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Dysfunctional Congress



Congress is not doing its job at all well, and a root cause is its division into two diametrically opposed and essentially equal-sized parties that fight each other on almost everything. Virtually all modern democracies have more than two parties, thereby creating a greater variety of viewpoints and necessity for civil negotiations. We have fallen behind.

Changing our electoral systems to Multi-Member Districts for the House and using Ranked Choice Voting for congress will quickly facilitate more parties, eliminate gerrymandering and safe seats, and give us a functional congress.

We deserve it, and we can make it happen!


Our congress is not doing its job of solving the problems facing our nation.


Analyze causes for the dysfunction of congress, encourage wide understanding of them, and describe and promote corrective actions. 


Congress, meaning the Senate and the House, has shown itself to be increasingly polarized and ineffective in addressing its tasks as clearly laid out in the very first article of the constitution; this applies to both parties.  Revising electoral methods that are more proportional and nourish the evolution of more than two parties will stimulate more points of view and negotiation as has been demonstrated in virtually all developed nations.

Big Issues

Congress has slumped into two political camps, each pushing agendas often not related to America’s big problems.

Many members of congress are more focused on staying in office and gaining power and money than in doing their jobs well.

Big Issues
Evidence of Dysfunction in Congress

Evidence of Dysfunction in Congress

Big Problems Go Unsolved

The best evidence of congress’s failing to solve major problems is this listing of just some of the “cans kicked down the road.”

Immigration Policy

Deficit spending and federal debt

Solvency of Social Security

Solvency of Medicare

Global Warming

Congressional influence on Foreign Policy

Delegation of inordinate powers to agencies – to unelected bureaucrats

Congress’s internal issues causing dysfunction – important ones are laid out in this treatise

Block Voting

Congress has sunk into near-100% voting by party.  Why?  What are the root causes of members of congress voting against their conscience and/or their constituents’ wishes?  

Causes include: careerism, led by the need for support and money in the next election; fear of the power of congressional leaders disrupting careers; power and prestige of being on the winning team and a desire for my team to win the next election; having only two effective parties that reduces most topics to a bipolar discussion; getting caught up in the game of crushing the opponent; the enormous volume and variety of federal commitments; single-member districts and safe seats; first-past-the-post voting methods.

Animosity and Discord

It is only to be expected that competition will exist among people who are intelligent and ambitious.  But, when relationships deteriorate to the point that they can be characterized by animosity and discord, damage is being done to the organization – congress.  Few would disagree that the differences in recent years have led to unusually bitter and dysfunctional feelings among members.  This is occurring both between and within the two political parties.  Why?  What are the root causes?  

Members are disillusioned that they don’t have the power and influence expected in their roles.  Why is this?  The striving for power between the two parties has led to a shifting of influence from members to party leaders, reduction in committee responsibilities, downgrading of regular order including floor discourse and open voting, and respect for individual opinions.  Why did this happen?  The emphasis on a party’s winning legislative votes and elections has led to an inordinate centralization of power in congress.  Also, there is a feeling that the party in power can do anything it wants, leading to its taking inflexible positions well to the left or right of center.

Polarization and ill feelings are fueled by other conditions.  Members are overloaded with the huge volume and variety of matters being handled by the federal government; there is no way a member can be even semi-competent in a tiny fraction of these topics.  Why?  The number of federal issues grows naturally as population and new topics are added – like the Internet, aviation, nuclear energy, and China trade.  In addition, it also grows as the federal government takes on tasks formerly the responsibility of state and local governments per the constitution. Rather than “whose problem is this?” we now hear “how and when is the federal government going to do something about this?”

Drutman argues in his book written with Lapira and Kosar, Congress Overwhelmed, that congress has let its “capacity” (human and physical infrastructure) to do good work diminish.  This may be very true, but one still has to ask whether congress can possibly have enough capacity to deal competently with everything on its plate. Perhaps the root cause of the problem isn’t capacity, but climbing an impossibly steep mountain.  Perhaps congress should downsize by returning some responsibilities and authority to state and local governments.  But, even to do this, it must first correct its dysfunctional tendencies so it can make rational decisions.


Members of congress are overloaded, but not allowed to exercise the powers they rightly believed they would have in congress, creating apathy among many of them.  Their hands are tied.  The two-party system we have in America is a root cause, bringing about animosity and discord. 

Federal Debt

The rate of growth of the federal debt is a clear and quantitative indicator of the dysfunction of congress.  The very first words in the section of the constitution laying out the responsibilities of congress are “All bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.”  The congress clearly has the power and the responsibility to spend or not and to borrow or not.  The executive branch cannot spend money that congress has not appropriated.  It is incredible to see that our gross federal debt has gone from under $1 trillion to over $30 trillion in forty years. Both parties had major roles in making this happen.  Federal spending has led to borrowing which in turn has led to inflation.  

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$30 trillion debt, 84 million families.
Therefore, $360,000 Gross U.S. Federal Debt per family

Approval Ratings

Res Ipsa Loquitur – the thing speaks for itself – applies to the table below.

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Gallup Polling

Ballotpedia polled the congress approval rating at 17% on February 18, 2022.

“After the November 2014 elections, PolitiFact reported that Congress’s incumbent reelection rate was about 95%, while its approval rate was roughly 14%.”  Beyond Two Parties; Why America needs a Multiparty system and How We Can Have It, by Dan Eckam.  How in the world can that be?  Perhaps because we have broken electoral systems.

Big Problems Go Unsolved
Block Voting
Animosity and Discord
Federal Debt
Approval Ratings

Congressional Functionality Goes Downhill

Congressional Functionality Goes Downhill

Tale of Two Parties – History


  • Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop, The Case for Multi-Party Democracy in America, by Lee Drutman

  • Beyond Two Parties:  Why America Needs a Multiparty System and How It Can Have It, by Dan Eckam

Lee Drutman writes in Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop about the views of Madison, Washington, and John Adams regarding political parties.  Madison said “different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power…have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity.”  Crisis comes when the state is “violently heated and distracted by the rage of party.”  Washington in his famous farewell address warned America about “the alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities.”  President Adams spoke “a division of the republic into two great parties…is to be dreaded as the great political evil.”

“Political parties are essential to democratic governance…America’s system was designed to operate in an environment where most factions would be ephemeral, developing over issues and then dissolving when those issues faded or were somehow resolved.”  
Adapted from The Role of Political Parties in Preventing Congress from Functioning, Dennis R. Bullock, Real Clear Policy. 

A system with more than two parties is required to foster the alliance of different factions coming together temporarily to solve different issues.  This is democracy at its best.

Political parties have existed in America almost since its inception.  They are basic to the operation of a democratic government and are by definition about the art and science of governing.  Politics is fundamentally a way to sort out differences of opinion, so there will be disagreements – about policy at least.  That being said, there are choices about which electoral systems are used to select and organize governments, and these can have important influences on how well the system works.

Two effective parties have existed for the most part since our country was formed. Until roughly the latter part of the twentieth century, the two-party system worked better than it has in the past two or three decades.  Why was this?  Well, for one thing, members of congress used to socialize more, developing relationships with each other including those of the other party.  The advances in aviation and communications have made it easier for them to spend more time at home – spending less social time together in Washington.  Regular order including the reliance on committees to lead members to work with one another well has almost disappeared as senior leaders choose issues and craft the legislation, often behind closed doors.

For the most part of the second half of the twentieth century, our country effectively had four parties.  Two branches of each the Democrats and the Republicans existed because each party had a conservative leaning and a liberal leaning wing.  These four groups with various viewpoints had to cooperate to enact legislation; they required and enabled the necessary different viewpoints, negotiations, and civility to govern.  Congress functioned, passing considerable major legislation with real bipartisan voting.  So, while America didn’t actually have four parties, this situation proved the concept of needing more than two parties.

Around the mid-1990s, this semi-four-party situation began dissolving into a more rigid two-party state of affairs as some members left and new ones were elected.  Leaders in congress amassed much more power for themselves, thereby leaving the other members with less meaningful roles.  Bills began to be created by the elite and put before the membership in a hurried and non-transparent manner, further aggravating most members.  Politics in congress was becoming a zero-sum game where every win for one party was a loss for the other.  Bipartisan legislation of significance was almost a thing of the past.  By around 2010, the two parties had hardened their stances to the point of being basically against whatever the other party wanted.  The wild swings in ideological philosophy and legislative focus each time one party displaced the other in power stimulated efforts for the incoming party to undo what the previous party had done.  These changes of direction definitely irritated the citizens.  Doesn’t all this sound very familiar? 


Our founders had anticipated many issues, protecting against their growing to serious issues with checks and balances among the three branches of government.  But, they did not include in the constitution anything that specifically dealt with the present two-party standoff that has occurred within the legislative branch.  Our present two-party system fosters two diametrically opposed points of view – and Gridlock!

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result

America is very much the exception in having effectively (meaning a statistically weighted average) only two parties.  Although the data below are from 2005, we all know that America still has the two parties it had then.  Drutman says that in multiparty democracies, coalitions work and that America’s two-party and “first-past-the-post” or single-winner plurality voting system is the global outlier. 

Data from The Politics of Electoral Systems, 
Michael Gallagher and Paul Mitchell, 2005

After reading about the real hardening of our two parties against one another around 2010, is it any coincidence that these graphs below look gut-wrenching around that time – and up to today?

Congressional Job Approval_edited.jpg
US National Debt 1900-2020.jpg

(Debt now off this chart – at $30 trillion.)

What has been happening in congress the past decade?  

Regular order has all but disappeared!  Per Wikipedia:  Regular order within the context of the United States Congress refers to the semi-strict or strict application of committee and subcommittee processes, including public hearing opportunities and the holding of multiple votes. Said processes are designed to promote consensus-based forms of decision making, particularly in terms of fostering accommodations for minority viewpoints.

The present ways of doing business give many members a feeling of being demeaned, making it easy for them to give up and just collect the prestige, money, and perks.  The net result is that a very small number of persons is running congress and therefore controlling the agenda and… the spending.  Results include reduced respect for the constitution, the rule of law, decorum, and interpersonal relationships.

The tasks of the federal government – including congress – may well have grown to an unmanageable size.  But, even if we accept this is true, it isn’t the root cause. And, a dysfunctional congress also isn’t the “root” cause.  Our electoral systems blocking the path to having a smoothly functioning congress are root causes. So...

“Houston, we have a problem.”

Single-Member Districts:  The Enabler of Gerrymandering and Safe Seats

More than 90% of the seats in the House of Representatives may now be Safe Seats according to Dave Wasserman, an elections expert for the non-partisan Cook Political Report as printed in on 17 Feb 2022.  Chris Walker of Truthout defines a Safe Seat as one in which a party has at least a 5% advantage.

No wonder voter turnout in the United States is poor!

In past elections, U.S_edited.jpg
What makes a Safe Seat?  There are two important factors:


Single-member districts that have been drawn to favor one party


A very low number of candidates in the race, most often two

Let’s explore single-member districts.  Congress has the power per Article I, Section 4 to override the states by passing a law regarding the manner of holding elections.  This power had a tortured back-and-forth history between single-member and multi-member districts until 1967 when a statute was passed requiring single-member districts, and this law still stands.  However, the same constitutional authority that commanded single-member districts can be used anytime to require multi-member districts or to allow states to choose.  Adapted from The History of Single-Member Districts for Congress, by Tory Mast.


The details of multi-member districts and their advantages will be covered below, but suffice it to say here that their use would basically wipe out the evils of single-member districts, gerrymandering, and safe seats. 


You might guess that single-member districts have only a single member, and you would be right on.  There are 435 of them, one for each seat in the House of Representatives.  Gerrymandering is the process that takes place after the census each decade, allowing the party in power in each state to shape districts to its advantage, a very political and contentious process.  Each state has from one to fifty-three seats in the House.  One of the arguments over the years for single-member districts is that they allow constituents a close relationship with their representative, but this reasoning falls short when people realize that their House member is highly likely to be in a safe seat and doesn’t really need their votes; also, there are about 760,000 people per House member, so a close relationship is even more unlikely (330 million people/435 members = 760,000).  A further issue is that of fair representation.  House elections are held every two years, but the census on which districts are based only happens once every ten years.  Also, it is not fair that a voter can easily be in a district that nearly always votes for the party opposite that of the voter, so this voter almost never has a member of his or her party with whom to communicate.  We will find that multi-member districts usually correct this situation.


Single-member districts are an enabler of Careerism.  One can find disparaging definitions of careerism in a dictionary or Wikipedia, but let’s just say it is a strong focus on staying in one’s position, often at the expense of doing one’s best at the job.  What causes careerism?  Power, prestige, perks, and money.

What are the effects of careerism?

  • It effectively disenfranchises many voters by having a representative who doesn’t care enough or work diligently to respond to voters’ problems.

  • This results in apathy and poor voter turnout.

  • Careerism causes a shift of the member’s focus from legislation and problem solving to campaigning for reelection – including raising money.

  • The member may be more likely to pay attention to lobbyists than to individual citizens.

  • It causes intense focus on one’s party, its successes, and its chances of winning rather than on solving America’s big issues.

  • This focus on winning creates friction and competition with members of the other party at the expense of civility and solving problems together.  I.e. Insularity and us vs them mentality.

  • It creates a focus on campaigning and money while avoiding taking voting risks.

  • It leads to voters’ feeling that they have no power to influence course corrections and thus to frustration and to not voting.

  • In summary, careerism means a strong focus on getting reelected continually.  Since House members stand for election every two years, they are actively running for office most of the time – a huge distraction.

Multi-member districts correct for most of the ills of single-member districts and are a tool against careerism.  They also promote a more-than-two-party system, a very positive change about which there will be much more below.

Tale of Two Parties – History
Single-Member Districts:  The Enabler of Gerrymandering and Safe Seats

Essential Changes for Congress

Essential Changes for Congress

The two-party system has deteriorated to the point of being a major cause of congress’ inability to solve America’s big issues.  Compounding congress’s dysfunction are the safe seats of almost all of the members of the House.  But, solutions exist; these are explained in the following paragraphs.

Multi-member Districts – Defined 

States would have districts of three to six seats with the exception of those whose population only justifies one or two seats.  Candidates representing several parties could be on the ballot.  In a four-member district for example, the top four candidates would win seats.  Party primaries could and should be eliminated.  Voting would use the Ranked Choice Voting methodology described below.

Countries using proportional representation (PR) from multi-member districts include the Netherlands, Belgium, the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, Finland, Spain, Portugal, Poland, the Czech Republic, Italy, and others. Germany uses a variation called MMP.  New Zealand changed suddenly from a plurality system in 1996 and had an immediate improvement from two effective parties to about 3.0-3.5.  Eckam comments that New Zealand “…cared enough about the health of their democracy to make changes to improve their system.  So can we – if we make up our minds to do so.”   Adapted from Beyond Two Parties; Why America needs a Multiparty system and How We Can Have It, by Dan Eckam.  

Many modern democracies have altered electoral rules to foster proportional, multiparty democracy.  Not a single modern democracy has gone from a proportional system to a plurality (winner gets the most votes, but not a majority) system to foster two-party democracy.  Adapted from Drutman, Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop. 

Multi-Member Districts – Advantages

The multi-member voting system definitely promotes a greater range of viewpoints. No longer would we be voting only on two candidates, often with rigid opposing viewpoints, but from a longer list with different ideas and ideologies.  Multi-member voting thereby has a strong tendency to permit more than two parties to evolve, to allow a greater variety of viewpoints in elections and subsequently in congress, and requiring bipartisanship, negotiation, civility, and cooperation in crafting legislation.


The use of multi-member districts, most of which would be three-to-six times as large as single-member districts, would no longer harbor safe seats. Gerrymandering would be a thing of the past.  Competition would be broad and healthy.

Voter satisfaction and turnout would increase significantly.  After the new congress convenes, each voter would be much more likely to have voted for at least one member of congress whose ideology is compatible than in the current single-member district system.

Proportional representation (PR) is a term that describes any electoral system of representation designed to make sure that various parts of an electorate are represented in proportion to their strength...There is no way to achieve this goal in a single-member district, because one person cannot be divided into parts…To achieve proportionality, there’s no better way than electing representatives in multi-member districts.  From Beyond Two Parties; Why America needs a Multiparty system and How We Can Have It, by Dan Eckam.

Single-member districts leave a substantial fraction of their voters with no representation in the House after an election – that is, everyone who did not vote for the only winner.

“It is an essential part of democracy that minorities should be adequately represented.  No real democracy, nothing but a false show of democracy, is possible without it.”  John Stuart Mill, and from Beyond Two Parties.  The multi-member district system is proportional and thus is designed to represent the various views present in the district.  

Congress can make the electoral change to multi-member districts by passing a statute, avoiding the long process of a constitutional amendment, and we could begin to enjoy the advantages soon.  A constitutional amendment could follow to lock in the changes.

Ranked Choice Voting – Defined

Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), also known as instant runoff voting, is a nonpartisan change in voting methods.  Instead of holding a separate runoff election in the future, voters are given the option to rank candidates in the order of their preference to produce an “instant runoff” result.


The graphics and descriptions below are for a single-winner RCV election, say for a US Senator.  For an election of a multi-member district in which four house members are going to be elected, there might be say 14 candidates on the ballot, and the top four would be selected using this process.

How does it work?

Voters rank candidates in order of choice.  The may rank as many – or as few – as they please.


Votes are counted in round 1.  If no one has a majority of first choice votes, voting goes to round 2.


From:  Ranked Choice Voting for Texas

Prior to round 2, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated, and the second place votes from that candidate are transferred to the remaining candidates. If this doesn’t produce someone with a majority, the “runoff” continues with another round until there is a winner – who will always have a majority.

In an election in a five-seat multi-member district and using RCV, the process would produce five winners of seats using the iterative process above, but the winners would not have received a majority of the votes in the district because five winners are being elected.

Ranked Choice Voting – Advantages

RCV can replace the “runoff” system; in fact, it is often named the Instant Runoff system.  It produces a result at the time of the initial election and eliminates the waiting time and cost of a runoff election months later.  It also avoids the common low turnout of a runoff election and thus the danger of selecting a winner elected by a narrow portion of the constituents.


There is another voting system in common use now that RCV can replace, the “first past the post” system in which the candidate with the most votes wins, i.e. there is no runoff.  When there are more than two candidates in the race, the winner may have fewer votes than a majority and still win.


Because voters can rank candidates, they aren’t tempted to gamble by voting for someone whom they perceive is more likely to win than their favorite candidate.  The spoiler effect of votes being split between candidates of similar ideologies – and wasted – is greatly reduced or eliminated.


RCV is a “proportional” voting system, meaning that it does a much better job of electing candidates that represent the various voters more fairly.


Candidates have reason to be more civil and issue-focused due to the possibility of gaining second or third choice votes and thus having a chance to win in a later round.


Voter turnout is increased because voters feel their vote is more effective.  They like being able to express more than one choice by ranking, and they enjoy the increased civility of the campaigning.


RCV has been tested and is well accepted.  It is used in a number of U.S. Universities; the Academy Awards Oscars selections; internationally in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and North Ireland, Scotland, Malta, many European countries; Maine and now Alaska.  It is used in state and local elections ever more widely in the USA.

Ranked Choice Voting used for the House and Senate elections together with multi-member districts for the House would eliminate the need for primary elections in electing congress.

Open Primaries

We now have closed primaries created and run by our two main parties. Each chooses its candidate, often by plurality voting rather than proportional voting, and produces a candidate. The result is that it is virtually certain that voters will have to choose between only two candidates selected for them by a party-run, low-turnout, and non-proportional electoral methodology. No wonder we are unhappy with our choices.

Open primaries allow candidates from multiple parties to participate, and the top fixed number, perhaps 5, advance to a final selection in the general election using Ranked Choice Voting to produce a majority winner.

Multi-member Districts – Defined 
Multi-Member Districts – Advantages
Ranked Choice Voting – Defined
Ranked Choice Voting – Advantages
Open Primaries

Action – Fix Congress’s Dysfunctionality

Action – Fix Congress’s Dysfunctionality

Electoral systems matter hugely.  Our two-party system is nourished and preserved by closed primary elections, single-member districts, and non-proportional voting.  We must shift to open primaries, multi-member districts, and ranked-choice voting for Congressional elections to dig ourselves out of this polarizing and combative hole.  Remember, “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging”.

What - Summary of the improvements

  • Institute the use of multi-member districts for the House of Representatives

  • Institute the use of multi-winner and ranked choice electoral systems for the House

  • Institute the use of single-winner ranked choice electoral system for the Senate

  • Eliminate closed primaries and replace them with Open Primaries for both the House and Senate. Top several candidates from the primary advance to a RCV general election.

We must first focus on Education.  Most Americans are very used to having only two effective parties and to having gerrymandered single-member districts for House elections.  It hasn’t occurred to them to articulate the root causes of our problems and realize that real solutions are within our grasp.  It is disquieting that other modern democracies now are using better systems than ours; we have gotten accustomed to believing that America’s electoral systems are the world standard.  It is time to wake up and realize that this old automobile of ours needs an engine overhaul.

We have some staunch allies in congress who know all too well the roadblocks, overloading, and inefficiencies in congress.  A majority of them clearly feel the indignity of not being allowed to do the work their constituents hired them to do – of not having a voice of their own.

How - So, how do we educate people about the issues of congress, their causes, and the solutions?

  • Write letters to the media

  • Write Opinion pieces for the media

  • Discuss the polarization in congress and these solutions with relatives and friends

  • Speak to clubs and other organizations

  • Communicate with members of congress

  • Communicate with state and local government leaders

  • Vote for candidates advocating the changes above

  • Use social media and blogs

  • Communicate with like-minded organizations, public spirited ones advocating these improvements

Basically, citizens should broadly communicate their views, referencing this website – with its summary of the situation and its many references for further study.

What - Summary of the improvements
How - So, how do we educate people about the issues of congress, their causes, and the solutions?
Solve American Gridlock LLC is the entity performing these actions.
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