Reforms to how congressional districts are drawn and how campaigns are funded are key to breaking the deep freeze in American political discourse, a bipartisan pair of congressmen said Monday night.
The night after what was widely described as the nastiest presidential debate in modern history, U.S. Reps. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, and Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, participated in a conversation about how to improve civility in Congress and public life at Skidmore College.
They agreed that congressional districts with high levels of concentration of particular party loyalists — districts considered safe-Democrat or safe-Republican — make it more difficult to forge consensus and compromise in Congress.
“When you change the incentives and disincentives you will change the behavior, and right now the incentives push people to the 95 percent of [representatives] that don’t have competitive districts,” said Gibson, who is not seeking re-election this fall.
The representatives of those districts fear more the primary challenges that come from the hard-liners in their own party than they do the threat of a political challenger from the opposing party. As a result, those representatives are politically responsive to the small slice of primary voters in their district and not the electorate at large.
“We have come up with districts where they have created situations of heavy pockets for either party and you govern by responding to a primary audience rather than a general election audience … a limited audience is giving you your report card,” Tonko said.
They called for independent redistricting, a process that takes decennial redrawing of congressional districts out of the hands of state legislatures and other political entities. The congressmen also agreed that more needs to be done to reduce the power of big money in politics. They called for full disclosure of political contributions, and Gibson argued on behalf of contribution limits and a ban on all spending by outside groups. To get there, Gibson said, Congress would need to move forward a constitutional amendment that would grant Congress more authority in regulating elections.
It’s not all gloom, however, they argued. The pair cited a litany of bipartisan legislation that has passed into law in the past two years: a federal education law update, infrastructure bills and a major overhaul of the Veterans Administration system.
And one thing many Americans can agree on is that the status quo can be improved, they said.
“In absence of compromise, you are going to be stuck with the status quo … by definition we have to work together,” Gibson said. “If the status quo is unacceptable, in an era of divided government you will have to work together.”
But improving civility in the public discourse goes well beyond particular process reforms. Tonko and Gibson said that citizens and elected leaders alike have the responsibility to demand respect, seek out common ground and convey fact-based arguments.
Tonko said something as small as inviting colleagues of both parties to one-on-one dinners can help lawmakers connect over shared interests and values and forge legislative compromises.
“We have a duty to find common ground on these pressing issues that the American people want to see us address,” Gibson said.