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Overhauling Congress: Taking It Back To Formula

Congressmen walk down the steps of the House of Representatives as they work overnight on a spending bill in February. (AP)

One late January night in 1966, President Johnson went to the Capitol to deliver the annual State of the Union address.

Johnson was at the peak of his power that night, and during the hourlong speech, he talked about his agenda for the year: Vietnam, social programs and expanding the war on poverty. But right in the middle, he offered up an idea that seemed to come out of nowhere when he proposed to change the term for a congressman from two years to four, concurrent with presidential terms.

"If you listen to the whole speech, the most enthusiastic response to all those proposals he laid out was to that one," says Sidney Milkis, a political scientist at the University of Virginia's Miller Center.

Milkis tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that the president was serious about the idea because the government had become one of "harassed inefficiency."

Johnson said the two-year term required most members of Congress to divert energies to a near-constant process of campaigning. He urged swift action on the proposal, but with a war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement gaining steam, Milkis says the idea went nowhere.

The system in Washington is so unwieldy that in order to get everybody to agree, [it] would seem to take a miracle and would perhaps take decades.
Fareed Zakaria

Today, members of the U.S. House of Representatives still serve two-year terms. But with the constant battles over money, the partisanship in Congress and what seems like constant states of legislative gridlock, perhaps there is something to Johnson's idea.

"I think given all the anxiety about representative government, that this type of constitutional discussion that Johnson raised in 1966 would be very healthy for the country right now," Milkis says.

A Broken System

Congressional approval ratings are at an all-time low with only 9 percent in favor of the job Congress is doing. The 2011 legislative session has been the least productive session since 1995.

Whether or not it is the worst Congress or not is subjective, but it has sparked a discussion among thinkers and policymakers about whether it will only get worse.

Author, CNN host and all-around big thinker Fareed Zakaria thinks that it will. He recently wrote a column suggesting it may be time to acknowledge that the Founders maybe didn't get it right in the end.

"The Founders were obsessed with the problem of absolute power," Zakaria tells NPR's Raz. "They were trying to ensure there would never be the kind of absolute monarchy that they were running away from."

That fear of concentrated power is what formed our current system of shared, checked and divided power, Zakaria says. But he says that now has resulted in a system that is so onerous, it is very difficult to get anything done and solve the problems America faces.

"The system in Washington is so unwieldy that in order to get everybody to agree, [it] would seem to take a miracle and would perhaps take decades," he says. "Meanwhile these problems are compounding themselves."

While some might say the current gridlock in Congress is a product of personalities and not necessarily the system itself, Zakaria disagrees. He cites the British parliamentary system, where the prime minister's ruling party controls both the executive and legislative branches, which allows them to move forward and pass legislation much faster.

"Then four years, five years later the voters decide whether it worked, and they can throw the bums out," he says. "I just worry that we have reached a stage where it is simply impossible to exercise power at the speed that the 21st century needs."

Zakaria doesn't think the U.S. will ever go to a parliamentary system, nor is he advocating it. But he does think that we should have a system that more easily allows the majority in power to govern, and then voters can decide if they liked what happened or not.

Dismissing claims that the problems can be blamed on a particular politician or any one set of politicians, Zakaria says the structure of our government, originated by the Founding Fathers, is at the root of the problem and needs to be addressed.

"I think we, as Americans, really are reluctant to do that because we have this mythology of the Founding Fathers being demigods who came to Earth and gave us a perfect Constitution," he says. "But there were flaws in the document."

In fact, revisiting the Constitution and looking at what needs to be fixed, updated and streamlined, would be in the very spirit of the Founding Fathers, Zakaria says.

"[These] were practical men of the Enlightenment who believed in looking at facts [and] trying to figure out a system," he says. "We need to bring that spirit back all these years later."

The Problem Of Partisanship

Something the Founding Fathers did warn about was the danger of political parties. In contrast to Zakaria, former Republican Rep. Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma argues that it is not the constitutional structure that's the problem with Congress, but the party system. He talks about some of this in his forthcoming book, How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans.

Edwards tells NPR's Raz that giving the president more power, letting the president and a few others decide on the laws, would be the worst thing that we could do.

"We don't want that in America," Edwards says.

Edwards says he understands why some see the appeal of authoritarian governments, like China. It's easy to create a really good, efficient system of government, he says, but the people there have no say.

"The people just get in the way," he says. "Well I think that's nonsense. We don't need to change to a system that gives more power to the top."

The current problems America faces are no greater than its past problems, Edwards says. But the shift, he says, is in the increased level of partisanship.

"We don't have to live with a system where every decision is made by party," he says. "What you want is more power in the people. You have to figure out what's denying them that power, whether it's the political primary system [or] whether it's the redistricting system; figure out what the problems are and solve the problems."

Edwards says we shouldn't throw the baby, in this case the Constitution, out with the bath water.

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

From NPR News, it's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

One late January night in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson went to the Capitol to deliver the annual State of the Union address.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: Mr. Speaker.

RAZ: Johnson was at the peak of his power that night.

SIDNEY MILKIS: This was the high tide of his presidency, I think. He had just come off an incredibly successful legislative session, and that followed a dramatic reelection.

RAZ: That's Sidney Milkis. He's a political scientist at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. Over the course of that speech, President Johnson talked about his agenda for the year: Vietnam, social programs, expanding the war on poverty. And then right in the middle, he offered up an idea that seemed to come out of nowhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

JOHNSON: I will ask you to make it possible for members of the House of Representatives to work more effectively in the service of the nation through a constitutional amendment extending the term of a congressman to four years, concurrent with that of the president.

MILKIS: If you listen to the whole speech, the most enthusiastic response to all those proposals he laid out was to that one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

JOHNSON: The present two-year term requires most members of Congress to divert enormous energies to an almost constant process of campaigning.

MILKIS: He was serious about this. And he said that what's happened to our government, it's become one of harassed inefficiency.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

JOHNSON: And I urge your swift action.

RAZ: Johnson thought that expanding the House terms from two to four years would allow members to focus on governing and not just getting re-elected. So eight days after the speech, he sent a memo to Congress with his idea all mapped out. But with the war in Vietnam raging and the civil rights movement gaining steam, the idea was soon forgotten. But what if there's something to Johnson's idea? What if it would actually take some of the politics out of policymaking today?

MILKIS: I think given all the anxiety now about the quality of representative government, that this kind of constitutional discussion that Johnson raised in 1966 would be very healthy for the country right now.

RAZ: Our cover story today: Is our form of government - the oldest enduring system in the Western world - is it equipped to overcome the politics of today, the money, the partisanship, the gridlock? And is it time to do the unthinkable and change the very way we govern ourselves? In a moment, writer Fareed Zakaria on the virtues of a parliamentary system and former congressman Mickey Edwards who says the problem is not the system but the people who run it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Now you've heard the stats: congressional approval ratings are at an all-time low, 9 percent approve. And 2011 has been the least productive legislative session since 1995.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We could be heading for another government shutdown.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: All you hear is a lot of heat going back and forth...

SENATOR HARRY REID: Because we're not going to cave in on this.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Senate Republicans say Democrats are responsible.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: That would rather spend their time doing cheap political theater.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: The White House moved the goalpost.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Can they say yes to anything?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is probably the worst Congress on record.

RAZ: The worst? Well, that's subjective. But it has sparked a discussion among thinkers and even some policymakers about whether it will only get worse. Fareed Zakaria thinks so. He's an author and all-around big thinker. And he recently wrote a column suggesting it may be time to acknowledge that the Founders maybe didn't get it right in the end.

FAREED ZAKARIA: The Founders were obsessed with the problem of absolute power. They were trying to ensure that there would never be the kind of absolute monarchy that they were running away from, you know, in King George's England. And so there is a fear of concentrated power, and power is therefore divided, checked, shared. Now I don't think there is any danger of America being taken over by some kind of, you know, absolute monarchy.

But there is a danger that we will not be able to exercise our, you know, executive functions, administrative functions, in a purposeful way. We can't seem to solve any of the problems we face right now, whether they are the reform of the entitlements, getting our fiscal house in order. The system in Washington is so unwieldy that in order to get everybody to agree, you know, would seem to take a miracle.

RAZ: Couldn't you argue that the current gridlock is a product of personalities and not the system?

ZAKARIA: Not really, because, you know, if you think about it, contrast our system with the parliamentary system. When David Cameron is elected in Britain, or take the German Chancellor Merkel, they come into power, they control both the executive and legislative branch, right, because you have a majority in parliament, and that majority allows you to form the government. So within weeks, you pass a budget, you pass all the major legislation you want. And then four years, five years later, the voters decide whether it worked and they can throw the bums out.

In America, nobody ever controls that much power, so you have to get everybody else on board. And getting everybody else on board is a very complex, painstaking process. And I just worry that we have reached a stage where it is simply impossible to exercise power at the speed that the 21 century needs. We can't wait on these problems for as long as we have.

RAZ: But I wonder, what could you realistically do to change the system to make it more efficient?

ZAKARIA: That's a very good question. You know, we're not going to go to a parliamentary system. I'm not advocating that. But you could, for example, ask yourself - take some things that are not even in the Constitution. The way the Senate works is almost designed to block and create obstacles to any kind of action. So one senator is able to threaten a filibuster, which derails all legislation.

The filibuster is not in the Constitution. It's an entirely invented procedure. It shouldn't exist. Budgets should be passed on a fast track. I think we should have a system that much more easily allows the majority to govern and then people can decide that they liked what happened or did they not.

RAZ: Fareed, looking ahead five, 10 years from now, are you worried that we might not be able to tackle these huge challenges we face without some major structural reforms to the way we govern ourselves?

ZAKARIA: I'm very worried. I think that if you look at the structure of our government, there's one simple answer people have, which is, oh, you know, this particular politician or this set of politicians are bad people. I actually think that's not true. Many of the people in Washington are decent people. But the incentives that they have are all toward this kind of, you know, creating obstacles, paralyzing the process. And as a result, structurally, our government is unable to do anything, you know?

So when you confront those kind of problems, you have to say to yourself maybe there are structural reforms we need. Maybe we have to do something to streamline the system. And I think we, as Americans, really are reluctant to do that because we have this mythology about the Founding Fathers being demigods who gave us a perfect Constitution. But there were flaws in the document. Let us not forget the Constitution allowed for slavery. There have been many amendments that were necessary. Women didn't have the right to vote.

So the idea that we should take a look at it and ask ourselves what are the things that need to be fixed, updated, streamlined, I think would be entirely in the spirit, by the way, of the Founding Fathers who did not view governance as some kind of theological enterprise but were practical men of the Enlightenment who believed in looking at facts, trying to figure out a system. We need to bring that spirit back all these years later.

RAZ: Fareed Zakaria. He spoke to me from his home in New York. He's also the host of the program "Fareed Zakaria GPS" on CNN.

Now something the Founding Fathers did warn about was the danger of political parties. Mickey Edwards agrees. He's a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, and he argues it's not the constitutional structure that's the problem, but the party system.

MICKEY EDWARDS: It's our political system that we have created, which is not part of the Constitution. The worst thing we can do is to say, well, my gosh, we've got a lot of problems. This is very difficult. Why don't we create a king? Maybe we could just give more power to the president and we could let whoever's president and Tim Geithner and a few other people sit down and decide what our laws should be and what we should do. And we don't want that in America.

RAZ: I mean, it's what an authoritarian government does. And some would argue can be very efficient, right? I mean, how many times have you read an article where people say, I just arrived to Beijing. And, wow, that's a great airport. And I took a super high-speed train to Shanghai. And, man, if only we had that kind of system. But it does make you wonder, though, right?

EDWARDS: Absolutely. If you wanted, I'm smart enough to create a really good efficient system of government. Now the people would have no say in it, you know, because the people kind of get in the way. Well, I think that's nonsense. And I think, you know, the Founders created a system of government that broke new ground, that for the first time said we're going to have a society in which the people are in charge. We don't need to change to a system that gives more power at the top.

RAZ: What do you make of this idea that Lyndon Johnson had that if you only expanded the terms of members of the House from two years to four, it would give them more time to govern and less time to worry about these things that you're talking about: money and politics, campaigning, raising money. Is there anything to that idea?

EDWARDS: The advantage of the two-year term is that you have the ability when they've gotten off course, when they've misread what they're supposed to be doing, the public can pull their chain and say, wait a minute, come back to the center. I think that's a very important distinction.

RAZ: How does our current system - not just the framework, but the framework and the politics around it - how is it equipped to handle the huge challenges we face? I mean, an underfunded Medicare and Social Security and we can go on and on and on, as we said.

EDWARDS: Yeah. We have problems. You know, we had a Civil War. The problems we have today are not greater than the problems that we've had in the past. What's happening is that the partisanship has gotten worse. We don't have to live with a system where every decision is made by party. There are a lot of reforms that can be made, Guy. I mean, why don't we put in a requirement that you can't get elected speaker unless you have support from both parties?

There are so many ways you could change the system politically and still keep our separation of powers constitutional system, which is absolutely much, much better than, say, let's create a president and give him more power. What you want is more power in the people. And you have to figure out what it is that's denying them that power, whether it's the campaign finance system, whether it's the political primary system, whether it's the redistricting system. Figure out what are the problems and solve the problem. You know, don't throw out the baby, which is the Constitution.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Former congressman Mickey Edwards. His forthcoming book is called "How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans." By the way, he'll be watching an interesting innovation in California, an open primary system introduced this year. It means that the top two vote-getters in a primary will go on to face each other in the general election, even if those two candidates are from the same party. It's an experiment, but if successful, supporters hope it'll help elect politicians more committed to policy rather than to party. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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