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Want to Pass Medicare for All? Fix American Democracy First.

Nothing is in greater need of reform than the political system itself.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The federal government’s partial shutdown enters its second month this week, and there is no end in sight. It does not matter that the American public largely wants the government to reopen, or that the shutdown inflicts a growing economic and environmental toll on the nation. President Donald Trump and the Republican Party, who have majority control of the government, are in no hurry to reopen it.

And why should they be? The shutdown’s ostensible purpose is to secure funding for Trump’s wall. But crippling the government advances other goals as well. Conservatives often rail against the “administrative state,” their term of derision for federal agencies and the “bureaucrats” who staff them. What more effective way to deplete the state’s strength and efficacy than by forcing scores of experienced and talented civil servants into either poverty or other jobs?

Conservatives are hardly subtle about this. Earlier this month, an unnamed “senior Trump official” published an op-ed in The Daily Caller celebrating the suffering that he and his colleagues had inflicted on federal workers. “Federal employees are starting to feel the strain of the shutdown,” the anonymous author wrote. “I am one of them. But for the sake of our nation, I hope it lasts a very long time, till the government is changed and can never return to its previous form.” Trump himself retweeted his son’s approval of the article.

The shutdown highlights a fundamental asymmetry in American governance today. It’s a familiar trope for political observers to blame both sides in Washington for gridlock. In reality, congressional dysfunction and government shutdowns typically hinder progressives’ policy goals, which generally require passing new legislation, while furthering conservative ones. So the increasing paralysis of Washington has redounded to the benefit of the Republicans.

After the 2010 midterms, when the Democratic Party lost its unified control of government, President Barack Obama sought to circumvent this problem through his executive authority. His administration used regulatory action to advance progressive goals on protecting LGBT rights, raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers, combating climate change, and more. He also tested the limits of the presidency’s power by temporarily shielding millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation and making illegal recess appointments to executive-branch posts that require Senate confirmation.

Now armed with that executive power himself, Trump is trying to undo much of what his predecessor accomplished with it. The contrast between Trump’s successes there and his party’s failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act is telling. Progressives’ best hope for durable policy achievements is legislation, not regulation—which is why the party’s central goal must be to reform American democracy itself.

Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential election will spend the next two years discussing their varied approaches to policy. Plenty of ink will be spilled on their particular approaches to health care, climate change, labor, and so on. But whether a candidate supports the Green New Deal or Medicare for All doesn’t matter as much as whether they will commit themselves to aggressive structural political reform. Without that, any progressive gains when Democrats next control the House, the Senate, and the presidency will be fleeting and insubstantial.

There are signs that some Democratic leaders are waking up to this problem. Obama and his former attorney general, Eric Holder, are focusing their resources on reforming partisan gerrymandering, which tilts the congressional map toward Republicans so heavily that Democrats had to win a wave election in the 2018 midterms to secure a modest House majority. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced a package of anti-corruption reforms in the Senate last year; Speaker Nancy Pelosi proposed similar legislation earlier this month to bolster voting rights and reform campaign-finance laws.

A key obstacle is the Electoral College, which makes it possible for a candidate to win the presidency without winning the most votes. The Democratic nominee won the popular vote in six out of the last seven presidential elections, but Republicans still took the White House in three of those races. Abolishing the Electoral College outright through a constitutional amendment would require the approval of the small states that benefit the most from it. So Democrats in multiple states are trying to circumvent it through an interstate compact that would automatically award those states’ electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote. States with a combined 172 votes have already signed on; the agreement will take effect once that total reaches the magic number, 270.

The greatest obstacle, however, may be the Senate itself. Like the Electoral College, the chamber has a structural rural bias that lends Republicans disproportionate power. But Mitch McConnell’s reign over the chamber has also showed how it can be a mortal threat to basic governance. The Kentucky senator, who proudly declared that his top goal after the 2008 election was to make sure Obama would be a one-term president, often rejected policy negotiations with Democrats so he could blame Obama for the resulting dysfunction. His iron grip on the Senate’s flow of business amid the current shutdown shows how Republicans’ structural advantage in one legislative chamber gives them an undemocratic veto on the country’s political agenda.

Some observers have also proposed scrapping the legislative filibuster, which would reduce the need for Democrats to obtain buy-ins on major legislation from conservative members and moderate Republicans. Some 2020 contenders like Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand have also backed statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Creating two new states would strengthen democracy in both places and dilute the Republicans’ structural advantage in the Senate. But there’s also no reason to stop there: full statehood for American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Virgin Islands would also be a good idea if those territories desire it.

British lawmakers used a similar maneuver to bring their upper legislative chamber to heel in the early twentieth century. David Lloyd George, the Liberal Party’s chancellor of the exchequer, first introduced what became known as the “People’s Budget” in 1909. It proposed a vast expansion of the nation’s social safety net that would be financed itself through aggressive tax hikes on landowners and the wealthiest British citizens. The House of Lords’ members naturally refused to pass a budget that would tax themselves so heavily, even after the Liberals had won another general election and a clear popular mandate for it. What began as a policy dispute had become a constitutional crisis.

Lloyd George found a radical solution. With King George V’s support, he threatened to elevate hundreds of new Liberal dukes, viscounts, and barons to take control of the House of Lords and pass reforms that would strip away the Lords’ ability to block legislation. The aristocracy backed down in 1910 and approved the budget, but Lloyd George and the Commons persisted in forcing them to accept the Parliament Act the following year, which replaced the Lords’ ability to vote down legislation with the power to delay it for two years. Creating a dozen new Senate seats out of territories long deprived of influence in Congress seems almost tame by comparison.

As dramatic as it may sound, there is abundant precedent for reshaping the Senate’s balance of power through new states. Early American statesmen regularly used the creation of free and slave states to maintain the political equilibrium between the North and the South before the Civil War. When Southern senators withdrew from the Senate to join the rebellion in 1860, the Republican Party suddenly found itself able to pass a wave of stymied legislation: land-grant colleges, a transcontinental railroad, the first federal income tax, and more. Statehood also bypasses the unique obstacle of Article V of the Constitution, which forbids the ratification of amendments that alter any state’s “equal representation” in the Senate unless the state itself consents to the changes.

Bold political reforms often went hand-in-hand with social and economic reforms throughout American history. Radical Republicans and black freedpeople fought to build a multiracial democracy in the South and ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, laying the groundwork for future civil rights triumphs. Reformers in the Progressive Era passed universal suffrage for women and mandated the direct election of senators. The 1950s and 1960s saw the end of poll taxes and literacy tests, the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the establishment of the “one man, one vote” principle by the Supreme Court.

But progressives today have given short shrift to potential structural changes to the American political system. At the same time, Republicans haven’t been shy about using their political power over the past decade to mold the nation’s political structures in their favor, whether through aggressive partisan gerrymandering, a wave of restrictive voting laws, or refusing to let Obama change the Supreme Court’s ideological balance. These successes have made it even more difficult for Democrats to capture and hold the House, the Senate, and the presidency simultaneously. But when they do, in 2020 or later, they have to be ready to use the opportunity to untilt the balance of power. Because they may not get another one.