NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Overhauling Congress: Taking It Back To Formula

Congressmen walk down the steps of the House of Representatives as they work overnight on a spending bill in February.
J. Scott Applewhite
Congressmen walk down the steps of the House of Representatives as they work overnight on a spending bill in February.

One late January night in 1966, President Johnson went to the Capitol to deliver the annual State of the Union address.

Johnson was at the peak of his power that night, and during the hourlong speech, he talked about his agenda for the year: Vietnam, social programs and expanding the war on poverty. But right in the middle, he offered up an idea that seemed to come out of nowhere when he proposed to change the term for a congressman from two years to four, concurrent with presidential terms.

The system in Washington is so unwieldy that in order to get everybody to agree, [it] would seem to take a miracle and would perhaps take decades.

"If you listen to the whole speech, the most enthusiastic response to all those proposals he laid out was to that one," says Sidney Milkis, a political scientist at the University of Virginia's Miller Center.

Milkis tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that the president was serious about the idea because the government had become one of "harassed inefficiency."

Johnson said the two-year term required most members of Congress to divert energies to a near-constant process of campaigning. He urged swift action on the proposal, but with a war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement gaining steam, Milkis says the idea went nowhere.

Today, members of the U.S. House of Representatives still serve two-year terms. But with the constant battles over money, the partisanship in Congress and what seems like constant states of legislative gridlock, perhaps there is something to Johnson's idea.

"I think given all the anxiety about representative government, that this type of constitutional discussion that Johnson raised in 1966 would be very healthy for the country right now," Milkis says.

A Broken System

Congressional approval ratings are at an all-time low with only 9 percent in favor of the job Congress is doing. The 2011 legislative session has been the least productive session since 1995.

Whether or not it is the worst Congress or not is subjective, but it has sparked a discussion among thinkers and policymakers about whether it will only get worse.

Fareed Zakaria is the host of CNN's international affairs program <em>GPS, </em>an editor at large for <em>Time </em>magazine and a columnist for <em>The Washington Post</em>.
/ W. W. Norton
W. W. Norton
Fareed Zakaria is the host of CNN's international affairs program GPS, an editor at large for Time magazine and a columnist for The Washington Post.

Author, CNN host and all-around big thinker Fareed Zakaria thinks that it will. He recently wrote a column suggesting it may be time to acknowledge that the Founders maybe didn't get it right in the end.

"The Founders were obsessed with the problem of absolute power," Zakaria tells NPR's Raz. "They were trying to ensure there would never be the kind of absolute monarchy that they were running away from."

That fear of concentrated power is what formed our current system of shared, checked and divided power, Zakaria says. But he says that now has resulted in a system that is so onerous, it is very difficult to get anything done and solve the problems America faces.

"The system in Washington is so unwieldy that in order to get everybody to agree, [it] would seem to take a miracle and would perhaps take decades," he says. "Meanwhile these problems are compounding themselves."

While some might say the current gridlock in Congress is a product of personalities and not necessarily the system itself, Zakaria disagrees. He cites the British parliamentary system, where the prime minister's ruling party controls both the executive and legislative branches, which allows them to move forward and pass legislation much faster.

"Then four years, five years later the voters decide whether it worked, and they can throw the bums out," he says. "I just worry that we have reached a stage where it is simply impossible to exercise power at the speed that the 21st century needs."

Zakaria doesn't think the U.S. will ever go to a parliamentary system, nor is he advocating it. But he does think that we should have a system that more easily allows the majority in power to govern, and then voters can decide if they liked what happened or not.

Dismissing claims that the problems can be blamed on a particular politician or any one set of politicians, Zakaria says the structure of our government, originated by the Founding Fathers, is at the root of the problem and needs to be addressed.

"I think we, as Americans, really are reluctant to do that because we have this mythology of the Founding Fathers being demigods who came to Earth and gave us a perfect Constitution," he says. "But there were flaws in the document."

In fact, revisiting the Constitution and looking at what needs to be fixed, updated and streamlined, would be in the very spirit of the Founding Fathers, Zakaria says.

"[These] were practical men of the Enlightenment who believed in looking at facts [and] trying to figure out a system," he says. "We need to bring that spirit back all these years later."

The Problem Of Partisanship

Something the Founding Fathers did warn about was the danger of political parties. In contrast to Zakaria, former Republican Rep. Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma argues that it is not the constitutional structure that's the problem with Congress, but the party system. He talks about some of this in his forthcoming book, How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans.

Edwards tells NPR's Raz that giving the president more power, letting the president and a few others decide on the laws, would be the worst thing that we could do.

"We don't want that in America," Edwards says.

Edwards says he understands why some see the appeal of authoritarian governments, like China. It's easy to create a really good, efficient system of government, he says, but the people there have no say.

"The people just get in the way," he says. "Well I think that's nonsense. We don't need to change to a system that gives more power to the top."

The current problems America faces are no greater than its past problems, Edwards says. But the shift, he says, is in the increased level of partisanship.

"We don't have to live with a system where every decision is made by party," he says. "What you want is more power in the people. You have to figure out what's denying them that power, whether it's the political primary system [or] whether it's the redistricting system; figure out what the problems are and solve the problems."

Edwards says we shouldn't throw the baby, in this case the Constitution, out with the bath water.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit