Opinion

Presidential Race Not as Rigged as Congress

Calls for reform focus on the wrong branch of government

Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland introduced legislation to provide tax credits for Americans who make small political donations. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

“For shame! The system is crooked!” cries Donald Trump. “The presidential primary process is rigged!”  

“Foul! A pox on superdelegates!” cry Bernie Sanders supporters. “Let the people decide!”  

You’d think that all this heightened focus on “the rules” would put happy expressions on the faces of political scientists and reform activists. But I’m not smiling. And the reason is because it’s all a head fake. The media spotlight is most certainly shining brightly, but on the wrong set of rules.  

Yes, it’s true that state delegates within the two major parties have outsize influence in selecting their presidential nominees. But this is not new. As far back as 1860, Abraham Lincoln became the GOP nominee on a third ballot, defeating Sen. William Seward, who had come into the party convention carrying a plurality of Republican voters.  

This is not to say the process is as it should be. But it’s being blown way out of proportion in 2016 because the circus is in full frenzy – and because this is the first time that the nominating rules have actually mattered in the modern media age. Meanwhile, the far more rigged branch of government that clogs up legislation and distorts fair representation sits on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. It can be easy to forget about Congress in the midst of a melodramatic and protracted presidential horse race. But nearly all of the ambitious elixirs being offered by White House hopefuls don’t have a Sunday prayer of materializing without cooperation from the “First Branch.”  

If our country wants to see legislative solutions crafted and passed to fix our tax code, fix our immigration mess, fix our decaying infrastructure, fix college affordability, fix our criminal justice system, (insert your own issues here), it will take creativity, innovation, and compromise. But those requisites are crowded out in Congress due to wrongheaded rules in the system that increase both hyperpolarization and legalized corruption.  

The rules that rig our U.S. House races consist of party primaries and then winner-take-all general elections in gerrymandered, single-member districts (the Constitution mandates none of these practices). Due to a national map that has become starkly split up into deeply red and blue geographical regions, 85 to 90 percent of these elections are foregone conclusions before the voting even begins. The base-driven, predictable results travel to Washington, D.C., sustain a stale partisan divide on Capitol Hill, shrink an already threadbare political center and distort a bedrock principle of American democracy: fair representation.  

There are better ways to run elections – namely “proportional representation” – and many other advanced democracies wisely use them. And right now, the Fair Representation Act sits in Congress awaiting action. The FRA promotes the use of multi-winner U.S. House districts through ranked-choice voting to ensure that all Americans have some measure of representation. The Act would also make members of Congress more accountable to the voters. Sort of like it’s supposed to be.  

The other side of this rigged congressional coin is the record-breaking flood of money that courses daily through our system. The corrupting influence of cash in our politics has smelled putrid to Americans for years, but now the effects are quantifiable. Researchers Martin Gilens and Ben Page ran statistical analyses on 1,800 policy questions confronted by Congress over two decades. They concluded that economic “elites” in the 90th percentile were fifteen times as important in determining policy outcomes as average Americans. This is our democracy.  

Rep. David Jolly of Florida would block members of Congress from soliciting donations. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. David Jolly of Florida would block members of Congress from soliciting donations. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Yet there are solutions that have been proposed to correct this defect, too. Maryland Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes’s Government By The People Act would provide refundable tax credits for average Americans who make small donations — and it would match and leverage those contributions by a 6-1 ratio. A similar bill called the Fair Elections Now Act sits in the U.S. Senate. And Florida Republican Rep. David Jolly’s Stop Act would actually ban members of Congress from personally asking people for money (currently our representatives are dialing for dollars 20-40 hours a week).  

So if a paltry 8 percent of Americans have confidence in Congress and we know we have rules that actually encourage the rigging of our legislative branch, why don’t these common sense measures get passed? Because those with power try to consolidate that power. Because the few reformers trying to repair the rigged rules need our support to overcome the many insiders who benefit from those rules. And the very first step for we the people is to be aware of how the rigging happens — and just how thoroughly it has poisoned the atmosphere on Capitol Hill.  

Glossy presidential spectacles usually command a ton of attention. And because we have a doozy this year, delegate rules have become a national story line. But no matter who wins the marathon, from whichever party, the next U.S. president must negotiate with a sclerotic Congress that is more hamstrung than ever before by the rules. Learning the nuance of these rules may feel like a nuisance. But until we understand them — and then push to reform them — the unpopular status quo in Washington will continue to reign supreme.  

Michael Golden is the author of "Unlock Congress: Reform the Rules – Restore the System" and co-founder of the Chicago-based One Million Degrees scholarship program. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.