Legislators in lockstep

Election reforms that are designed to wrest control from the major parties and to fix political dysfunction are gaining support

By MIKE NICHOLS | October 2019

Scott Klug, the former Republican congressman from the Madison area, wasn’t a big fan of Newt Gingrich, so when the Georgian was rounding up votes for speaker of the House in 1995, Klug decided to vote “present.” Not “yes,” not “no,” just “present.”

Scott KlugThat did more than just aggravate Gingrich; it riled up Haley Barbour, then chairman of the Republican National Committee and the de facto leader of the Republican Party.  

Barbour called up Klug and disinvited him to a big, formal dinner where there were going to be lots of Republican Party donors who, Barbour informed him, might not appreciate Klug’s disruptive behavior.

“Haley,” Klug recalls responding, “if my penalty for breaking with the party is not having to go to a black-tie dinner, can you stay pissed at me for the rest of the year?”

Klug, four years into his tenure as a congressman at that point, had an independent streak that you don’t see much of today. He and other members of the Wisconsin delegation like Steve Gunderson, Toby Roth, Peter Barca and Tom Petri all still felt free to somewhat regularly depart from party orthodoxy.

Mike GallagherLatter-day Republican Congressman Mike Gallagher from Green Bay, elected in 2016, is showing signs of a similar streak. He says, in fact, that he is open to a new way of conducting primaries and general elections that would wrest some control away from the parties — and is likely to get him disinvited from a few Washington soirées himself.

Gallagher, though, is much more isolated in his fight than Klug ever was. Klug, to borrow his own words, is “to some degree a creature of a forgotten time,” when dissent from party orthodoxy was more common.

Klug voted with his party on so-called unity votes — those in which majorities of both parties were on opposing sides of an issue — 76% of the time, but he had a fair amount of contrarian company. Gunderson voted with the majority of his Republican colleagues only 71% of the time over the course of his 16-year congressional career; Roth and Barca, a Republican and Democrat, respectively, only around 80% of the time.

Compare that to today: Democratic Reps. Mark Pocan and Gwen Moore and Sen. Tammy Baldwin vote in lockstep with their colleagues 98% of the time on party unity votes. Republican Rep. Glenn Grothman and Sen. Ron Johnson vote in line with the majority of their colleagues 97% of the time, according to CQ Roll Call statistics.

Democratic Rep. Ron Kind is the most independent of the current Wisconsin delegation at 89%, with Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner close behind at 91%.

And Gallagher?

His party unity score is 94% — hardly heretical but also not totally indicative of his willingness to depart from the party line. Along with Sensenbrenner, Gallagher was one of only 13 House GOP members, for instance, who voted with all 232 House Democrats to terminate President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the Mexican border. Such votes are not easy in the current environment, especially for a relative newcomer.

Extreme partisanship

Partisanship and polarization have never been this severe, and the newly elected are expected to play along in ways they once weren’t. The evidence is more than anecdotal.

The ideological gap between the two parties in the U.S. House of Representatives has more than doubled since 1980 and now exceeds the previous high at the turn of the 20th century, according to Stanford University professor Andrew B. Hall, author of “Who Wants to Run?”

Party leaders are much more successful than they used to be keeping members in lockstep — exactly the scenario feared by John Adams.

“There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution,” the Founding Father wrote in a letter to Jonathan Jackson in October 1780.

Steve GundersonFormer Wisconsin congressmen like Gunderson and Klug, now public affairs director at Foley & Lardner LLP, say they couldn’t exist in the current political milieu.

“I’ve said many times that we are so polarized we are paralyzed,” says Gunderson, now president and CEO of Career Education Colleges and Universities in Arlington, Virginia. “We are paralyzed, and you see that. They don’t get anything done.”

Margaret Farrow, the former Wisconsin lieutenant governor, is equally as dismayed and not just about the nation’s capital.

“For years now, decades, if you are in the minority, you have no voice, and it is getting just as bad in Madison, unfortunately,” she says. “It is really sad.”

A potential remedy for Washington

A Wisconsin-based group that sells itself as “a Noah’s Ark of Republicans and Democrats,” Democracy Found, is trying to change that by pushing for the election reforms that Gallagher says he is open to exploring.

Sara Eskrich, the group’s executive director, says they hope to have legislation introduced in Madison by next spring and “will be working closely with legislative partners.”

The group will advocate for open primaries where the top four finishers, regardless of party affiliation or lack thereof, would advance to the general election. General elections, in the meantime, would be decided through “ranked-choice voting.”

The change would apply only to federal elections, at least initially, not state races. Voters would be asked to rank candidates in order of preference, and a winner would not be declared until one candidate received a majority.

If that fails to happen the first time when votes are tallied, the person in fourth place would be eliminated and each voter whose first choice was that candidate would see his or her ballot instantly move over to his or her second choice. The process would be repeated until one candidate ends up with over 50%.

The changes are, in essence, a broadside aimed at the two major parties.  

Moderate candidates, supporters argue, would stand a better chance of progressing through the gauntlet of primaries that are currently dominated by the most partisan voters and candidates. The hope is that the ultimate victor would also be more open to legislative compromises without fear of “getting primaried.” Over time, proponents believe, more people would vote and more candidates without party ties would run.

Gallagher thinks such a system would be “more bottom-up” and would bring in “more of the wisdom of the crowd.”  

The changes, he says, “make sense to me.”

Not everyone agrees, especially on the Republican side.

Opponents point to flaws

California has moved to a somewhat similar sort of primary, and Klug says it was a “train wreck. Republicans got wiped out.”

Maine, in the meantime, is one of the few states that has tried ranked-choice voting, and Republicans are largely opposed there as well, at least partly because of what happened to Republican Congressman Bruce Poliquin. Poliquin had the most votes after the initial count last November but ultimately lost to Democrat Jared Golden after a third-place candidate was eliminated and votes were reallocated.

Allies of Poliquin complained that it was impossible to review the algorithm used by the computer to determine the winner and called it a “black-box voting system.”

The conservative Heritage Foundation, meanwhile, published a report in August by Hans von Spakovsky and J. Adams that calls ranked-choice voting “a scheme to disconnect elections from issues and allow candidates with marginal support from voters to win elections.”

They question the notion that the ultimate winners have a true majority of support and contend that “so-called reformers want to change process rules so they can manipulate election outcomes to obtain power.”

Bipartisan initiative

Eskrich counters that Democracy Found is trying to disperse power, not obtain it. And even if proponents wanted power, it seems unlikely they’d be able to agree on how to use it.

Austin RamirezKatherine GehlThe group’s founders and co-chairs are Austin Ramirez, the self-described “pretty conservative” CEO of HUSCO International of Waukesha who served as a White House Fellow on the Council of Economic Advisors, and Katherine Gehl, the former CEO of Gehl Foods of Germantown who was a member of the National Finance Committee for the 2008 Obama campaign and now supports the group No Labels.

Ramirez says there are times or places where one party or the other might benefit in the short term from the reforms, but Republican strongholds eventually flip, as do Democratic ones. The reforms are essential to a better-functioning democracy in the long term.

Equating what has happened in California to Wisconsin, supporters also suggest, is like comparing apples to avocados. 

“California is a deep blue state, first of all,” says Ramirez. “They implemented top-two primaries, not top-four, and they do not have ranked-choice voting.”

He takes issue with arguments in the Heritage Foundation report that say ranked-choice voting destroys clarity of political debate and forces voters to cast ballots for candidates whom they don’t really support. No one would be forced to vote for more than one candidate, he says. Voters could still vote the way they do right now.

There is evidence that voters would elect more moderate candidates if given the choice, according to Hall, the Stanford professor. He argues that the best individuals in America don’t run for elected office and that “most legislative polarization is already baked into the set of people who run for office.” Ideological polarization “appears to be contrary to voters’ wishes,” he writes, “and it appears to impede the legislative process.”

Better people, goes the argument, would result in better laws.

People or process?

The more pessimist view is that it really doesn’t matter whom the voters send to Washington because a few leaders and the parties control everything anyway.

Gallagher himself wrote a widely read article in The Atlantic last November stating that he thinks most representatives are “smart, patriotic and hardworking” and that “the problem is not the people” but “a defective process and a power structure” that “funnels all power to leadership and stifles debate and initiative within the ranks.”

Leadership, he wrote, determines which bills come to the floor for a vote and choose loyal committee chairs to ensure that bills opposed by special interests are killed in committee.

“In such a dysfunctional institution, even the most energetic and idealistic legislators are eventually ground down by the realization that in order to advance in Washington, D.C., you have to play the game. This means that you don’t vote against leadership, you don’t question the status quo, and you raise lots of money. If you do all this, maybe one day 10 years from now you, too, can be a subcommittee chair,” Gallagher wrote.

One way to become a “team player,” he added, is to raise money for either the National Republican Campaign Committee or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — arms of the parties, headed by congressmen, tasked with winning elections.

Gallagher proposed letting committees choose their own leaders, altering the congressional calendar and even abolishing the all-powerful Appropriations Committee and giving other committees more direct authority over the Executive Branch departments and agencies.

Almost a year later, he recently told the Badger Institute, despite all the blowback, he stands by the article. He also — despite his focus on the process — says he does think four-forward primaries and ranked-choice voting make sense and would help. We don’t, he says, “want more career politicians running for office, downloading talking points and just doing what leadership is telling them to do.”

“Let’s have the debate,” he says.

President Trump is evidence to some that party orthodoxy can be challenged and changed.

Gehl and co-author Michael E. Porter concede in their 2017 paper “Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America” that running as an outsider within a party — what Trump essentially did in 2016 — might “emerge as a strategy others may imitate.” But in the end, they believe Trump “is likely to be more an anomaly due to his unique personal circumstances.” 

They acknowledge a “long list of culprits” for political dysfunction: special interests, gerrymandering, the role of big money in campaigns, polarization of the American public, the dearth of objective media coverage and social media. But, they say, the “underlying root cause” is the fact that the two parties have formed a duopoly that allows no real challengers.

Ramirez concurs, saying, “there are lots of things we can do in different areas to reform the process.” But one of the main problems right now, he says, is that the incentives in the system are set up to reward people at the extremes.

“I am concerned,” he says, “about the future of our democracy.”

Mike Nichols is president of the Badger Institute and editor of Diggings.