Facing Gridlock, A Bold Proposal for Democracy

Neil Wollman

In the face of government gridlock over the federal budget, let us consider a new way to make some policy decisions. What if citizens voted not only for candidates in presidential elections, but for policies that directly affect their own welfare-including budget priorities? A strong, definitive public voice on contentious issues could reduce government gridlock and perhaps even avert a government shutdown! Such "direct democracy" would be--true to Lincoln's words--"government of the people, by the people, for the people."

One advantage of such public referenda or initiatives would be giving legislators the political cover to cross party lines and get government working. Who knows, maybe legislators would start working together otherwise, not just when required by law. But beyond this, voter turn-out could increase and some measure of faith in the government might be restored as people feel their voices are heard. Voters in non-swing-states would have more say on national issues. Candidates for political office would be pushed to discuss policies that were up for a vote. Once elected, they would be more beholden to the public's interests and have less claim to a policy mandate simply because they won (as after the 2012 election, when Obama cited the presidential vote and Boehner cited results leaving the House in Republican control).

In Colorado, ballot initiatives are now common practice, and they energize and engage the voting public. They did not turn the state government over wholesale to the public, as some feared; instead, they complemented the work of legislators. Over twenty years, Colorado citizens have supported measures like a strong ban on gifts from lobbyists to politicians, the first renewable energy mandate, campaign finance reform, increased K-12 funding, and term limits. This procedure could be adopted nationally, and citizens could give general direction on policy rather than vote on specific measures.

Many details remain to implement direct democracy on a national level. How many items should be presented, how would they be chosen, and in what elections would they be introduced? Should the closeness of the vote affect implementation? Should items involve very broad issues or relatively specific policies? Would the President and Congress be bound by a vote or be required to follow particular guidelines in considering voting results? Would there be "referenda" or "initiatives?" The latter are initiated by citizens, promote true democracy, and would likely cover wide ranging policy issues; while the former are introduced by legislators who typically are reluctant to give up authority, but who must introduce this system. Actually, this process likely requires a constitutional amendment, initiated by Congress or by a constitutional convention called by state legislatures (all amendments thus far went through Congress first). So, indeed, which groups and leaders must be brought on board before this system is approved?

Citizens' groups, media, public interest groups, and others will need to pressure Congress to bring this proposal to fruition. A sympathetic president would surely help. A non-partisan commission, including both government and non-government constituencies, could work through the details and enlist those needed to implement the proposal.

This would not be a perfect system (none is). A "tyranny of the majority" might sometimes emerge. Forces concerned with private interests instead of the public good could sway public opinion. At times government officials will have more insight into a particular issue than the public. And, some will criticize the process when a vote does not go their way. But surely the influence of public opinion on legislation would be no worse than the current sway held by special-interest-groups or by narrow political interests. In the end, we have the courts to overturn measures that violate Constitutional rights or are otherwise problematic. Indeed, the whole system itself should be evaluated if general dissatisfaction emerges.

If you find merit in this proposal, discuss it with your neighbors, elected officials, and others. Interested organizations could collaborate to make direct democracy a reality. Many Americans are dissatisfied with our current political system. Let's give real democracy a try. In the words of Founding Father James Madison, "The people were in fact, the fountain of all power, and by resorting to them, all difficulties were got over." Let us test that proposition.

Neil Wollman, Ph.D., Senior Fellow, Bentley Alliance for Ethics and Social Responsibility; Bentley University; 260-568-0116