How to Break Government Gridlock: End the Structural Power of Political Parties

by Anthony Signorelli

Modern democratic institutions are failing to meet the new needs of modern society. The evidence is all around us. Hardly a political commentator can begin analysis without using the word “dysfunctional” in relation to Congress and government. That this assessment is accurate and correct is no consolation. It means our government, as currently structured, cannot effectively resolve the critical issues of our time. It is up to citizen thinkers, writers, and activists to articulate new ideas.

The two great American wars occurred precisely when governing institutions and their internal processes failed. The Revolution occurred when failing colonial government became oppressive and ineffective, and it gave rise to our Constitution. The Civil War after eighty years of governance and jurisprudence could no longer cope with the political realities of slavery in a nation expanding to the West. After the war, government was reformed by the most sweeping set of constitutional amendments — the so-called Reconstruction Amendments — which dramatically changed the structures of self government, insisted upon due process, abolished slavery, and enforced the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights to individual citizens, not just to states. These changes were radical and breathtaking, as one would expect after a conflagration as substantial as the Civil War.

Whether we change after a war or via the seventeen other amendments that revised the Constitution over time, the point is that Americans can, do, and should change government structures when they no longer work. As fine a document as our Constitution is, its imperfections led us to the place we are today — a dysfunctional government that no longer meets the needs of a modern society. If American democracy means self-government “of, by, and for the people,” then dysfunction of government means that “We the people” are no longer self-governing. Indeed, it means that our Constitution is failing.

What Is Dysfunctional Government?

Before I propose a solution to the problem, let’s define “dysfunctional government.” Dysfunction of government is not about its outcomes; it is about structures and processes that prevent it from working. Dysfunction is reflected in an inability to pass laws, especially those supported by vast majorities of people. It is reflected in brinksmanship over the national debt, government shutdowns, and laws that automate consequences so that Congress doesn’t have to decide or act, such as the draconian sequestration bill passed as part of the national debt negotiation during the Obama administration.

Effective, functional government must represent the people collectively, defend the rights of minority interests, and still pass the necessary laws. Real freedom lies in our ability to do this via Congress. Over time, the government of a self-governing people must reflect the will of that people — never exactly, never in every detail, but definitely in its long trajectory. This core function of government, however, appears to no longer work. We are losing the ability and capacity to self-govern. That is what I mean by “dysfunctional.”

The Problem: Structural Power of Political Parties

The question is why has this dysfunction developed? The answer lies in a small section of the Constitution, and the history and traditions of how the two houses have used the powers provided to them therein.

Under the Constitution, the houses of Congress are run by house’s own rules. In the Constitution’s words:

Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.

This clause gives each house of Congress the power to adopt its own rules, and these rules created the so-called two-party system. Contrary to popular belief, the two party system is not a matter of the Constitution — it derives from the history and rules of the house and senate. Nothing in the Constitution calls for parties at all. The two-party system means that if a party wins a majority, it controls every committee and subcommittee, and chairmanships are awarded based on position in the party. The party leaders control the process and determine agendas, with the all too common practice of suppressing the bills or agendas they don’t like. This “winner takes all” approach means that the first principle of power is to be in the winning party, and the second is to be a good party member. “Towing the party line” is crucial because the party can demote the representative, remove a chairmanship, refuse to bring your proposals to the committees or chambers, and otherwise control one’s ability to influence policy. Because of party power, newly elected members and senators quickly fall into line upon arriving in Washington: It is party first, country second, the people you represent last. For representatives, it is a rational response to the power structure because the exercise of power actually depends more on party loyalty than it does on effective representation. Hence, the voice of the people is not heard; the ideas of the party are.

Likewise, the so-called “leaders” may need to kowtow to a raucous membership for fear of losing support and having that party faction vote the leadership out of office. This reality was illustrated both in recent incidents of the Republican house leadership’s “Tea Party problem” and the Democrat’s old “Dixie-crats” problem from the 1960s. In these instances, bills that would have gained broad bipartisan support were prevented from even being heard by leadership who were afraid of the consequences to their own position. Action was stopped by a hostile minority, again disenfranchising a large majority of congressional representatives and their constituents.

This division between party interest and constituent representation is the core of the dysfunction. Self government requires constituent representation; it does not require political parties.[1] As citizens, we require and deserve representation of our interests first, and those of parties and special interests last. Yet, due to the structural rules of the houses of Congress, this can never happen on a consistent basis. Mistakenly, we think we can fix the problem by “throwing the bums out” and electing new people. But when the new people enter the exact same structure, they find themselves powerless to change the dysfunctional system. In other words, it’s not about the people; it’s about the system.

Usually elected with a sense of idealism, new members confront early realities which are stark. The newly elected representative is welcomed into a caucus — either Democratic or Republican. Even supposedly “independents” elected to Congress are forced to decide which party they will caucus with, and that choice will have more impact on their ability to influence policy than any other determination, except for winning the election.

In this environment, the new representative inevitably confronts an unhappy dilemma — his or her constituent interests rarely ever align perfectly with the party’s interests, and yet one’s interest in having influence on behalf of constituents depends on supporting the party. In other words, voting constituent interests against the party means risking disempowerment through the loss of position in Congress. On the other hand, voting the party interests to retain power means that constituent interests go unrepresented.

When a representative votes the party line, he simply ignores the constituents — often under the spurious claim that he “won a mandate” in the election.[2] In fact, every claim of a mandate in an election is evidence that self-government is dysfunctional — it is merely an excuse to ignore constituents in favor of a party- or special interest-driven agenda. Such claims should never be trusted. On the other hand, voting constituent interest, if it happens to be against the party line, will get a representative marginalized at best, and possibly removed from power and leadership positions in the house of Congress. Furthermore, the party will seek to defeat him in a primary, replacing him with someone “more effective,” which means more palatable to the party interest. (As many have found out recently, the biggest competition in a district “safe” for the party is internal competition — which therefore further enforces purity to the agenda.) In this way, even the representative who votes constituent interest winds up failing to represent those interests because he loses his office.[3]

Many people mistakenly blame the individual for “selling out” to special interests or the party, but the representative actually enters an impossible structural situation. Break from party with integrity, and you lose your seat; stick with the party, and you keep the seat but don’t represent your constituents. Problems of structure, system, and process cannot be solved by replacing the people. The system must change.

The Solution: Disempower Political Parties

The way to stop this madness is to forbid the organization of power in the houses of congress according to party affiliation. Dismantle the two party system as the operating principle of Congress and eliminate the “winner takes all” aspect of a party winning a house of Congress. Replace the power structure with systems of seniority and forced rotation of leadership positions, not a bestowal of leadership positions based on the leadership’s preference. If parties persist, then leadership could be portioned out by party — the party with 52% of seats gets leadership of 52% of committees, not all of them. The other 48% go to the opposing party. Suddenly, opponents in Congress are forced to actually negotiate and deal with one another again, and members are free to vote their conscience and representative obligations without fear of party retribution.

A representative so liberated may now be judged solely on his or her accurate representation of the people of his district, rather than aligning himself with one idea set or the party line.

Without party control, political money and special interests are substantially disempowered. While it is true that outside money and interests will still get involved, there are far fewer benefits to negatively destroying the candidate of the opposite party or targeting a few “winnable” seats to sway the balance of power. Indeed, the whole idea of a balance of power or “controlling Congress” becomes meaningless because party doesn’t control anything. “Special interests” who fund these campaign activities outside their own representative districts or states can’t actually count on the party to be able to deliver their agenda anymore. Hence, the party has fewer benefits to confer and less leverage to enforce discipline. The simple acquisition of a majority no longer has the same appeal.

Furthermore, dismantling the two party system re-empowers constituents. Anyone who wants to sway policy can’t do it by winning a handful of contested seats. Under a revised system, they have to mount a campaign that sways the population, and representatives owe their positions to re-election and the people of their district. While nothing is certain in this new game, it certainly becomes more structurally possible for constituents to be heard and to influence; after all, their chief competition for that influence, the special interests, will find themselves with less ability to drown out the constituent voices.

How to Do It

Congress is run by party for two reasons: First, the US Constitution grants each house of Congress the right to determine its own rules of proceedings under Article I, Section 5 (as quoted previously). Second, in using that power, Congress has chosen to utilize party affiliation as its primary organizing principle. As mentioned previously, while the popular vernacular speaks about the so-called “two party system,” that system is the invention of the houses of Congress, not the Constitution. Two party rule developed as an artifact of history and tradition, which was expedient to exercise power, but it is not a constitutional requirement of our government. More importantly, it has proven that it is no longer expedient or effective in today’s world.

Because there are two underpinnings to this problem, both must be confronted. First, the Constitution can and should be amended. The best way to amend the Constitution to change this structure would simply be to require a new way of administering the power vested in Congress. For example, the excerpt from Article I, Section 5 may be amended to read:

Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, except that all positions of power and influence in each House are awarded on the basis of seniority (regardless of party affiliation) and duration of service in that position — none to exceed three terms in the House or two terms in the Senate — in the same chair, sub chair, or similar position of power or influence. Each House may determine how to punish its members for disorderly Behaviour,… (italics indicate amended language).

These few words would preclude the party-based organization of the houses of Congress and force a rotation of leadership. There could certainly still be political parties, and this change anticipates that parties continue to exist. Freedom of association would continue unabated, and people of common interest and viewpoint would certainly work together to achieve outcomes of common interest. In fact, this change frees people from across the aisle to collaborate more effectively and commonly when they can find common ground between their constituents’ interests. The amendment removes the power of parties to enforce party discipline through the structure of the governing process. Leadership of the houses is inherently shared among viewpoints, and leadership of particular committees is rotated by the chairmanship term limit, thereby avoiding fiefdoms in Congressional committees. Even more importantly, members of all parties may retain their position of power whether or not they vote with the controlling party leadership or controlling raucous membership. In other words, they are enabled to represent their constituents independently from party affiliation and implied threats. They can focus on good ideas, policy, and representation rather than party power.

The second way to address the challenge is to simply shame Congress away from its current operating methods. While I am in no way pollyanish about this method’s likelihood of success, we must insist through public discourse that the process change, even without Constitutional amendment. This effort will require a good old-fashioned campaign by the people — letters-to-the-editor, articles on blogs, pressuring representatives in Congress, thought leaders, and media reports. With enough attention, challengers in some elections could carry this ball, and perhaps take a pledge to make it change. Independent candidates may see the appeal and be tempted to show real independence and take their own pledge. What better way to show their commitment to real change in Washington? Who knows, perhaps we get a presidential candidate to take up the call!

In reality, both of these solutions require the same work by the people. The idea of disempowering parties must be led by constituents, independents, and the few, rare, foresight-driven party leaders. It needs to happen nationally and at the state levels. Even if Congress changes its rules without amendment, the change will not stick without constitutional amendment. The lure of power is too great, and politicians have proven that they will take advantage of any weakness in the structure. Only structural change may be relied upon.


Let’s be clear. There will still be bad politicians. There will still be gaming the system. There will still be money influencing our democracy. However, none of this is an excuse for inaction because we know already what inaction will manifest — gridlock, ineffectiveness, vested special interest, increasing sense of futility, and growing frustration — in other words, more of the same. This one structural change won’t solve everything, but it is one necessary step toward improving our ability to self-govern. By changing the core structure that consolidates power, it gives constituents real influence, not just a voice. By changing the system that controls representation, it makes representatives more accountable to constituents, and releases them from the need to stick to party discipline. By dislodging party domination, it changes the calculus for single interest politics and disempowers their stranglehold over the electoral process.

[1] George Washington warned about this problem poignantly in admonishments to his younger protégés Hamilton, Jefferson, and others, and in his farewell address. It is an old problem.

[2] Party power, discipline, and enforcement also leads to that most pernicious of all political ideas in a free society — the asserted mandate. It is clearly a fool’s position to assert that because you won an election in which probably half the people did not vote and roughly half of the people who did vote voted against you, thereby leaving you with the support of maybe 25% of the constituents, that your constituents have somehow handed you a mandate — i.e., the power to claim that all your positions and those of your party are fully, 100% endorsed by the people you represent. But that is exactly what is assumed by people asserting a “mandate” today. It is preposterous.

[3] This is the reason why money in politics has turned out to be so seminal in elections. Representatives realize that party loyalty is crucial to their power and position. They also realize that with enough money and resources, they can influence a forgetful, forgiving, and preoccupied electorate at the only time that matters — the election. That’s why money outweighs ideas in our political discourse.