Walker: Lessons for Reform in Dick Lugar’s Defeat
Sen. Dick Lugar’s loss in the Indiana GOP primary is another indication that moderates are an endangered species in Washington, D.C.
This is a driving force behind the partisan gridlock that prevents our elected officials from addressing critical issues and makes our political system largely dysfunctional.
Are there concrete steps we can take to fix this problem?
Yes. As a political independent who served as comptroller general of the United States and now runs the Comeback America Initiative, I bring some unique perspectives to this challenge. I have seen how Washington works up close and have learned from citizens across the country what they want from government. They want solutions, not partisan warfare.
The irony is that smart people have proposed sensible solutions to our fiscal and other challenges, yet these aren’t being tried because our political system won’t allow it. I believe that we must have three major political reforms if we’re going to make our republic more representative of and responsive to the general public:
1. We need to change the primary system for federal office, including for president. The tea party organized against Lugar, which follows a trend of more moderate Republican incumbents being challenged. The tea party was well within its rights to exercise political muscle. But it points to a larger problem that affects primaries of both major political parties, especially in the House.
In Indiana about 665,000 people voted, which is roughly 25 percent of the total number of Indiana voters expected to turn out for the general election. Factor in the outsized turnout of partisan activists and it becomes clear that a rather small and unrepresentative slice of the voting public determined the GOP party nominee. No wonder voters lament in November that they aren’t satisfied with their choices on the ballot.
So I propose we change the requirements for voting in primaries for all federal elections, similar to how it’s done in states such as California. Instead of separate primaries for the two major parties, let’s have integrated and open primaries where the top vote-getters — regardless of party affiliation — square off in November. This would allow independents, who now make up the largest (and growing) percentage of voters, to have a real say in choosing their representatives. It would also mean that incumbents do not get a free pass.
2. We need to lessen the power and influence of money in politics. Special interest groups outside Indiana were able to spend millions of dollars to influence the outcome of the Republican primary. This is not uncommon, and most Americans believe that our current campaign finance system is an abomination. The clearest example is the growth of super PACs, political action committees formed in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that can accept unlimited contributions from corporations, unions and individuals.
To truly fix this problem will take a constitutional amendment, which is an arduous and lengthy process. In the meantime, the sensible thing to do would be for Congress to pass a law requiring transparency for whoever donates to super PACs. This one change could help ease the grip of big donors and special interest money on our political process.
3. Even the best elected officials need to have term limits. There is no doubt that Lugar has been a statesman and that his career in public service should be held in high esteem. But he will have served in the Senate for 36 years — so long that many voters in Indiana perceived he was out of touch.
Our founders never envisioned a system where our representatives would make elective office into a permanent job. Yet this has happened, contributing to a system where career politicians focus on the next election rather than the best interests of the country.
The solution is to impose common-sense term limits — long enough terms to build the relationships and knowledge necessary to be effective but not so long that politicians view their office as a career rather than temporary public service. I propose we set term limits for Members of Congress at 12 years to 18 years. Moreover, let’s consider increasing the term lengths for House members from two years to four. That would make those representatives less likely to begin campaigning for the next election the day after they win their seat. Changing the presidency to one six-year term also makes sense.
I am confident that the American people can get behind all of these reforms. In my fiscal tour travels, Americans consistently tell me that they want action on the many challenges that threaten our nation — yet they see a government paralyzed by partisanship. Their message to our elected officials is clear: You were sent to Washington to solve problems. So do so, or go home.
David M. Walker is former comptroller general of the United States and CEO of the Comeback America Initiative.