New Rules of the Game

Rules are not glamorous. They are not necessarily fun to consider or create, and they can be even less fun to enforce—just ask a Little League umpire. But as we have explained, rules are ground zero in politics. They are universally and unequivocally the only way to change the game. Rules determine not only how a game is played, but also who the players are and what outcomes the game can—and cannot—deliver. Add a three-point line in the NBA, and watch as dominant dunkers are unsympathetically supplanted by eagle-eyed shooters in a fast-paced, high-scoring game.

Change the rules, change the game. That is the rule.

The game of politics is not exempt. The rules around American elections and lawmaking—the machinery we dissected in chapter 2—largely determine how the politics industry works, who gets elected, what they do while in office, and the outcomes they do—or do not— deliver. Today’s rules pervert the forces of healthy competition. That is self-evident. They favor ideology over solutions and gridlock over action. Partisanship pays, compromise costs. But placing all of the blame for bad outcomes at the feet of the players—the individual politicians—is at best unfair and misdirected. Like any human being in a profession, a politician is beholden to the incentives and rules that determine success and failure in their industry.

The incentives driving members of Congress are largely a function of the electoral dynamics they face, such as the outsized influence of special interest groups and ideologically extreme voters. And between elections, legislating is a zero-sum game held captive by the next party primary. Just as today’s duopoly has cemented its market power in elections, it has also cemented its grip over lawmaking by capturing Congress and devising rules in its favor—particularly in leadership’s favor—and often at the expense of effective problem solving in the public interest. As a result of these corruptions of electoral and lawmaking rules, there is virtually no intersection between an elected official acting in the public interest and the likelihood of getting reelected (figure 5-1). So we don’t get the results we need.


Unhealthy Competition in Politics


Because there’s rigged competition in the political marketplace—and virtually no possibility of new competition—there’s no accountability. We are caught in a vicious, unhealthy cycle of electoral and legislative dysfunction: no results and no accountability for their absence. To break this cycle we must change the rules of the game and restore healthy competition. But how?

Consider a real-life example of the potential power of healthy competition. Ross Perot, the independent candidate for president in 1992, may not have won the election, but he won tangible results for the country. By altering the political conversation with his charts and graphs about debt and deficits that were emblematic of his candidacy, he introduced elements of competition. And the voters responded, giving him 19 percent of their votes on that first Tuesday in November. As such, the duopoly was forced to respond in turn.

Before Perot, fiscal responsibility wasn’t a top campaign priority for either party. After Perot, both parties knew that 19 percent were motivated by fiscal discipline and could be influenced by it in subsequent cycles. This competitive pressure meant that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans—neither President Clinton nor later Speaker Gingrich—would ignore this group of voters while governing. This awareness contributed to balanced budgets and even surpluses. Of course, the booming economy created rising revenues, but absent Perot’s competitive threat, it’s most likely that Washington would have squandered those revenues. It’s far easier to pass the buck to the next generation.

Yet Perot’s run—a blip of healthy competition and its benefits—was, unfortunately, an anomaly enabled by his tremendous personal wealth that allowed him to force his charts and graphs into the debate. In the nearly thirty years since, the duopoly’s hold on the national conversation remains the status quo. The cycle continues. But the Perot example signifies what’s possible.

By revolutionizing how elections are contested and laws are made, we can break the cycle and change the nature of the positions politicians take, the customers they aim to please, who is elected, how they govern, and the voting public’s ability to hold elected officials accountable. Given the interdependence between the electoral and legislative arenas, we must address them both. Fixing one alone is far less powerful than fixing them in combination; releasing one choke point on the interstate only ensures you’ll get to the next bottleneck sooner.

Elections machinery is the first bottleneck, and must come first, for one simple reason: our elections are the on-ramps to the interstate of governing. When our leaders enter through an unhealthy process, they carry that burden—that threat—into everything they do. Because they are beholden to the partisan elections machinery that put them in office and to the leadership of their respective sides of the duopoly, changing the nature of the legislative machinery is a pipe dream unless and until the elections machinery is changed. It is not that our elected officials aren’t empowered to change the rules and practices of legislating—quite the contrary. According to the Constitution, “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings.” Changing our legislative machinery is as easy—or as hard—as getting a majority of legislators onboard. The main hurdle is the nature of their accession to office, and whether they are liberated to serve the public interest or still in the pocket of unhealthy election influencers and party leadership—not to mention the normalcy of the current legislative machinery. Elected officials currently serving are either benefiting from or subservient to the current rules of the game and wouldn’t be very likely to cast the necessary change votes. After transforming the elections machinery, our collective voice as citizens will ring louder. Instead of being prisoners to ideology, our representatives will be more accountable and responsive to our demands, and perhaps also emboldened to hope for better themselves—including the redesign of how Congress goes about its business by creating a modern, model legislative machinery.

Let’s be clear: transforming the legislative machinery would be powerful now, but such a change only passes the achievability bar after the electoral incentives change. In fact, we saw this exact sequencing during the Progressive Era. Electoral innovations in ballot reform, primaries, and direct democracy preceded the Cannon Revolt that in 1910 stripped the legislative power on Capitol Hill from party leaders and gave it to bipartisan committees.

If we take care of our elections, they will take care of us.

Reengineering Electoral Machinery:
The Final-Five Voting System

Election rules determine the types of politicians who seek and hold public office and how they govern once elected. Today’s partisan elections machinery ensures that moderates need not apply, those who seek compromise are punished, and independents and third parties are locked out. From sore-loser laws to biased campaign-finance rules, the elections machinery ensures that the duopoly remains powerful and prosperous even while failing to produce results for voters.

But not every rule is equally important in determining the outcomes the system delivers. As discussed earlier, two dimensions of our election machinery have the greatest impact on the unhealthy competition to win elections and make laws: party primaries and plurality voting. To revive our democracy, we must address both through what we call Final-Five Voting.

Final-Five Voting will change the very nature of our elections. It realigns the incentives that drive the elected officials who lead us and it forces open the gates of our elections to new competition. The ballot will finally become the accountability mechanism it should be, rather than the limiting mechanism it has become. Final-Five Voting is how we change the game.

Final-Five Voting consists of two parts—open, single-ballot, nonpartisan primaries in which the top-five candidates qualify for the general elections (top-five primaries) and ranked-choice voting (RCV) in general elections. These two changes will dramatically impact the competitive nature of our Congressional elections by stripping away party control and ending the drawbacks of plurality voting. Final-Five Voting constitutes a powerful and achievable transformation of the election incentives that loom over every decision our legislators make. As noted, a Final-Five Voting system requires two changes—one in primary elections and one in general elections. It’s critical to make both changes together for maximum impact.

Nonpartisan Top-Five Primaries

As discussed earlier in the book, party primaries have dramatically distorted competition in our Congressional elections. They empower partisan gatekeepers at the expense of most voters, which perverts the behavior of our elected officials while they are in office. To repeat, party primaries create an eye of the needle through which no problem-solving politician can pass.

So, let’s get rid of them. We propose top-five primaries.

In a top-five primary, you will no longer vote in a Democratic primary or a Republican primary. Instead, there will be a single, open, nonpartisan primary. Every candidate from any party as well as independents appear on this single ballot (with a partisan affiliation next to their name if they so choose). All voters are eligible to vote in the primary (unlike party primaries, which, depending on state rules, often exclude independents and third-party supporters). The top five finishers, regardless of their partisan affiliation, advance to the general election. Instead of one Democrat and one Republican facing off in a head-to-head matchup in November, the general election could become a contest between three Republicans and two Democrats; or one Republican, one Democrat, and three independents; one Democrat, one Republican, one Libertarian, one Green, and one independent. Top-five primaries create a new way of determining who gets to compete and sets up a broader competitive field of five candidates for the general election.

While the top-five proposal hasn’t yet been implemented, some single ballot, nonpartisan primary pioneers are paving the way. California and Washington have implemented top-two primaries, in which the top two finishers advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. The results are telling. Before California introduced top-two primaries in 2012, some 79 percent of its state and congressional races were deemed “uncompetitive,” with the results all but guaranteed.1 Partisan primaries, combined with pervasive gerrymandering, meant that once candidates won their primaries, they faced no real challenge in the general election. For example, in a district that’s overwhelmingly represented by Democrats, the primary effectively determined the ultimate winner: whoever the Democrats nominated would sail to victory over a Republican in November. The results of the general elections were all but ensured. The only real competition occurred during the low-turnout primaries, where candidates would appeal to their more extreme base of primary voters to secure their reelection.

Uncompetitive general elections preceded by highly partisan primaries had serious effects on California politics. Consisting of hyper-partisan politicians who had little reason to worry about the safety of their seats, the state legislature regularly ranked among the most dysfunctional in the country.2

But top-two primaries changed that calculus—significantly. After implementing top-two primaries, the number of races evaluated as competitive across the state immediately doubled. Landslide victories decreased, and the number of incumbents who began to lose in the general election increased. Research shows that many of the candidates who now win the general election—who appeal to a broader cross-section of the electorate—would have lost under the old system’s closed primaries.3 Just four years after implementing this innovation, California was ranked among the most electorally competitive states in the country.4

When elections change, governing changes. California’s notorious gridlock began to loosen as voters began electing more politicians committed to solving problems. By 2016, the approval rating for California’s legislature hit 50 percent, up from a dismal 10 percent in 2010.5

Despite these results, the top-two approach has faced some pushback (led, not surprisingly, by leadership on both sides of the duopoly). Leading up to California’s primary elections in 2018, House majority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said, “I hate the top-two.” The then House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said California’s top-two system “is not a reform. It is terrible.” But in response, former Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA) wrote: “Their bipartisan response should tell you everything you need to know: Political parties hate top-two, so voters should love it.”6

But top-two doesn’t go far enough to fully inject healthy competition into our elections. Only allowing for two candidates in the general election still limits voter choice and opens little opportunity for new challengers outside the duopoly. It can also generate unintended consequences. In 2012, voters in California’s Thirty-First Congressional District had the choice between two conservative Republicans—even though a majority of the district voted Democrat. Vote splitting across a large number of Democratic candidates had allowed the Republican Party to squeeze two candidates through to the general election—hardly the intention of a reform designed to improve representation.

While there is no perfect number, we believe top-five is optimal for three main reasons.* First, the additional slots in the general election make it highly unlikely that a single party will capture all five spots. Second, top-five ensures that more voters are likely to have a choice they support come November. Third, more choice means more competition, for candidates and ideas, and more competition means more elected officials who are more accountable to citizens—and more accountability in an industry means better results. Always.

There’s a reason that the Final Four, the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s famous yearly basketball tournament, is such a resounding success: starting with a field of sixty-four teams from around the nation, the tournament is known for its upsets and Cinderella stories—the unknown teams from far-flung conferences who find their way to the highest levels of hoops competition. Would this tournament be as healthy if it only allowed powerhouse teams like Duke and North Carolina, Wisconsin and Michigan, or Kentucky and Louisville to compete? It absolutely would not. In politics, offering five spots on the general election ballot not only fosters opportunity for everyone, and creates space for new ideas, but also makes it harder for the duopoly to game the competition.

Will some races fail to utilize all five spots? Yes. But there’s no real downside to that; having unused, empty spots is far superior for the health of our democracy than not having options at all. Opportunity is an American cornerstone. Our elections must become embodiments of opportunity. It is our birthright. It is liberty in practice.

Most importantly, the top-five approach alters the calculus for legislators. They know they won’t automatically lose their seat if they vote yes on a bipartisan landmark bill that violates party orthodoxy. The party-primary eye of the needle, through which no problem-solving politician can pass, disintegrates.

Ranked-Choice Voting General Elections

As we have discussed, plurality voting—and the resulting spoiler effect and wasted-vote arguments—is the greatest structural barrier to new competition in the politics industry. Plurality voting also creates incentives for negative campaigning and dividing voters, and sometimes creates the undemocratic situation in which a majority of voters do not support the winner.

So, let’s get rid of it. We propose ranked-choice voting (RCV) in general elections.

The idea is simple. Whereas plurality voting can elect candidates without majority support, RCV does the opposite. For candidates to win, they must pass the 50 percent threshold.

Here’s how RCV works in practice. When you arrive at the polling station on Election Day, you receive a ballot with the names of the five nonpartisan primary winners. In a hypothetical election between the Founding Fathers (and a Founding Mother), you would receive the ballot shown in figure 5-2. As always, you pick your favorite—in this case, Alexander Hamilton, who is running a young, scrappy, and hungry campaign.* But you can also pick the candidate you like second best (Abigail Adams), third best (George Washington), fourth best (Thomas Jefferson), and fifth best (John Adams).


Sample Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV) Ballot

This sample ballot shows how a voter might rank five theoretical candidates, with the first choice being Alexander Hamilton and the fifth choice John Adams.


After the polls close, the first-place votes are counted. If one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the first-place votes (a true majority), then the election is over. Hamilton might get a whopping 65 percent of the vote, in which case, he wins. But what if Hamilton only gets 33 percent—less than a majority—and Abigail Adams gets 32 percent? In plurality voting, Hamilton would still win, despite only having the support of a third of voters. But not with RCV—at least not yet.

If no candidate gets a true majority (50 percent plus one), the candidate in last place is eliminated. In this case, Thomas Jefferson. But votes cast for Jefferson aren’t wasted, because voters who selected him as their first choice have their ballots automatically transferred to their second choices. Let’s say that most of Jefferson’s supporters have Washington as their second choice: when the ballots for Jefferson are redistributed to Washington, he is pushed over the 50 percent threshold. Hamilton would have won under plurality voting by securing the turnout of a strong base (just 33 percent), but Washington wins by garnering a higher level of popular support through RCV.

While most Americans have not yet heard of RCV, it is far from a new idea. In 2002, Senator John McCain recorded a robocall urging Alaskans to support a ballot measure to adopt RCV, stating that it would “lead to good government because voters will elect leaders who have the support of a majority.”7 That same year, McCain’s future opponent, then Illinois State Senator Barack Obama sponsored Illinois Senate Bill 1789 for RCV in state and congressional primaries. Although both proposals were ahead of their time and neither of them passed, in 2018 Maine became the first state in the nation to adopt RCV, and Massachusetts will vote on RCV in November 2020.

The potential benefits of RCV aren’t just theoretical. Cities across the country have spearheaded this innovation, with nineteen municipalities such as Minneapolis and San Francisco adopting RCV to elect municipal officials. With these local experiments producing promising results, momentum is building and we can see the benefits in real time. A 2017 evaluation of seven US municipalities using RCV to elect various city officials found that voters were much more likely than those in plurality-voting cities to report that candidates focused on the issues of the campaign rather than denigrating their opponents.8 After San Francisco implemented RCV, research found that campaign materials—like the mailers sent to voters’ homes—focused more on “valuable information” like positions on policy, and less on attacking other candidates.9 If candidates need to win second-place (or third- or fourth-place) votes to make it over the 50 percent threshold, campaigning by simply attacking your opponents will have limited utility.

RCV ensures that the winner will always have support from the broadest possible portion of the electorate. Most importantly, RCV eliminates the enormous barrier to entry that plurality voting creates. Combined with nonpartisan top-five primaries to create Final-Five Voting, it’s transformational.

The Benefits of Final-Five Voting

Earlier in the book, we asked you to imagine yourself as a politician stifled by the self-interested rules of the politics industry and stuck between a rock and a hard place. Let’s put your politician hat back on, but this time you don’t need to think like a renegade or challenge the rules and practices of the politics industry in order to legislate with the public interest as your top priority. This time, things are different; the rules of the game have changed. Your decision on how to vote on a bill is no longer threatened by the special interests, or hyper-partisan primary voters, or party leadership who controlled your fate—and lorded over your vote—on legislation. This time, back at your desk in Congress sits that same bipartisan bill. But now, with your team of whip-smart and passionate staffers, you are free to debate the bill’s official particulars and crosswalk them with the goals of your constituency, the goals of your party, and the broader goals and needs of the country at large. You’re free to vote yes without the fear of career-ending retribution. The questions guiding your decision will finally be the right questions: Is this a good idea? Will this improve the lives of a broad base of my constituents? Is this the right policy for the country?

Instead of a perverse incentive structure that penalizes elected officials for challenging the entrenched culture of the politics industry, there’s a new guiding principle etched above your doorway: acting in the public interest intersects with and contributes to the likelihood of your being reelected (figure 5-3). Your constituents can expect results and hold you accountable for those results. Amen to that.


Healthy Competition in Politics—with Final-Five Voting


To create healthy competition that incentivizes results and accountability is more than enough of a reason to push Final-Five through. But there’s more. The following pages describe additional facets and layers of the benefits connected to Final-Five Voting in the politics industry.

Realigned Customer (Voter) Power

Voters become the most important customer—as they should be. The general election replaces the primary as the most important election—as it should be. The winning candidate will have the broadest appeal to the most voters. Candidates will be incentivized to appeal to a larger group of voters than they did when the competition was in the primary. Every voter in the district is potentially valuable to more candidates. With five spots, it’s likely that most voters—not just a minority faction—will see a candidate they like on the November ballot. And with RCV, citizens can vote their actual preferences among all five candidates without fear that their vote will be wasted or that they may help elect the candidate they like the least. This liberates citizens to vote for the candidates they actually favor, instead of the duopoly candidate they are told they should support for strategic reasons. Finally, by making the currency of votes rise in value relative to the currency of money (because the outcome of the general election will, in more cases, no longer be certain), Final-Five Voting takes us in the right direction where money in politics is concerned.

Barriers to Entry Lowered Dramatically

Final-Five Voting nullifies both the spoiler effect and the wasted-vote argument that discourage competitors from within the major parties and outside of them from running. Five slots ensure a broader slate of candidates, allowing candidates typically eliminated upstream in party primaries to make their case to the general electorate. The media is motivated to cover all five candidates with all-important “earned media” because each candidate has a potential impact on the outcome.

Incentives to Divide Citizens Diminished

It’s not just first-place votes from partisans that count. Depending on the election, candidates will have to compete to be the second or even third choice of a much broader set of voters. Gratuitous and false negative attack ads that alienate citizens become potential liabilities, not roads to victory. A candidate can less easily afford to ignore swaths of the electorate when he or she needs to gain support from more than 50 percent of voters.

Of course, Final-Five Voting won’t magically make campaigns wholesome and collegial; elections will remain tough and cutthroat, and candidates will—and should—draw legitimate distinctions between each other and often still do so in sensational ways. But the newly increased power of every vote will act as a counterweight to the mudslinging and boundless negativity that has become customary. Candidates in winner-take-all plurality elections commonly deploy this negative strategy, often with impunity, because as long as you attract one more vote than your competitor does, it doesn’t matter how many other voters you alienate along the way. Final-Five reorients the playbook of campaign managers around a new calculus: differentiation without alienation.

More Innovation. More Diversity. More Ideas.

We believe that moderate, compromise-oriented politicians have an important value in creating and delivering solutions to the nation’s problems. We are not suggesting, however, that moderates are the only valuable type of elected officials. They are not. Historically, transformational changes in the United States—from emancipation and women’s suffrage to social security and civil rights—have often begun at the “fringes,” in what were decidedly nonmoderate camps. Eventually, however, change must be enacted by a majority in democratically elected public bodies. It is here that cross-partisan, problem-solving, consensus-seeking moderates are crucial for delivering practical solutions. It is precisely this type of behavior that our current political competition has rendered almost extinct.

Imagine the impact of having five candidates in every general election. Imagine the impact on elected officials who see double-digit first-round vote totals for the candidate running on a platform of national debt reduction (like Perot in 1992) or running on climate change (like Jay Inslee in the 2020 Democratic primary). The potential for innovative ideas to become part of the public debate is increased. The lowered barriers apply to what may originally appear as the “fringes” too. Final-Five Voting gives us the best of both worlds.

Better Jobs for Legislators

Final-Five Voting will empower legislators to do what they came to Washington to do: make a difference. People pulled to public service who are brave enough to run and win can practically accomplish their goals because the new system incentivizes action, not duck-and-cover leadership. The system will make better use of existing talent and attract more smart and talented people because the jobs are satisfying and the campaigns are not a lesser-of-two-evils game. As Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the political reform program at New America, says, “… elected officials today are also sick and tired of the status quo. They bellyache constantly about the partisan rancor. They don’t like how the centralization of power in Congress that flows from toxic politics has rendered many of them marginal players. Almost every retiring member of Congress complains about how bad it is to be an elected official these days, how the partisanship has gotten so much worse, and how this was not what they thought they were signing up for when they eagerly first came to Washington.”10 Final-Five Voting won’t just be better for voters—it will mean better jobs for most legislators.

Achievable Modern Outcomes (Sooner Than We Might Think)

As we outlined in chapter 3, elected officials should be measured on their ability to deliver our desired outcomes: solutions, action, and broad-based consensus over time, while balancing the short- and long-term needs of the country. Unless we change the incentives that currently make doing their jobs in service of these outcomes risky, we’ll continue to see gridlock instead of compromise. And here’s something particularly exciting and encouraging: we don’t need fifty states to change the rules in order to start changing D.C. If just ten states sent delegations to Washington who were elected through Final-Five Voting we would immediately have twenty senators and approximately one hundred representatives who could serve as a new, vital fulcrum—solving problems, compromising, and bucking a partisan stranglehold on governing. It only takes a few states to begin to improve the possibilities for desired outcomes for the entire nation—and the first state to adopt (almost) this exact package might be Alaska, which will see an initiative for Final-Four Voting on their ballot in November 2020.

.  .  .

The Constitution’s Framers were silent on the kind of voting systems used to elect our politicians, delegating those decisions to the states. From Alabama to Wyoming, the choice is ours. Final-Five Voting will represent a giant leap toward better outcomes for America and open the door for further political innovation. As we saw during the Progressive Era, political innovations can be contagious and build on one another. Innovation begets innovation, and the next frontier for newly liberated elected officials—and the newly empowered voters holding them accountable—is legislative machinery. Final-Five Voting will be a powerful start, but its incentives for results and accountability will be increased when paired with an effective legislative process.

Reengineering Legislative Machinery:
Model, Modern Lawmaking

In 2010, an intrepid reporter from the New York Times named Robert Pear visited with Stanley A. Feder, the president of a plant that produced several tons of sausage links every year. Pear was investigating a quotation attributed to Otto von Bismarck, which is used with impunity by elected officials to excuse their much-maligned legislative process: “If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.” Going to the source where actual meat is encased, Pear got the skinny, saying, “But a visit to a sausage factory here, about ten miles from the Capitol, suggests that Bismarck and today’s politicians are mistaken. In many ways, that quotation is offensive to sausage makers.”11

It’s time to make our legislative process better. As we’ve shown, the rules and practices of Congress are far from effective. The legislative machinery has been carefully constructed over time for the duopoly’s benefit and is designed to serve partisan purposes, not to solve problems. The end product of this partisan legislative assembly line is often the ideological, unbalanced, and unsustainable laws passed by just one party over the opposition of the other. With each new Congress comes promises of repeal and replace, rather than implement and improve—or, more often, complete gridlock and inaction. Again: it doesn’t have to be this way.

So let’s get rid of it. We propose a model, modern (and nonpartisan) legislative machinery.

Remember, there are just six short paragraphs in the Constitution about how the House and the Senate should work, but the House and the Senate rulebooks have multiple hundreds of pages each—and they wrote them all. We accept this as rational, that the parties are free to write their own process and accountability mechanisms. And because the product of that design and optimization process is slow, arcane, and ceremonial, and, well, painfully boring at times, it creates convenient cover for the unhealthy competition it fosters. It’s the water we swim in.

Even many veteran members of Congress are so used to the day-to-day dysfunction that they become blind, or at least completely resigned, to the degree to which party-optimized rules smother the legislative process. Most members are too busy blaming the other side instead of spotlighting how the vast machinery shapes political behavior. But fresh faces can see the dilemma clearly. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) saw early on in his first term that the rules of Capitol Hill needed to change. “Until we fix the processes and the structures of power within Congress,” Gallagher acknowledged, “we should expect more of the same—polarization, vitriol, and demagoguery. Every two years, candidates will inveigh against the status quo in the swamp, and then promptly get swallowed by it. A great country such as ours deserves a functional legislature—and only structural reforms can deliver it.”12

If we want better results for the American public, we must redesign Capitol Hill to create a truly nonpartisan legislative machinery, one designed to solve problems, not to serve partisans. The Constitution doesn’t prescribe the inner workings of Congress. Instead, it directs each chamber to “determine the rules of its proceedings.” In other words, we can push our officials to create something different. In fact, it’s our job as citizens to be as concerned about this as we are about our elections. What’s the point of healthy elections without healthy lawmaking?

So, what exactly does reengineering our legislative machinery involve?

Here’s the theory of change: Use a proven management practice to reimagine the legislative machinery from scratch: zero-based budgeting. With this method of budgeting, used by organizations across the private and public sectors, all expenses must be justified and approved according to anticipated value, not history. Developed by Peter Pyhrr in the 1970s, zero-based budgeting starts from zero at the beginning of every budget period, analyzing the needs and costs of every function within an organization, and allocating funds accordingly—regardless of how much money has previously been budgeted to any given line item. Similarly, zero-based design eliminates constraints on thinking and opens new possibilities for problem solving.

Our prescription for changing Congress: zero-based rule making. Put aside the Rules of the House of Representatives, the Standing Rules of the Senate, the Authority and Rules of Senate Committees, the Rules Adopted by the Committees of the House of Representatives, and the Rules of the Committee on Rules—the volume of rules upon rules optimized and weaponized over the decades. Put aside the informal rules, too—practices such as the Hastert Rule. And put aside customs that create separate podiums, separate cloakrooms, and separate dining rooms for Democrats and Republicans and that seat the chamber according to party. Put it all aside. And then, reimagine from a clear, white space.

We may find that many of the current rules and practices perform an important purpose. Let’s pull those into the future. But critically, we should also be free to acknowledge what hasn’t worked and begin the imaginative process of creating something new.

Organizations often fall short of the goals of zero-based budgeting, but that’s not the point. What matters is that we give ourselves license not to tinker at the edges, but to instead begin imagining a model, modern legislative body designed to deliver results for the citizens it serves—a big, audacious, and necessary goal.

A Legislative Machinery Innovation Commission

Such a goal is going to take time—perhaps three to five years of design, preceding the time required to pass it on Capitol Hill—so we need to get started now. We propose the establishment of a Legislative Machinery Innovation Commission, an independent and nonpartisan effort to design a model, modern legislature built to produce real results by adopting the best practices for state-of-the-state negotiation, communication, and problem solving. When the commission’s work is complete, they will deliver their body of work to the two chambers of Congress for consideration. When Congress finally has enough members elected under the problem-solving incentives of Final-Five Voting, they will be in a position to reject the past partisan legislative machinery and adopt a new legislative machinery designed to solve problems (and, at the same time, make their jobs more doable and more satisfying for them and their constituents).

Here’s the question for the commission: assume you have 435 people in one legislative chamber and 100 people in another chamber, with different backgrounds, perspectives, ideologies, and electoral directives from their constituents. Despite their differences, they love their country and want to deliver good outcomes and create a strong record to run on in their next election. They have to reach agreement on bills to send to the president for signature. How should they organize their work? What processes would you recommend? What staff? What methods? What physical structures? What communications mechanisms? What technological and data support? What best practices for collaboration and negotiation can be implemented? To summarize, what would a modern, model legislative machinery look like?

In this spirit, the commission will mobilize a nonpartisan consortium of leading experts representing a diversity of disciplines and organizations to propose a reengineered legislative machinery fit for tackling the nation’s biggest challenges. There are already many ideas toward transforming Congress into a place of deliberation, negotiation, and compromise—such as those being developed by the 2019 bipartisan Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. But that committee—and other similar efforts—doesn’t have a zero-based mandate (not to mention that they are beholden to forces within the very institution they are attempting to change). Improving a terribly broken system is immensely challenging. Imagine our potential for progress if we didn’t constrain ourselves with the misplaced notion that things must remain the way they are and that, at best, we can only adjust at the margins. Ridiculous.

Functions of an Innovation Commission

The Legislative Machinery Innovation Commission will serve three principal functions. First, it will use the zero-based approach to produce a blueprint for a model, modern legislature. The commission will create a large tent—a space for much-needed collaboration between political scientists and scholars who have long studied the inner workings of Congress, current and former senators and representatives, together with experts from fields typically far away from Capitol Hill. With expertise in areas such as behavioral science, conflict resolution, negotiations, technology, and organizational management, the diverse team will enjoy the benefits of groundbreaking research in fields with much to contribute to the design of a model problem-solving body. It’s time not just to impugn the many egregious rules and practices we have discussed here, but also to leverage a vast and growing body of knowledge that holds promise for restoring true problem solving to Congress.

Second, the commission will make its findings public, shining a national spotlight on a legislative machinery that presently works for partisan interests—not ours. The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 faced fierce pushback from those whose interests in Congress were threatened. But with public pressure for change at a high, the act passed with bipartisan majorities. Indeed, such change rarely happens unless the public demands it. By widely publicizing its work, the new commission would help bring clarity to the hidden machinery responsible for congressional dysfunction, galvanizing Americans around the need for big change.

Third, the commission will join with legislators dedicated to building a better problem-solving body—perhaps a then-current Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. Ultimately, change will only happen if Congress makes it happen, adopting and adapting a new playbook for how the institution works. Congress rarely, if ever, simply adopts something wholesale. Instead, external proposals can serve as a major contribution to institutional innovation—especially when lawmakers are part of the process from the beginning. As the American Political Science Association’s Committee on Congress—more on this in a moment—demonstrates, when a group of committed lawmakers champion big internal change, institutional change is possible. A commission external to Congress must work with lawmakers to supply ideas and channel public pressure for taking bold actions.

We expect many legislators, especially those elected under Final-Five Voting, will welcome a new legislative machinery because in many ways, the transformation we advocate is about underused talent and misspent opportunity. Better rules mean smoother and more effective work. And better work creates more interesting opportunities for talented people. These are the same magnetic principles that draw Americans to Silicon Valley, Wall Street, or any other professional frontier marked by healthy competition. Good rules are great for business. Good rules will be great for legislating—and for legislators—too.

Successful Models from the Past

Commissions like the one we propose have been used to instigate large-scale change within Congress in the past.13 In the late New Deal era, as concern was mounting about the rapid expansion of executive power and as public dissatisfaction with Congress was hitting historic lows, a group of political scientists working across universities, think tanks, and government agencies began discussing the possibility of big congressional reform.14 In January 1941, the American Political Science Association (APSA)—a prestigious professional society founded at the turn of the century—formalized these discussions by creating a Committee on Congress.15 Led by an independent group of nonpartisan experts, the committee assigned itself the audacious task of scrutinizing “the machinery and methods” of Congress and recommending an operational overhaul.16

Most members of the committee were already bringing to the table a career’s worth of research. So rather than produce yet more research, the committee saw itself primarily as a “catalytic agency.” Its members met with lawmakers throughout Congress to document problems firsthand and to mobilize support for new thinking. They solicited input from academic peers across the country. And, perhaps most importantly, they initiated a national discussion—across radio programs, public forums, and newspaper editorials.17 The committee’s work culminated in a short report of big ideas.18 With ideas such as reorganizing the committee system, requiring the registration of lobbyists, and dramatically increasing staff capacity so that lawmakers could do their jobs effectively, their vision was nothing short of a transformation of Congress.

Of course, it would have been easy for the report to find itself collecting dust on a shelf. But the committee had thought ahead. It collaborated early on with reform-minded legislators who came from both parties and were gravely concerned about the institution’s health.19 In 1945, these legislators took the baton from the APSA to create the Joint Committee on the Reorganization of Congress.20 Less than two years later, Congress passed the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, reflecting much of the APSA’s recommendations. Congress’s once sprawling and unwieldly landscape of committees, which had become personal fiefdoms for powerful chairs, were reduced from thirty-three to fifteen in the Senate and from forty-eight to nineteen in the House. For the first time, Congress delineated clear jurisdictions for these committees, and the institution could now meaningfully invest in hiring expert staff to aid it in complex policy making.21 These changes arguably amounted to the most sweeping reorganization of Congress in American history.22

A Reinvigorated Democracy

There is no one optimal set of rules that will create a democratic utopia. As Winston Churchill famously said: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Democracy is messy and hard. It will remain so. Ideas will be debated. Groups will disagree. No single group or side will get everything it wants. The definition of utopia for democracy? Still messy and hard, but with good outcomes to show for it. That must be our collective aspiration.

Reengineered elections machinery—Final-Five Voting—and reengineered legislative machinery—model and modern lawmaking—is a powerful combination. It is our best opportunity to move off our present course of self-destruction and step onto a new path toward progress and shared prosperity. It’s exciting to realize we don’t have to accept the status quo of our politics. It is now our job as citizens to execute—to transform this vision of healthy political competition that serves the public into a reality. The good news is that across the country, from Maine to California, progress is already being made. And keep your eye on Alaska!

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