Former Republican Congressman: Dysfunction In Washington Is 'Systemic'
Mickey Edwards represented Oklahoma’s 5th district for 16 years in Congress. Edwards says the dysfunction in Washington is a “systemic problem,” and can’t be cured until the power of political parties diminishes.
Edwards told Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson that the last impasse in Washington is a result of how the political parties, both the Democrats and the Republicans, operate.
“This was particularly egregious on the Republican side,” Edwards said. But he adds that both parties took issues, like the budget, as “just a battle for who is going to win the next election.”
Edwards is calling for a set of reforms to counter the current dysfunction:
- Hand over redistricting to independent boards
- Change primaries so that they function as endorsements, so the primary would not determine who gets on the ballot
- Limit political donations to individuals
Edwards says a lot of this is possible with “small changes in rules that voters already have to power to make.”
Interview Highlights: Marty Edwards
On Changing How Redistricting Is Done:
“There is no reason that parties should be able to exercise their clout in order to undercut the ability of a citizen to be represented by somebody who can speak on his or her behalf in Washington. [States should...] take away the power from the legislative majorities and create independent redistricting commissions — I think that would help a tremendous amount.”
Money In Politics:
“What I’ve proposed in my book was to have no contributions permissable from any source other than individual living human beings. Just limited ammounts, and you’ve got to get the Supreme Court to back off, and you might be able to do that legislatively. But there ought to be no money in the system except what an individual voter or citizen contributes out of his or her own pocket.”
On Congressional Term Limits:
“What you do when you have a term limit is you’re saying to the voters and the community ‘If you have a senator or a representative, who has done a very good job, who is watching out for your community, who is representing you well, then all of a sudden that you can’t choose that person any more.’ So it’s punishing the voters. In states that have had term limits for their legislators, what you’ve found is that is the legislative dysfunction increases, the power of the executive increases because you have such rapid turnover that you no longer have people in the legislative body that know the history of the bills, who understand the system and how to make it work. There are a lot of answers out there, but term limits, I don’t think, is one of them.”
- Mickey Edwards, former Republican Congressman from Oklahoma’s 5th district. His latest book is “The Parties Versus The People: How To Turn Republicans And Democrats Into Americans.“
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
And December 13 is the next Washington deadline to put in your calendars. That is the date lawmakers have set to agree on a new budget plan to avoid another round of trouble. But, of course, many people think the problems are way bigger than a budget agreement. They are systemic.
Mickey Edwards has some solutions. He was a Republican congressman from Oklahoma for 16 years, and he joins us now. And, Mickey, let's start with the idea of congressional districts being drawn in really interesting ways. That certainly had a big effect on your political career.
MICKEY EDWARDS: Well, it did because I was winning as a Republican in a state that was overwhelming Democratic, and the state legislature was controlled by Democrats. And so since they figured they couldn't beat me, what they had to do was to put all the Republicans they can find in the state into my district so that the other districts would be safer for their party. Well, the result of it was, when they redrew my district lines, all of a sudden - I'm a city guy. I've always lived in cities.
Now, I was representing wheat farmers and cattle ranchers and, you know, really good people who deserved to be represented in Washington by somebody who could really speak on their behalf, who could articulate their concerns. And I wasn't very good at that. And so the effect of the redistricting didn't hurt me, but it hurt the people out there who desired and needed and, under the Constitution, should have had, you know, somebody who could be their champion in Washington. That was not what...
HOBSON: So if we change the rules about how redistricting is done, would that help?
EDWARDS: It would help tremendously. There is no reason that parties ought to be able, you know, to exercise their clout in order to undercut the ability of a citizen to be represented by somebody who could speak on his or her behalf in Washington. So creating - yeah. As a number of states have now done - over a dozen states - take away the power from the legislative majorities and create independent redistricting commissions that are not party driven. I think that would help a tremendous amount.
HOBSON: What about money in politics? I want to play you something. We spoke the other day with Bill Gross, the head of world's largest bond fund, PIMCO. And here's what he said about what was going on.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
BILL GROSS: I do believe that both sides of the aisle are influenced by a, you know, significant corporate money and that check-writing will influence our outcomes and our legislation for years to come. I would like to see a contribution-free election one of these days that permitted the people to vote as opposed to corporations.
HOBSON: Mickey Edwards, is that kind of thing possible, a contribution-free election?
EDWARDS: What I proposed in my book, actually, was to have no contributions permissible from any source other than individual, living human beings. No corporate money, no PAC money, no party money, no labor union money, you know, just limited amounts. You know, now, you've got to get the Supreme Court to back off, and you might be able to do that legislatively. But there really ought to be no money in the system except what an individual voter or citizen contributes out of his or her own pocket.
HOBSON: But would members of Congress who are in power and, of course, are helped by having a huge donor base be willing to make these kinds of changes?
EDWARDS: Most members of Congress are, you know, not fearful people, but there's one thing they're all afraid of and that's the voters. And if you get a movement going in the country where people are demanding an end to this and demanding that legislators find a way to define, for example, taking on Citizens United to define a citizen as only a human being, no corporate citizens, for example...
EDWARDS: ...you know, only a human being, you can get it done. It's amazing. When the people themselves demand change, they can make it happen most of the time.
HOBSON: What about term limits? This is something that always comes up when people think about Washington and get annoyed with what's going on there, the idea that if members of Congress were limited to a certain number of terms, that that would help.
EDWARDS: Well, I have a problem with that. I think, you know, what you do when you have a term limit is you're saying to the voters and the community, if you have a senator or representative who has done a very good job, is watching out for your community, is representing you well, then all of a sudden, you can't choose that person anymore. You lost that option. So it's punishing the voters.
And also in states that have had term limits for their legislators, what you have found is that the legislative dysfunction increases. The power of the executive increases because you have such rapid turnover that you no longer have people in the legislative body who know the history of the bills, who understand the system and how to make it work. There are a lot of answers out there, but term limits, I don't think, is one of them.
HOBSON: Well, do you see an answer that actually will happen soon, that something could be done now? Is there a strong enough movement in this country to change the ways of Washington at this point?
EDWARDS: More and more people now are voting independent. They're fleeing from the parties. I think it was USA Today had an article that said that people are fleeing from the political parties.
HOBSON: Well, except the last election that we just had was the traditional two-party system. I mean, most of the votes went to either the Republican or the Democrat.
EDWARDS: Yeah. That's right. And what you have to do - there are little, simple things. For example, what if you changed in the - continue to have party primaries but make them just be endorsement primaries that don't have the ability to keep the other candidates off the ballot? In Delaware, Mike Castle, who was not going to vote with the Tea Party, or in Utah, Robert Bennett, who was not going to vote with the Tea Party, would probably have both won.
In Utah now you have Mike Lee who goes along with Ted Cruz on almost everything, and that would not have happened. So little changes like that, that is the power of the voters of a state by initiative petition to change their primary voting system, to change their redistricting system, that can happen. And it's starting to happen.
HOBSON: Do you consider yourself a Republican anymore?
EDWARDS: Oh, sure I do. You know, when you look item by item on the various policy positions, you know, I tend to agree with Republicans more than I do with Democrats. I told somebody once that what I really am is a non-Democrat. You know, the problem is in both parties, and both parties like to blame the other one. I know people on the left thinks it's only the Republicans. People on the right think that the problem is liberals and Democrats.
No, it's a systemic problem. It's easy to talk about our system not functioning. It's actually functioning exactly the way we've designed it to function by giving so much power to the political parties, which all of our, you know, leading founders - Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison - all said don't create political parties like the ones we have now. We did it, and we're paying a very high price for it.
HOBSON: Mickey Edwards was the Republican congressman for Oklahoma's 5th district for 16 years. His latest book is "The Parties Versus The People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans." Mickey Edwards, thanks so much for joining us.
EDWARDS: Thank you for having me on.
HOBSON: And let us know your thoughts on what might finally fix problems that are happening in our nation's capital. Let us know at hereandnow.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.