Let’s put issues, not people, on the ballot

Jaws dropped and huzzahs rang out as Sen. Joe Manchin announced he and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had agreed on legislation to tackle climate change, reform prescription drug pricing and make businesses pay their fair share of taxes.

The urge to party is understandable. It’s hard to do anything in Washington, and Manchin is a mercurial partner. That it followed the long-awaited passage of a bill to subsidize computer chip manufacturing in the United States by just hours seemed miraculous.

It shouldn’t.

These four questions are ringing extremely high among Americans. Addressing one of them should have been easy. Still, it was a Sisyphean ordeal to get them across the finish line – and the bill that brings three of them together isn’t there yet.

To be fair, the disconnect between what citizens should expect from their government and what they get is not just a manchin problem. It’s a people problem, if by people we mean legislators.

Ask yourself:

How many lawmakers campaign from one spot on the ideological spectrum, then shift left or right once in power, so you don’t really know their true beliefs? How many are only interested in performative politics and never write actual legislation? How many see their main objective as preventing the other party from doing anything? How many are so beholden to big donors and special interests that they fail to address issues that deeply affect their constituents?

We don’t help. We cheer on our side when they troll the other side, then wonder why the two can’t get together to negotiate bills.

But maybe the problem isn’t so much the people we elect, it’s the fact that we elect people and give them that power.

Maybe we should elect ideas.

Maybe we should put ideas on the ballot.

Yes, politicians are already saying that. They like to say that abortion is on the ballot. Climate change is on the ballot. The right to vote is recorded on the ballot paper. Public safety is on the ballot. Democracy is on the ballot. Choose your issue is on the ballot.

Not really, however, as experience shows. Politicians are fickle, deep-rooted dysfunctions. And most of the questions that are on the ballot were on the ballot in the last election and will be on the ballot in the upcoming election.

If we want to act on issues where we share common ground, let’s really put universal background checks, paid family leave and prescription drug prices on the ballot. And if they are accepted by ordinary Americans, Congress must also pass them.

Set metrics to do this. If a proposal gets 85% or more support, Congress has three months to pass a bill to make it happen. If he gets 70 to 85%, six months; 55-70%, one year. If he gets 45 to 55%, which means the country is somewhat divided, he moves on to the next ballot and our representatives can argue yes or no with the people. Less than 45% support, it goes away until enough people get on board.

Give the system teeth. Amend the Constitution so that any member of Congress who blocks a bill from passing within the allotted time will be fired – barred from running next time for overriding the will of the people.

Wiser heads than mine can build a workable system, something akin to state referendum processes with fewer hurdles to put a plebiscite before the people.

About 90% of Americans support universal background checks for gun purchases. About 80% want reform of prescription drug prices and paid family leave. Two-thirds say the federal government should do more to fight climate change. The list is long.

People know what they want. Let’s do it.

Opinions of columnist Michael Dobie are his own.

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