In his draft paper on Political Dysfunction and Constitutional Change, University of California-Irvine professor Rick Hasen makes a powerful case for the need for out-of-the-box thinking on American political reform. But he also makes a curious omission. Fair voting alternatives to winner-take-all elections do not receive a single mention in the paper, even though they were promoted in one of Hasen’s major sources, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein’s 2012 book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. Hasen has a well-deserved reputation as one of our most thoughtful law professors, and his paper has generated considerable reaction in the political blogosphere. It posits three basic claims: 1) The government of the United States is currently dysfunctional, 2) that dysfunction could be solved by switching to a parliamentary system of governance – that is, government where the executive is chosen by the legislature, and 3) switching to a parliamentary system is the only way to end the dysfunction if the problem does not eventually solve itself.
Hasen’s first claim is difficult to dispute. Between the never-ending budget crisis and a consistent inability to enact policies that most Americans favor, the U.S. government – in particular, Congress – is simply not doing its job effectively. The cause, as Hasen correctly points out, is increasing polarization within Congress, which is at its highest point since the end of Reconstruction. That polarization in turn is grounded in most voters’ increasingly rigid party preference – a trend that FairVote has highlighted for more than 15 years.
We’re not going to argue one way or another on Hasen’s second claim about a parliamentary system. While it’s true that switching to a system in which the majority party could pass any law it wanted would increase legislative output and decrease gridlock, doing so would be a drastic step that would require a complete restructuring of American politics. No reform option should be dismissed just because it is unfamiliar, but as Hasen himself writes, “we should not lightly change the fundamental rules of our governance.”
We do take issue with Hasen’s third contention that a dramatic change in governance structure is the only reform that could work. Hasen convincingly argues that other reforms often touted as having the potential to fix our politics – filibuster reform, open primaries, and independent redistricting – would fall short. Fairvote has also pointed out the limitations of open primaries and independent redistricting as reform solutions, although the latter certainly has merit if applied consistently and with attention to fair representation. As for the filibuster, we have drawn attention to its problematic nature over the years, dating back to when the debate centered on Republicans complaining about Senate Democrats blocking the majority. Even so, while filibuster reform would allow more bills to make it through the Senate, it would do nothing to address the underlying causes of polarization.