Ep. 72 Glenn Nye: Congress and the Future of Compromise

NICIE PANETTA: Greetings and welcome to another edition of The MidPod: The Midterms Podcast. I'm Nicie Panetta with Heather Atwood. It's time to start thinking about what happens after the election in November. Whether or not the House flips, there will likely be a very large freshman class of brand new Congresspeople in the 116th Congress. Many of these men and women will have run on reform-oriented platforms. And this group of newbies might just want to take advantage of a unique resource that we've discovered: former members of Congress. You may recall from our interview with Nick Penniman at Issue One that he has convened a group called the Reformers Caucus. Former members of Congress who are passionate about reforming money in our politics. One member of that reformers caucus is Glenn Nye. He runs the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington D.C. It's fair to say that the relationship of Congress with the presidency is critical right now in a way that it hasn't been since Watergate. Lately, Nye and his team have made restoring civility and effective bipartisan decision making the focus of their efforts.

GLENN NYE: Sometimes I describe myself as kind of a recovering politician. You know somebody who served in elected office and I learned all the ins and outs of how one needs to approach running for office if you want to win and then how to try to navigate being in a federal office I was a member of Congress from 2009 to 2011 and I left actually in 2011 through not being reelected but then I had an opportunity to spend some time reflecting on the challenges of governance and the challenges that we face as a country pulling together to tackle difficult challenges. I spent some time in the private sector and then in 2016 just sort of watching the vitriol of the political debates in the country decided it was time to get reengaged and this time not in a partisan role. And rather than running for office myself trying to find a way to reengage in public policy but in a way that was looking more at the system itself and trying to promote better cooperation as Americans and try to increase our ability to solve hard challenges. So I took over as the head of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress which is a 50-year-old organization which has always had as part of its mandate to promote bipartisan cooperation. And I'll be honest with you what I told some of my friends that I was going to work on that mission they kind of chuckled and said what a time to try to work on bipartisanship.

NYE: But I respond to that saying you're right it's a big challenge. But this is the time when people who care ought to redouble their efforts and see if we can't do something to make the system work a little bit better to deliver better outcomes for American citizens in the way they deserve. And I took the organization's mandate to promote bipartisanship kind of reoriented it in a little bit of a new direction and I decided to convene people that I knew who were many of them are also former members of Congress or they're business people or just other people who are concerned as citizens with the nature of the debate and the inability of Congress particularly to get things done. And we set up a commission called the Commission on Civility and Effective Governance and we wanted to focus the work of that commission on why is it so hard for members of Congress to find common ground? And I should note that when we say you know civility and effectiveness we're really talking about the basics here like can we create a space where we can have enough civility that people in elected office can recognize that their political opponents are also patriots and just have enough space for them to accept that there are other points of view? And then in terms of effectiveness it's really can we bring people from different parties together just enough that they can pass a sensible budget and you know move the ball forward on really hard problems even if they can't or they're not going to agree completely on how to solve everything but at least keep the country moving forward in a way that I think most Americans now say they're really disillusioned with the inability of our federal government to do those basic things.

NICIE: Yeah I was going to say that I think I have some good news for you which is that my colleague Heather Atwood and I have been traveling all around America for a year now and many of the people that we interview are very interested in these questions. They want to know why and they want to know how they can back candidates who are going to get to the bottom of this and move it forward. There's a lot of interest in the process and concern that as you point out you know nothing can and if the process isn't isn't functioning in an orderly way. So what's your analysis for that?

NYE: I agree with you that there is there is good news out there and I would also add to that that the good news is all of this can be solved within the system that exists if voters participate fully and do things like show up and vote in primaries there are answers to all these questions. But they are hard things to achieve. To some extent it is due to the competition that political parties have with each other that over the course of many cycles of competition in their effort to just win this time and stay in charge and stay in majority they really skewed our electoral system to work to the benefit of those voters who would be least likely to prioritize compromise. And the reason that's a problem is because our democratic system is designed to require it. If you look at major legislation that's passed through the Congress in the last decade much of it has been passed on on a single party basis which creates an inherent problem and that is that the other party spends all of its time just trying to undo that. And so it's just a constant back and forth of we'll jam something through. And then the other party will spend all their energy trying to tear it down and it really takes away from trying to find common ground and having any discussion where the focus is more on how can we solve a problem how can we reach across and just you know do some basics well.

NYE: So let me give you an example of what I'm talking about and some of the ways that parties have kind of skewed the system and I think one of the biggest examples that I keep coming back to is gerrymandering as you know is the purposeful drawing by political parties of legislative districts to benefit the party. And so what that results in is a largely non-competitive general election because many districts in states across the country are drawn to really be strongly in favor of one party or the other. It moves the electoral competition to the primary. Primaries tend to be low turnout affairs in midterm elections for example the turnout for congressional primaries tends to be about 9 percent of voters in either party. So that means basically you have less than 20 percent between the two of the voters are actually deciding who gets to be in in the final general election. And so it's no wonder that when voters show up to vote in the general sometimes they look at these two candidates and say I don't agree with the points of view of either of these two people where did they come from. You know I'm going to check out. So I find one of the major challenges is just the way we allow for districts to be drawn and we allow politicians to choose their voters rather than voters choosing their politicians.

NYE: That is a skewing of the system which is not easy to undo. But the good news is it can be undone. It is a very fixable challenge. When I was in Congress we tried to fix it from the top down and tried to pass a federal law that mandated the elimination of partisan gerrymandering and the creation of nonpartisan advisory groups that would draw the districts in every state we failed to do it. I understand why, some people would say you know members of Congress that are there were elected under the current system. They may not be in a hurry to change it. Another way of saying that is that turkeys don't necessarily want to vote for Thanksgiving. And so in order to get rules changed it really requires going state by state and fighting for either referenda to pass by voters or getting things through state legislatures that don't want to relinquish this kind of control. Again, the good news is that is happening. In fact there are groups in pretty much every state that allows for districts to be drawn by the state legislatures to try to flip these and we are doing some reporting now. Part of the work of our commission is to try to highlight the work that these groups are doing to try to flip gerrymandering and let people know that change is happening but also hopefully attract more people's interest to this to build increasing momentum to get this changed.

NICIE: Right. And that's sort of the bad news is that's a lot of work. The good news is as it takes place you've got a lot of grassroots involvement and a lot of citizens you know really investing in reform with their time ans their effort.

NYE: Once you explain the gerrymandering problem most voters are in favor of changing it. But there's a lot of inertia here and it requires people to get active. And there's a lot of vested interests aligned around keeping the system the way it is. So just one example is in California in 2010 there was a statewide referendum to institute nonpartisan district drawing in addition to changing their primary system we'll come back to that. But just on the gerrymandering thing if I remember correctly it was polling somewhere in the high 60s in favor of changing it. But by the time they fought the campaign and both sides it had a chance to run ads and try to convince people the vote was won in a very very very narrow. I think it was like a one percent less than 1 percent margin of victory for the campaign in favor of ending gerrymandering. So there are definitely interests on the side of keeping the status quo which have to be overcome which is what makes it really hard to change.

NICIE: Yeah and I'll just refer listeners back to our Michigan 11 episode where we talked to volunteers for the voters not politicians initiative there and also to our episode with Kitsy McNulty a fair districts P.A. where she details the incredible roadblocks that are being thrown up in Pennsylvania by members of the state legislature to advancing a nonpartisan commission model. But those efforts are ongoing.

NYE: And you know it's really interesting because the arguments to not change it are sad and they're really sad and the effort to block this just doesn't make sense. And yet you know it's the system that has existed for a long time and it changes. It's not easy to push over. I thought the Michigan case of voters not politicians was an amazing story of a regular citizen getting frustrated by this and just deciding to get active. It was unbelievable. Pulling together friends building momentum and then facing strong opposition but eventually overcoming it to get this on the ballot for this year. And that's just a tremendous story and we're seeing that happen. It happened in Ohio this year. It's happening in states across the country, that is giving us hope and the more we can tell those stories and the more that folks like you to tell those stories I think that that really helps.

NICIE: OK so get more people to vote in primaries. We're totally onboard with that. Fix gerrymandering. Anything else on your to-do list?

NYE: One of the other issues that we're looking at is primary system reform that opens up those competitions to allow either independent voters to participate or I think even better they reorganize the primary to be structured just completely differently. So let's go back to the question of we were talking about primary system reform in California which was done in 2010 alongside gerrymandering reform what they did was they made the primary open to anybody who's running. And all voters and the top two go into the general it doesn't matter what political party they are. So you know what tends to happen in low turnout primaries is the primary voters that show up are the party faithful who are least likely to support candidates who would compromise they want ideologically pure representatives who don't cooperate with the other party. So it is no surprise that when those people go to Congress they don't cooperate and they don't get anything done.

NYE: What California did was they allow for the top two so it could be two Democrats could be two Republicans to go to the general. Evidence suggests that those candidates then have to appeal to a broader group of voters and therefore they tend to be more likely to be compromisers when they get elected. Maine just to note one interesting example did a little bit of a different approach. They got rid of the primary and they just do ranked choice voting now, they just have a general election, everybody can run. And then people can rank order their vote so they can say I like this candidate number one but I like that candidate number two and this candidate number three. And that way as they take the candidates that got the lowest vote totals and they remove them and they reallocate those ballots to the person those people's second choice. And eventually one person gets a majority of ballots and it also encourages candidates to campaign to a broad group of voters rather than a really tiny niche and those people tend to be the ones that are more likely to support compromise. When I say more likely it is for compromise. You know we're not talking about people who don't have strong issue positions or aren't ardent progressives or conservatives. Those people can still win these elections. It's just that they also incorporate into their thinking the need to cooperate with voters who don't necessarily agree with them to do things like get a budget passed and just move things forward. And that's our goal here. Again it's not that everybody gets along or that people drop their you know their sort of passionately-held views on issues but it's that they don't let those views on issues get in the way of the basic functioning of government. And that's the problem that we've seen create so much disillusionment around the country.

NICIE: Yeah and I think it might be worth spending a minute on the point that which we haven't really discussed much on The MidPod but in terms of opportunities for cooperation across the aisle, you know the way Congress works you have this interplay of individual members of Congress with their own values and priorities and then you have their districts which have very specific profiles. So there are lots of ways say a member of Congress who's a veteran who has a lot of veterans in their district might be highly incented to work across the aisle with another veteran from a different party who also has a lot of veterans in his or her district. So there can be I think for the general citizen we miss a lot of the byplay where people can and do come together whether it's about seniors' health care or national parks where you have parks all over the country and members of Congress who have national parks in their district have common ground sort of naturally. So I don't know if you have any examples of how that can work.

NYE: First of all that's absolutely true. When I served in Congress most days I did not get into partisan battles. I was on the Armed Services Committee. And we worked on military questions that didn't lend themselves well to red blue debate. They were just you know where should we look how do we prepare our military forces how do we do right by our military families. And we had some disagreements but they weren't partisan but most issues that make it on TV are the partisan battles. That's what you get covered because that's more dramatic and it's honestly more exciting for cable news shows to cover the fight and the areas where they can't find compromise. And so the emphasis tends to be more on those areas. But what I did find is true is that even though most days we could find ways to work it out on many issues on some of the key things like budgets. It was very difficult. Those were things that got on the news. There were questions of priorities that parties tend to divide strongly over. They became issue areas where it's easy to rile up your base you know in both parties to not agree with each other. And those are the base voters that show up in primaries. You know all the members that are worried about primary elections and again those are the ones that represent the vast majority of districts in the country. The almost 400 out of 435 that are not really competitive but are really just the primary determines the outcome. Those members are rightfully concerned about their base getting upset by them compromising. And so we've stuck them through the system with a very difficult choice.

NICIE: And this is where we get into this cycle of poison pills and one side trying to force really tough votes on the other side.

NYE: It's also a question of congressional leadership sort of taking control of the system and a lot of people argue members should have more authority and you know it should be more democratic and leadership shouldn't control so much. But the reason the leadership does that is they want to protect their members from what we call tough votes right these are difficult votes. And the other party always tries to make votes as tough as possible. Clearly it's in their interest to win back majority if they're not in it. They want to make every vote as politically damaging as possible on the party in power. Again there's always a tradeoff. We understand why parties compete. That's OK. But they should compete on issues and they shouldn't compete on structural things that give them advantages because that's not fair to the voter. So yes I agree with the idea of giving members more rank and file members more power. But I understand why leadership has tried to centralize that authority and it's very connected to how we do all these electoral systems. Again getting back to the need to reform those I honestly believe that even without changing one member of Congress you would get a much more functional body if you just change these incentives that we put on them. You know we're essentially asking them to be bipartisan at the same time that all the incentives coming in from their district are toe the line and to not cooperate with each other and that that's kind of an untenable position.

NICIE: So what will the output be of your commission's work and will you be looking at campaign finance and money in politics?

NYE: The output of our report is going to be partially just framing this the problem set, describing the solutions that are available, highlighting the work that's being done and I think that's really important and I appreciate the chance to come on your program because one of the important things that we do is talk about the fact that progress is being made. If you look out in the states you mentioned voters not politicians. There was an organization called Fair Vote in Maine trying to promote ranked choice voting they were successful. A group called Represent.us which is fighting in many states to change the gerrymandering rules, an organization called Issue One here in Washington and you had Nick Penniman you had that on your show already, who are working every day to try to solve this. So we want to promote their work. And part of the reason we're doing this report is to highlight the fact that progress is being made and give more momentum to the folks especially those that have activities out in the field out in the States you know some coverage.

NICIE: And how about highlighting good work where it's being done. I gather you have an award process or an award ceremony.

NYE: That's right. So you know one of the things we like to do is where we can find examples of politicians doing the right thing and acting in a bipartisan way we want to recognize that. So governors John Kasich and John Hickenlooper the governors of Ohio and Colorado working to try to come up with some solutions on really hard issues. One of the issues that they've tackled or tried have begun to tackle is health care reform and that obviously is you know it's an issue that is very emotional it's an issue that's been divided in a partisan way but really doesn't need to be. You know when you think about it you realize there's actually there's actually more to agree on in health care in controlling costs and providing access than there is to disagree on an approach.

NICIE: So I want to make sure we touch briefly on the relationship between Congress and the presidency. We are very very focused on Congress on The MidPod but we are among other things focused on the role of Congress in interacting with the presidency serving as a check but also as a partner. So I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what it looks like when it's working well what it looks like now and maybe if you have any thoughts on this Supreme Court situation.

NYE: Well I think the questions are connected because political parties should compete but they should compete in a system that is fair to the voter and this compete on ideas. It does the voter a disservice when political parties get wrapped up in a fight for the sake of fighting and that's all they do. So you asked about the presidency and Congress and it's just one of those things where they are coequal branches and you know to say it's all the time when I was a member. You know we don't work for the president. We our job is to represent the citizens who elected us and to work with the president but also to assert our our points of view in an equal way and that they're supposed to be checks and balances between these branches. At the end of the day though what we see happening is that politics really determines those outcomes and as long as the president is able to motivate a base of voters and that base of voters has an outsized role, a power role in Washington, it skews that system. It really makes it so the president has a lot more initiative and it makes it very difficult to be honest with you I understand that you know members of Congress that are in the president's party you have a hard time publicly opposing the president even when they want to on legitimate issue areas because that is going to risk their ability to win re-election.

NYE: And it shouldn't be that way. We need to go back and like fix some of these systemic incentives to allow members of Congress to have the freedom to do their job which is to stand up and not oppose the president always but when they feel like the president's policies aren't connected with you know the way they see their districts interest they need to be able to stand up and say that it's supposed to be a compromise. You asked me earlier also about about money in politics and I didn't answer and I want to just mention that because it's a really important point and it goes back to voter confidence. So one of the challenges we see with gerrymandering is if you draw the district to protect an incumbent politician and make it impossible for that person to be defeated it's no question why voters will say in large majorities that the system feels rigged to them. Well it is right? Drawing the districts to favor a political party is rigging the system. I think we have the same challenge with finance people look at Washington and they say the system is rigged for special interests that have money so I can't pay you to go to an event with a politician, I can't buy access. How does my view compete with somebody with a lobbyist who can spend money helping a campaign? And it's a really legitimate question and I think this is an important one. I think it was the founding reason for Issue One being created.

NYE: And it's an important part of what we're looking at. It's a hard issue area because the Supreme Court has ruled a number of times that money is akin to free speech and it's very difficult to restrict campaign contributions. But I do think there's room for compromise here and perhaps the best way is to take a small step first restricting the ability of lobbyists to contribute to the campaigns of elected officials who they are lobbying at that time on an issue, that could be a starting point. But whatever it is I think it's important for voter confidence that they see something happening. What we'd like to see if we can put forward some ideas and we are working together with a large coalition of other groups right now that is operating under the fix the system name we can come up with a set of ideas of how to fix these things. We're hoping that in the 2020 presidential campaigns some or maybe even all the presidential candidates running will pick up that package of ideas and say these are things I believe and these are changes we could make in this country that would make our system more responsive to the voter and more fair and start to bring back faith in the system if we can get that injected into the presidential campaigns. There's a decent chance that we can get the kind of coverage on this that we need to really create a movement around it. So that is our goal I know it it's ambitious.

NICIE: You might even be able to get going a little sooner in the sense that there could be a very very large freshman class in Congress in the 116th. And they're fresh. They would be they'll be fresh. Maybe there's an opportunity to get them on board. They're certainly talking about these issues on the stump. We hear that all the time. So I wanted to ask you you did serve in Congress. What advice would you give to the candidates that we're interviewing if they win?

NYE: I think the time is right. You're seeing leadership challenges and or turnover in both parties right now or at least some question about new leadership coming up, you know the Speaker of the House is leaving. So the Republicans are going to have an election for a new leader and that is an opportunity I think for a bloc of new members to come in and say hey you know we're part of this process now. We have some things we'd like to see done. And here are some ideas that we're bringing we are fresh off of connecting with voters and having to make our arguments for the first time and we were successful and especially the ones who ran on this idea that the system needs reform to come in with some discrete ideas. And we're happy to work with them and provide those on what they could change and press for it early on that will be my advice. Not even from day one like swearing in day. But the day when you go for orientation which is basically two weeks after the election day, come in with those ideas ready to go and start pushing them and I think they might be surprised at how well they can do.

NICIE: Yeah I think one thing we're going to be looking for in particular is on the campaign finance side what some of these individuals do about corporate PAC money after they get elected. Many of them have run on campaign a campaign platform essentially of refusing all corporate PAC money. And it'll be very interesting to see if they can hold the line once in office on that plane.

NYE: That's a good point I mean clearly they decided to do that for a reason and they felt like that was important and that would that would be compelling to voters and if they're successful and they proved that it is. And so then the question is just how to translate that into something that's more long-term. But you know the fact that they're setting the example I think is already important.

NICIE: What about advice for citizens, Glenn, what would you say to our listeners?

NYE: You know what I always found was when I talked to citizens about gerrymandering and about closed primary systems, by the end of me discussing these things they were always nodding their heads and saying you know what you're right that's not fair. That's not right. But the problem for them was like what do I do? Should I just complain to my state legislators? What can I do to fix this? The group Represent.us actually created a nice interactive map on their site and it allows you to look in your state and see what organizations are active in working on these questions about gerrymandering and primary systems and money in politics. And it gives you an easy way to see how you could connect with one of those groups if you want to spend a little bit of time and you know lend your voice to one of those groups that's tremendously helpful. At the end of the day like money in campaigns and all that is really helpful. But what wins these things are votes. And so the more people that get signed up to back these things the more power they get and the greater likelihood that they can negotiate changes that make these rules more fair. So I would encourage listeners to go check out that map and just see what's happening in their state and sign up for one.

NICIE: And what about if folks want to follow your work at the center how can they learn more?

NYE: Our website is thepresidency.org. And in fact we have on our website a number of fact sheets that lay out with a lot of graphic detail on maps and show you exactly which states have which problems that need fixing and so they can come look at that and our Twitter handle is @CSPC_D.C.

NICIE: I think somebody quipped on Twitter recently something to the effect of it may have taken democracy breaking down but Americans are really trying to figure out how this thing works now which may the good thing that comes out of the breakdown.

NYE: People are more people than ever I think are finally saying look let's do something like we have to fix this. And I encourage people not to be so focused on looking for a savior candidate who is going to fix everything but instead look at trying to make the system function the way it's supposed to. And then you'll get better outcomes from all the elected officials. And so that's that's why we focused on on that point.

NICIE: Anything else, what'd we miss?

NYE: I appreciate the opportunity to come on and say this especially because I do want to leave people with the notion that this is not hopeless. It is very solvable. The problems that we're seeing are the result of many many years of sort of purposeful manipulation by parties and other interest in making the system work in their favor. But it is absolutely possible to unwind us and make it function better. There are more people than ever getting involved in this and it's really just a question of momentum at this point. How many people can we get interested in these reforms and how quickly can we move the playing field you know to take these things into account. So I think the most important thing is not to lose hope and not to turn on cable news and get upset and say look these people are never going to get along. This is always how it's going to be. Just remember that these are solvable things and that there is progress being made.

NICIE: Glenn Nye thank you so much for your time today. We do appreciate it.

NYE: Thank you for having me on.

NICIE: That was Glenn Nye, president and CEO of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. Thanks for listening and thanks for being active citizens.

Eunice Panetta