Americans must change the incentives in our broken politics

Americans must change the incentives in our broken politics

Signs continue to mount of a political wave forming in this year’s mid-term election. Most recently House Speaker Paul Ryan announced that he will join at least 42 other House Republicans who will not seek re-election this year. With approval of Congress at just 10 percent, depths not seen since the Watergate era, the voting public seems poised to deliver another change election. But don’t bet this change will bring about a better functioning Congress.

If the recent history of wave elections is any guide, the moderates in swing districts will be the first swept away, leaving mostly passionate partisans and hard-left or hard-right politicians from safely gerrymandered districts. The continuing shift in power to the political extremes will insure more polarization, gridlock, and extreme volatility, meaning the American system of governance will remain mired in a cycle of dysfunction.

Look no further than Congress’ chronic inability to perform its most basic budgetary responsibilities to understand its dysfunction. From 2011 through 2016, Congress passed not one of its 12 annual spending bills on time, instead stumbling along with inefficient “continuing resolutions” that temporarily extend previous funding levels, and catchall omnibus bills that avoid tough decisions and balloon the debt. Meanwhile profound problems fester, including crumbling infrastructure, floundering health care, a broken immigration system, unsustainable entitlement programs, and historically high debt. Our broken political incentives are the crux of these problems.

Computer-assisted gerrymandering and geographic self-selection by voters in both parties have greatly increased the number of reliably “blue” and “red” single-party districts. Even in a swing year, the general election is a forgone conclusion in these one-party districts, and the real contests are low-turnout primaries dominated by the most passionately partisan voters. A politician who wants to win these primaries must appeal to the voters on the extreme fringes to protect their flanks. Little wonder that once elected these politicians bring a no-holds-barred, my-way-or-the-highway mindset with them to Washington.

The failure of campaign finance reform has also contributed to our political dysfunction. A lawmaker’s schedule is often squeezed out by the demand to constantly raise money. Big money has also moved from the political parties themselves to less-regulated, opaque “Super PACs.”…

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