The president who will take the oath of office in January 2021 will face some enormous governing challenges. Some are practical and obvious. Our country will be about a year into its confrontation with the global COVID-19 pandemic, and even if we are close to defeating the virus, both the public health and economic burdens of that confrontation will continue to require the president's extraordinary efforts and attention. Add to that the many policy challenges that predate the pandemic and may have been exacerbated by it-such as the socioeconomic prospects of the most vulnerable Americans, the government's fiscal imbalance, and an increasingly aggressive China-and it is not hard to see how our government's chief executive might spend his time.
But some of the governing challenges the president will face in the coming years run deeper than that. Well before the pandemic, and beneath the surface of our policy debates, the United States has long been burdened by an underlying breakdown of our political culture and the institutions that constitute the infrastructure of our politics. Dysfunction at that level makes it nearly impossible to constructively take on more practical governing needs, as any attempt to do so is immediately undermined by political paralysis, institutional sclerosis, and an ethos of cynical contempt. Our two parties have each decided that the other is the country's biggest problem, which makes it difficult to take up any other problems through the tools and institutions available to our system of government.
This breakdown takes the form of not only intense polarization in our political debates but also scornful confrontation across ideological lines in many cultural arenas-and even isolation, disaffection, loneliness, and despair in too many Americans' private lives. It has sent our political culture careening down a path that leads to an abyss, and it is hard to see how we might slow down, let alone turn back. No amount of sermonizing about the need for civility and mutual respect is likely to succeed.
What we require is an off-ramp-a different road to take-so that our civic and political energies might be redirected away from alienation and conflict. And ironically, although the dysfunction of our political culture and institutions makes it difficult to take up traditional policy debates, that very dysfunction might itself offer an alternative object for policy action. Faced with two kinds of governing challenges, it might be possible to use one to address the other.
That could happen through a concerted effort to make the 2020s a decade of reform in American public life-a time to take on dysfunction in concrete, practical, and achievable ways, changing rules and systems within the broader framework of our durable constitutional infrastructure and helping our institutions work for us again. Reform is not revolution. It aims not to overturn but to renovate-not to reject but to restore. It compels us to think about not only why things are not working but also how they might work better.
Answers to that kind of question-how might things work better?-will almost inherently be incremental, pragmatic, and concrete. Even by just more frequently asking questions that lend themselves to such answers, we could begin to make our way off the path of self-destruction on which we find ourselves. By just surfacing the possibility that reforms might be achievable-that targeted, incremental changes to how our institutions work are within our reach again-we could begin gradually to change the subject of our politics in a way that may lend itself to not only some genuine improvements in our government's functioning but also a lowering of our cultural temperature and a recovery of some sense of proportion, restraint, and responsibility in our common life.
The greatest obstacle to such a change of direction is the sheer inertia of our culture of contempt. We need to become capable of imagining an era of attempts at reform on multiple fronts, in which we negotiate toward changes in how some familiar systems of political intercourse operate. That would take leadership willing to take up various reform ideas in different arenas of American government and politics, which is where the president, among others, would come in. And it would require some catalytic examples of attainable yet meaningful reforms that would set off further efforts.
Structural and Institutional Reforms
A catalytic first reform would have to be an achievable change that would be appealing and appropriate in itself but also set us on the path toward others. There is one plausible candidate for the task, at least regarding institutional and political reform, though it may not be immediately obvious: modestly expanding the US House of Representatives.
The 2020 Census will yield detailed results for use in the apportionment of congressional districts by April 2021.1 These will provide an updated picture of the geography of the American population, which will then be used to reallocate House seats and redraw districts. In the normal course of things, that would mean allocating the 435 seats of which the House of Representatives is now composed. But 435 members are not enough to represent a nation of nearly 330 million people.
When the Constitution was first ratified, the House had 65 members, each of whom represented approximately 30,000 Americans. As the nation grew, the House at first did, too, expanding several times throughout the 19th century. It reached its current size in 1911, when each of its 435 members represented about 210,000 people. The House has not increased in size since then, even though the population of the nation has more than tripled. Each member now represents about 745,000 Americans. That has changed the very meaning of representation in Congress and the nature of the relationship between constituents and their representatives.
An increase in the size of the House could improve its capacity to represent the American public, though of course any such increase would need to take into account that the House is intended to function as a venue for face-to-face legislation and bargaining, so it can only grow so large. How large? The 2020 report of the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship-a group convened by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and of which I was a member-proposed beginning with a small expansion and noted that "the current Capitol Building could easily accommodate an additional fifty members," so this might be a reasonable place to start.2
Even such a modest increase would have enormous appeal for several reasons beyond the direct benefits of modestly improved representation. For one, precisely because it is modest, it could plausibly appeal to the existing Congress, which would have to enact it. Expanding the House by roughly 50 members would not fundamentally transform the institution's character or disempower its existing members.
On the contrary, expanding the House would offer the political class the prospect of addition rather than division: It would hold out a set of new political offices to win, rather than just reallocating existing ones in a way that takes some away from current elected officials. By doing this without significantly devaluing existing House seats, such an approach could win the needed support in Congress. And that support could be bipartisan, since expanding the House would not necessarily advantage one party over the other.
At the same time, however, even such a modest expansion could be significant enough to set off a series of related follow-on reforms across our political system. For one, it would trigger a modest rebalancing of the Electoral College. The Constitution sets the size of each state's Electoral College delegation as "equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress," so expanding the House would automatically result in a larger number of Electoral College delegates, distributed according to the states' populations.3 That larger number would modestly reduce the overrepresentation of less populous states in the Electoral College, though its net practical effect on election outcomes could not be easily determined in advance-and therefore need not feed in any simple way into a partisan calculus.
Meanwhile, expanding the House, by shaking up the status quo some, could help shake loose opportunities for improvement in two other arenas: congressional reform and electoral reform. First, introducing 50 new members of the House could, if motivated members are prepared to make the most of the opportunity, create an opening for reforms of the institution itself. Broadly speaking, these could involve a shift in power from the leadership to the membership, which could change the budget process, the committee system, control of the floor, and more. The dysfunctions of our constitutional system at this point nearly all radiate outward from Congress' failure to assert itself. And that failure, in turn, is a function of perverse incentives that channel the ambition of members away from legislative work and of the excessive consolidation of power in both houses, leaving leadership with too much control and other members with too little to do.4
Some deconsolidation of the budget process is essential for beginning to address that problem. For instance, by eliminating the distinction between authorization and appropriation, Congress could set spending levels on programs when it defines those programs rather than leaving all budget decisions for one big up or down vote as a government shutdown nears. Breaking up budgeting into smaller portions would create more opportunities for real legislative work.
Similarly, some of the consolidated power of party leaders in Congress should be distributed again through the congressional committees. Measures that give committees some control of floor time, for instance, could enable more members to be more involved in legislating and let some unpredictable coalitions take shape.
There is no shortage of such ideas and no shortage of frustration among members who would like to see the institution change in this direction. But in recent years, there has been a marked shortage of will and a lack of confidence that such reform efforts could actually advance. The opportunity created by examples of constructive change enabled by a concerted effort to make the coming decade an era of incremental reforms could help ideas on the shelf become a meaningful agenda.
Second, and relatedly, expanding the House of Representatives could set off a period of ferment and reform in our electoral system as well. Beyond expanding the Electoral College that would follow automatically from a larger House, the adjustments that would follow at the state level from introducing 50 new House seats could be used to experiment with new modes of district design and congressional elections. In the redistricting process, states that wanted to or had sufficiently prepared and able reform movements ready to seize the chance could use the introduction of new districts to curtail gerrymandering and normalize the sizes and shapes of districts in accordance with broad population patterns.
More important, states could experiment with greater use of electoral methods such as rank-choice voting and (with help from a simple legislative change at the federal level) could experiment with multimember House districts-larger districts, each of which would be represented by more than one member.5 The combination of such methods could allow for more diverse party coalitions, so that the complexity of the American electorate could be better represented in Congress. This would not necessarily advantage either of the two major parties over the other; it would just allow substantial minority views to be represented. We might see more Republicans in the California delegation, for instance, but also more Democrats from Nebraska. The result would be broader coalitions, which might help turn down the temperature of our political conflicts a little.6
These would be experiments, only taken up in some states where reform coalitions have already been consolidating and have lacked the opportunity to act. The results of such reforms would then determine whether they were attractive to others and could stand a chance of being more widely adopted. They are ways of better reflecting the complexity and diversity of the American polity. And even at the national level, embodied in congressional reforms, these ideas reflect that complexity by recognizing that our political institutions are built to enable (and even compel) accommodation and bargaining, not to empower narrow majorities.
This is a crucial distinction for reformers to keep in mind. There is a great danger in the streak of angry majoritarianism evident in some contemporary political-reform efforts-such as movements to eliminate the Electoral College or the Senate filibuster. A democracy should be judged by not only how it represents its majorities but also how it guards its minorities.
The balance involved is not easy: Durable majorities need to get their way eventually, if what they want is not grossly unjust. But durable minorities need to have the chance to endure and even restrain the majority will when their endurance is at stake. We have a set of institutions carefully evolved to provide that balance. Practically, this often takes the form of a balance between city and country, sustained by a modest overrepresentation of the country party in our politics-so that close contests go to the party representing less urban and less dense parts of the nation-because the city is immodestly overrepresented in essentially every other institution of our society.
The frustration of narrow majorities with this pattern is understandable, but that does not mean it is justified. They should address it by broadening their majorities through bargaining and accommodation, not by seeking to crush large minorities. The Electoral College, the filibuster, and similar restraints on pure majority rule compel us to deal with one another and pursue broad coalitions. They restrain arrogant majorities. We should be sure they are not too restrictive. So, we should want rules that enable the filibuster to be employed only rarely, for instance, and the Electoral College to be rebalanced through expanding the House now and then. But we should think twice before trampling the minorities they protect- particularly as we are all likely to find ourselves in one of those minorities sooner or later.
The downside of pure majoritarianism can also point the way to some political reforms aimed at enabling compromise and building broad coalitions. In particular, reformers of campaign-finance and election laws at both the state and federal levels could aim at empowering political parties-with incentives to build broad tents-rather than narrow issue groups that benefit from intense polarization.
Ironically, ours is a partisan time because the parties are weak, not strong. If their goal is to restrain rampant partisan animosity and, in general, avoid polarized concentrations in our public life, reformers should constrain the use of open primaries, for instance, and the parties themselves should rethink the ways they choose candidates to create incentives for coalition building rather than for doubling down on core constituencies. Broader but more factionalized parties would also be in a better position to enable cross-party coalitions on key issues and allow political reforms to lead toward policy reforms.
The emergence of significant factions within both parties (along intraparty divisions that, as suggested below, will likely have to do more with economic than social issues, while social issues define the differences between the parties) could help clarify and concretize the gradual realignment of voter groups we have begun to see in American politics. It could help turn both populist and elite intellectual movements into practical governing coalitions, both within each party and between the two. It would also tend to decentralize power in Congress, since today's party-leadership model is premised on unusually cohesive party coalitions.
This process within the parties will not happen on its own, and it will not happen through broad democracy reforms alone; it will require old-fashioned political organizing and institution building. But it can be helped by reforms that pull our politics out of some deep ruts.7
A further appeal of such reforms-of Congress and the electoral system-is that they all remain within the bounds of the constitutional system. They do not involve constitutional amendments, so they do not require supermajorities that are far out of reach in our polarized era. Related reform measures to address some public frustrations with our system without altering its fundamental structure (for instance, a law to limit Supreme Court terms to 18 years, after which a justice would return to service as a judge in a federal appeals court)8 could also become more imaginable if we found ourselves more in the habit of contemplating and instituting targeted, incremental reform measures. By treating this as a time to address dysfunctions in our institutions, we can create an environment in which our politics is directed to addressing concrete frustrations.
The president's role in such reforms of Congress, the electoral system, and other facets of our political infrastructure would be indirect but crucial. By speaking of the 2020s as a decade of reform, and by encouraging modest changes that might build the habits required for more significant ones, the president can play a crucial role in addressing some public concerns and aggravations and setting a different tone for our political culture.
Administrative and Policy Reforms
There is a far more direct role for the president, however, in advancing reforms to public administration and public policy. On this front, too, we have fallen into the habit of assuming that the rules and structures are set and we are doomed to live with their inadequacies. But by taking dysfunction for granted, we ensure that neither our system of government nor our political culture will improve. If we make the response to dysfunction an object of policy action, we could gradually improve both.
In this arena, the case for a period of reform would naturally begin from the need to learn lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. The public health crisis has revealed serious weaknesses in American public administration. Our core federal public health agencies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, confronted the most serious crisis of their histories and proved too slow and rigid. Whoever is president in 2021 will surely need to launch not only a thorough review but also an overhaul of both and of their interactions with the broader federal government.
Federal emergency response more generally needs rethinking and reorganizing. For instance, there is a strong argument for dismantling the Department of Homeland Security, which was created in the wake of the September 11 attacks, and returning its constituent elements to other cabinet agencies (including the Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, and Treasury) better suited to providing the relevant expertise for its various functions.
The government's role in research and development could also use a fresh look, with an emphasis on goal-based investments and coordinating private efforts toward public aims. Here there may be some positive lessons from the pandemic response, especially from the National Institutes of Health's work, which could be applied elsewhere.9
The crisis has also suggested some lessons about American federalism that might be constructively translated into a series of reforms, negotiated with Congress and the states, which would clarify the responsibilities of our different levels of government while better enabling them to be met. For instance, Washington's role as a fiscal backstop of last resort in serious emergencies could be codified through a system of emergency lending to the states (which would require changes to both state and federal laws and some state constitutions), rather than crisis appropriations that are far less reliable and far less fiscally responsible.10 Some broader rebalancing of fiscal obligations-for instance, by federalizing nearly all Medicaid costs but making nearly all education funding the states' responsibility-could also clarify the budget outlooks of both levels of government and help disentangle the two.11
To similarly clarify lines of authority and responsibility in federal administration, the president could rein in the so-called "independent" regulatory agencies. Agencies such as the National Labor Relations Board, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the dozen or so other commissions that regulate the national economy are generally considered independent because the president's ability to remove their leaders is limited. But, practically, they are also generally independent of the review and coordination process by which the president and his senior appointees oversee the regulatory function of the executive branch. That makes it difficult for the president to exercise the power vested in only him by the Constitution and to be answerable for its uses. This distortion of the constitutional order could be corrected through presidential action.12
"By speaking of the 2020s as a decade of reform, and by encouraging modest changes that might build the habits required for more significant ones, the president can play a crucial role in addressing some public concerns and aggravations and setting a different tone for our political culture."
More traditional policy reform, which would need to be achieved through legislative action with presidential backing, is of course harder to imagine in our polarized era. But if these other efforts toward institutional, political, and administrative reform can gain some steam, there may be hope for some consequential reforms that could modernize core public programs and take us beyond the midcentury welfare state toward an approach to social insurance, taxation, and assistance to the poor better suited to 21st-century circumstances.
The very character of the contemporary political environment may actually offer some hope on this front. We are accustomed to thinking of the two major party coalitions as each united on a core vision of the role of government in the economy but divided on some significant social and cultural issues. But that view is well behind the times.
Today, each party's coalition is increasingly unified on social issues but divided on economic issues: Republicans are torn between the party's recent history of libertarian economic policy and a more interventionist populist wing that is much more open to aggressive government action in key areas. Democrats are divided between neoliberal progressives and a far more interventionist wing that at times is even willing to be labeled socialist. This suggests that cross-partisan compromises on social issues (around, say, the Hyde Amendment on abortion funding) are not long for this world but that there may be some novel and unfamiliar opportunities for cross-partisan compromise on economic policy and the role of government.
Such measures would need to be forms of modernization, suited to new circumstances in both our economy and our politics. AEI's James Capretta and Andrew Biggs have proposed such reforms of Medicare and Social Security, respectively. Each would take effect only gradually, without changing the arrangements of current retirees. And in each case, the program would provide a base benefit to all retirees and additional help for those with lower incomes in a way that better serves its original aims, offers more help to those in greater need, and gradually but significantly improves the government's fiscal prospects.13
Tax reform could similarly break from the mold of the debates of recent decades. For instance, AEI's Alan Viard and the Urban Institute's Eric Toder have proposed reducing the corporate tax rate while taxing all income (whether from labor or capital gains) at the same rate, encouraging domestic investment and employment, better valuing workers in relation to investors, and sharply reducing incentives for corporate inversions in a revenue-neutral way that makes the tax system more progressive. Such an approach would take account of the kinds of concerns about globalization, technological disruption, and financialization that have arisen in our politics in recent years while also improving the government's fiscal prospects.14
There may also be some room to rethink century-old labor laws in ways that enable new forms of organizing for workers who escape the rut of politicization (and, at times, corruption) into which unionism has fallen in our time. By enabling some experimentation with works councils and other forms of representation and bargaining, and by allowing states to waive out of some federal labor-law requirements, such reforms could enable labor organizations to develop new forms and functions and could empower workers in circumstances for which our traditional union arrangements are not adequate. Reforms on this front, as on those mentioned above and others (such as more robust support for parents of young children), could draw together unusual cross-partisan coalitions that may not have been imaginable in prior eras.15
Obviously, the prospects for labor, entitlement, and tax reform are slim, and such reforms are different in kind from the sorts of political- and policy-infrastructure reforms discussed earlier. It would take a successful turn toward reform-mindedness in our political culture to make such bargains possible, but they are where efforts to make that turn could lead in time. That basic change of attitude-that recognition that we can change failing systems and that doing so should be a core purpose of our politics now-is an essential prerequisite to more functional policy debates. It can begin to change the tenor of our politics and then the substance.
A Decade of Reform
That a change of tenor must precede a change of substance should be clear to anyone with some experience of our political culture these days. What stands in the way of functional policy debates and the sort of bargaining that ultimately makes for durable legislative action is above all an attitude-a sense that our political life has become a bitter and partisan fight to the death and that dealing with the other side is exactly what we cannot afford to do.16
But this attitude does not begin or end with elected officials. It is our attitude, and it presents itself in many arenas of our society when people opt to avoid letting institutional forms mold our understanding of our responsibilities and instead use the institution as a platform for performative virtue signaling. That widespread vice keeps us from believing that our institutions could still function. It yields a disposition that soon becomes self-fulfilling, especially when the people we put in positions of power use those positions merely to channel frustration, affirming our most cynical fears.17
Breaking that cycle requires a change of disposition. But although the right attitude must precede constructive political and policy action, we can encourage that attitude by making such action our explicit goal, treating it as not only imaginable but also achievable, and pursuing it practically, earnestly, and incrementally.
The potential reforms laid out above could not all be pursued of course, and they would not all succeed. But pursuing them, or others like them, would itself begin to broaden the scope of what is possible. They offer the beginnings of a catalog of constructive action. Different Americans can prioritize different sorts of reforms in different corners of our public life. And only a few could truly come to fruition. But if we turn our attention to how the infrastructure of our civic and political life could be improved-how the rules could work for us, institutions could be revitalized, systems could be modernized, and frustrations could be eased-we will find that every attempt makes every other more plausible and that the ethic of our political culture can gradually be mended and made whole.
The president who takes office in 2021 will lead a nation that has long felt itself coming apart. Helping it feel whole again will be among his highest callings. There are no easy ways to do that. But making the 2020s a decade of reform on various fronts offers one promising way to start.
1. For the timeline of delivery of Census data results, see Congressional Research Service, "Apportionment and Redistricting Following the 2020 Census," https:// crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IN/IN11360.
2. Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century, 2020, 24, https://www.amacad.org/ ourcommonpurpose/report.
3. US Const., art. II, § 1.
4. For a more detailed discussion of this problem, see Yuval Levin, "Congress Is Weak Because Its Members Want It to Be Weak," Commentary, July/August 2018, https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/yuval-levin/congress-weak-memberswant-weak/.
5. Multimember House of Representatives districts were common in the first four decades of the 19th century, at one point encompassing almost a third of the seats in the House, but the Apportionment Act of 1842 mostly outlawed them. Several states continued the practice even after that law by treating the entire state as one multimember district. For instance, as late as the 88th Congress in 1962-63, 22 of the House's 435 members served in such "at large" multimember districts. The practice was ended by the Uniform Congressional District Act of 1967, which mandates the use of discrete, single-member districts for all states with more than one seat in the House. That law would need to be repealed or changed to enable multimember districts again.
6. For a more detailed discussion of these proposals, see Lee Drutman, Breaking the Two Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2019).
7. See, for instance, Steven Teles and Robert Saldin, "The Future Is Faction," Niskanen Center, November 25, 2019, https://www.niskanencenter.org/the-future-isfaction/.
8. See, for instance, Joshua D. Hawley, "The Most Dangerous Branch," National Affairs 13 (Fall 2012), https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-mostdangerous-branch; and John G. Grove, "Reforming the Court," National Affairs 46 (Winter 2020), https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/reforming-the-court.
9. On this front, see Jim Manzi, "The New American System," National Affairs 19 (Spring 2014), https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-new-americansystem.
10. On the case for loans rather than grants in federal aid to the states, see Yuval Levin, "How Congress Can Help the States," Atlantic, May 6, 2020, https://www. theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/05/avoiding-federal-train-wreck/611242/.
11. See, for instance, Lamar Alexander, "Time for a Medicaid-Education Grand Swap," Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2012, https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052 702304371504577405782138051376.
12. See, for instance, Adam J. White, "Reining in the Agencies," National Affairs 11 (Spring 2012), https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/reining-in-theagencies.
13. See Andrew G. Biggs, "A New Vision for Social Security," National Affairs 16 (Summer 2013), https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/a-new-vision-for-socialsecurity; and James C. Capretta, "Rethinking Medicare," National Affairs 35 (Spring 2018), https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/rethinking-medicare. As James Capretta notes, reforms of Medicare could have involved a more straightforward move to premium support if they had been undertaken a decade ago, "but if there was a window of opportunity during which enacting premium support might have addressed the core of Medicare's long-term fiscal challenge, that time is behind us."
14. Eric Toder and Alan D. Viard, "A Proposal to Reform the Taxation of Corporate Income," Tax Policy Center, June 2016, https://www.taxpolicycenter.org/sites/ default/files/alfresco/publication-pdfs/2000817-a-proposal-to-reform-the-taxation-ofcorporate-income.pdf.
15. On this front, see, for instance, Eli Lehrer and Andrew Stern, "How to Modernize Labor Law," National Affairs 34 (Winter 2017), https://www.nationalaffairs.com/ publications/detail/how-to-modernize-labor-law; and Oren Cass, The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America (New York: Encounter Books, 2018).
16. Survey work by AEI's Daniel Cox has found, for instance, that "forty-five percent of Americans see politics as a conflict between good and evil." See Daniel A. Cox, "Public Views of Political Compromise and Conflict and Partisan Misperceptions," American Enterprise Institute, October 2, 2019, https://www.aei.org/researchproducts/report/public-views-of-political-compromise-and-conflict-and-partisanmisperceptions/.
17. This argument regarding the deformation of institutions is laid out more fully in Yuval Levin, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream (New York: Basic Books, 2020).