Partisan gridlock in Congress is a bit like the weather: Everyone complains about it, but nobody does anything to change it. Here's another often repeated observation on the frustrations of the do-nothings on Capitol Hill: If you just locked a bunch of average, everyday people in a room and asked them to solve the problems facing this country, the work would get done.
As it happens, Baltimore is at ground zero of a noble experiment to see if the wisdom of ordinary folks might go a long way toward straightening out what Congress can't. Organizers are banking on forming a "citizen cabinet" in every Congressional district in the nation, presenting this randomly-selected but representational sample with the leading problems of the day (including a summary of the pertinent facts and possible choices) and asking them to advise their elected representatives.
Call it a focus group of the people and for the people. The expectation is that members of Congress would better understand what the people of their district or state want out of Washington — and advocates say it's more likely to gravitate toward compromise. When presented with the facts, people are reasonable. It's single-issue special interest groups who are not, yet it's the latter that tend to dominate public policy debates in Congress.
That point is key. Steven Kull, a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies and director of the Voice of the People, the nonpartisan, non-profit behind the effort, says mere polling wouldn't do — even if it's district or state specific. Too much misinformation is floating around for voters to make sensible choices on the spur of the moment. That's why he envisions first briefing participants using facts that are approved by both Democratic and Republican staffers on the Hill.
Take the future of Social Security, for instance. Some feel strongly that benefits shouldn't be cut, others that taxes should never be raised. Presented with specific policies and the effects of making certain choices, however, participants would likely express preference for some combination of both strategies — much as Congress has opted to do in less polarized times. In theory, this would embolden members to follow a similar course of action.
How is Baltimore at the center of this idea? As it happens, two congressional districts have been chosen to help demonstrate how this might work. One of them is Maryland's 7th,home to Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat. The other belongs to Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican. They were chosen for their political contrast — Mr. Cummings' district being very Democratic and Mr. Cole's equally Republican in its leanings. Voice of the People is also looking at Maryland, Oklahoma and Virginia on a statewide basis and plans to organize a nationwide citizens cabinet as well. The first results from these groups are expected by the end of the year.
Of course, the $64,000 question is whether Mr. Cummings, Mr. Cole or any elected leader will pay attention to the will of their district as expressed by this informed and representational sample. Partisanship is a bit more confounding than that. Gerrymandering, the more extremist politics of primary elections and the influence of certain deep-pocketed interest groups from unions to the National Rifle Association all play a role as well. It would be foolish to think that politicians who win an election on extreme views would abandon them after taking office because of polling.
But there are also hundreds of issues candidates don't actually run on that nevertheless are foiled by gridlock. Reforming the nation's convoluted and counter-productive tax code is one. Preserving Social Security for future generations is another. Or perhaps fixing the U.S. Postal Service. If nothing else, the thinking of such citizen cabinets can at least help inform the debate. Organizers say that all the briefing material and results will be available on the Internet for all to see.
This much is certain — no harm can come from such an exercise and perhaps some good. We may not be quite so optimistic as Mr. Kull that democracy can be saved by the effort, but we can understand why the idea has won support from politicians on both sides of the aisle including Maryland's former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and former Rep. Michael Barnes. At the very least, it will help disprove the claim that it's the nation's voters who are being unreasonable and not the men and women who are supposed to represent them.