Restoring Congress: The parties are a solution

Imagine a congressional party structured by several basic qualities. First, prior to the election, it would develop a detailed legislative agenda, upon which it would campaign for office. Second, the party organization, rather than candidates or outside interest groups, would be the predominant agent for financing political campaigns. Third, upon victory, the party would strive earnestly to enact the agenda it campaigned on. Fourth, the party in government would reward or sanction its elected members according to whether they participated in this endeavor: Those who helped the party along would have opportunities for advancement in party ranks; those who did not would suffer rebukes either in Congress (e.g., losing committee assignments) or in the campaign (e.g., being denied the party’s renomination for the subsequent election).

A system like this could redirect the perspectives of legislators in a nationalist direction, increasing Congress’s capacity to govern for the general welfare, rather than parochial interests. It could do this in multiple ways. For starters, members would have a greater incentive to look beyond their own districts. Granted, the constitutional structure of Congress is such that, left to its own devices, it tends to deal with national issues from a parochial perspective. That is just an inevitable feature of legislative districts apportioned according to local geography. But a national party organization with real power to frame campaigns, nominate candidates, and reward or punish incumbents would counter this parochialism — as members of Congress would know that they had to satisfy not only their local constituencies but also the national leadership of the party, which in turn would be responsible to the entire national electorate.

Moreover, a party system that took greater control over the demands of financing politics could liberate individual politicians from having to fundraise; this would reduce the insider advantages that well-heeled donors now enjoy.