New book offers good ways to improve our politics

Tom West, West Words

Of all the complaints I heard during the election campaign just past, two that stood out were that all the negative advertising was insulting to the intelligence of the average voter and that it seems like no matter whom we elect, they are too busy fighting to get anything done.

Now, lawmakers are hurrying to put together a new budget “compromise” before the government goes over a so-called “fiscal cliff” made up of tax hikes and spending cuts. If history is our guide, most likely both sides will come together at the last moment and announce some grand new compromise that puts the day of reckoning off for another few months. Best we can do.

By chance, I’ve been reading an interesting book, “The Parties Versus the People” by former Oklahoma Congressman Mickey Edwards. Edwards left office in 1996, taught at Harvard and Princeton and is now vice president of the Aspen Institute.

He points out that the Founding Fathers were generally opposed to political parties. They felt that factionalism would be the undoing of the nation.

Given the current political climate, that view is getting more attention. After all, ask yourself this question: Should Rick Nolan be representing the interests of Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District or the Democratic Party? Or how about, should Paul Gazelka and Ron Kresha be representing Districts 9 and 9B respectively in the Legislature or the Republicans?

My view, and the view of most Americans, is that they should be representing every citizen in their district, not just slightly over half. Unfortunately, the system has evolved, particularly in the last 30 years, not just to expect conflict, but to encourage it. It has become more important to represent their party than their constituents.

Edwards offers some far-reaching changes that would get us back to what the Founding Fathers intended — that our elected representatives would be working in the common interest, not just for partisan advantage.

Unfortunately, a constitutional convention would be needed to make the change, and that can only come with bipartisan legislative support. Fat chance. The people who have been elected have thrived under the partisan system as it is today. They don’t want things to change even though a significant portion of the electorate is in the center. Too many of the people that get elected are extremists, either of the left or the right.

The first thing Edwards would do is create an open primary. Today, in Minnesota, you can vote in either the Republican or the Democratic primary, but not both. Edwards’ idea would be to throw all the candidates together, including the Greens, Independence, Libertarians, Socialist Workers, etc. for a given office, in the primary and then have a run off between the top two finishers.

Some districts are so lopsided that the prevailing party is already known in advance. By having an open primary, the possibility could exist that two Democrats or two Republicans would advance to the general election, or perhaps a Democrat and a Green or a Republican and a Libertarian.

Parties could still endorse candidates, but they would face the likelihood that the candidate who could capture the center of the electorate would be most likely to win.

This is preferable to so-called “ranked-choice voting” that actually encourages extremism.

The second thing Edwards would do is create non-partisan panels to oversee redistricting. Thirteen states have done so, and in Arizona, the governor has the power to “impeach” the head of the independent commission for “gross misconduct.”

The tension in redistricting is between creating “representative” vs. “competitive” districts. The fact is, the more competitive the districts, the higher the voter turnout will be. Incumbents, of course, don’t like competition. It makes it harder to keep their jobs.

In Minnesota, the Legislature oversees redistricting, but unless one party controls state government, it almost always ends up in the courts.

With regard to campaign contributions, Edwards would limit them to be only from individuals who would be constituents, would require all contributions to be direct to candidates so donors can’t hide behind the state party or the “SuperPacs,” would require more free radio and TV time for candidates and would allow serious candidates (those with a certain threshold of support) to send one free letter to voters outlining their positions on the issues.

Within the Congress, he would make many changes including “rearranging the furniture.” Today, one party sits on one side and the other sits on the other. They spend almost no time together and thus find it impossible to work with the other side.

Instead of having one party sitting on the left and the other on the right, he would seat them by seniority with the most senior members next to the chair.

He would require only non-partisan committee staff that wouldn’t be thrown out every time the majority changes hands. Edwards would require a 60 percent vote to choose the Speaker of the House, and to hold the Speaker election under a secret ballot so members can more likely vote their conscience.

Vote their conscience? What a novel idea. He has dozens of other good ideas who would get us back to politics more like the Founding Fathers envisioned it: a Congress or Legislature working for the good of all instead of just their own party.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. He may be reached at (320) 632-2345 or by e-mail at tom.west@mcrecord.com.

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