades. But without reforms, we'll continue to witness more and more extreme disruptions of our political system, preventing sensible policy from being enacted.
These areas are a few of the many reforms our political system needs to be more functional, representative and future-focused.
The U.S. Congress is the only federal institution capable of representing our nation’s diverse views and reconciling them to advance the public interest. At the same time, members of Congress cannot effectively serve that public interest in a broken political system. Now is the time for reform. If Congress passed a bipartisan bill to “drain the swamp” and “unrig the system,” I believe President Trump would likely sign it.
Steven Olikara is founder and president of the Millennial Action Project, a national, nonpartisan organization dedicated to activating young lawmakers to overcome partisan gridlock and dysfunction. Follow him on Twitter @StevenOlikara.