How to Build Consensus in Congress

Public approval of Congress hovers around 21%. The last time it received more than a 30% approval rating was in 2005. The reason is clear. Congress doesn’t do its job to address real problems. There is a fix.

Congress should adopt a deliberative polling process that short circuits political gridlock and grandstanding. When average citizens do it, they find there is broad bipartisan consensus on a wide variety of issues according to a study published by the nonprofit organization Voice of the People.

Deliberative polling is a policy simulation that introduces a topic and presents alternative solutions. The framing of the issue and options are reviewed by Democrats and Republicans beforehand to ensure that they fairly reflect varied perspectives. After receiving a short briefing on the topic, and evaluating arguments for and against policy options, the citizen panels vote on what elected officials should do.

Here are some of the bipartisan solutions that received sixty-five percent or more support from both Democrats and Republicans.

To address the shortfall in social security, a bipartisan majority agrees to reduce the benefits of the top 25% of lifetime earners; raise the retirement age to 68 years old over a ten year period; raise the payroll tax from 6.2% to 6.8%; and raise the cap on income subject to the social security tax from $117,000 to $215,000.

To address the gap in the Medicare fund to address health care as baby boomers retire, a bipartisan majority agrees to reduce the cost of generic drugs and increase the cost of name brand drugs; require drug companies to accept 17% less money for drugs that go to people with modest incomes; and raise the Medicare payroll tax on current earners from 1.45% to 1.55%.

Both Republicans and Democrats support taxes to increase revenue to address our perpetual budget shortfalls, including treating capital gains and dividends as ordinary income for individuals with incomes above $1 million; increased taxes on various tobacco products; a new 4% surtax on individuals with income above $5 million; a new 1% surtax on corporate income above $100 million; and a 0.15% fee on uninsured debt of financial institutions.

In addressing health care, there is similar broad bipartisan support. Americans would increase health coverage by allowing people aged 55 years or older to purchase a Medicare plan. Large majorities oppose eliminating the protection for people with pre-existing conditions. Majorities would reduce health care costs by allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices and modify the patent system to get generic drugs on to the market more quickly.

There is consensus on immigration reform. A bipartisan majority would provide undocumented immigrants eligible for DACA status with full legal status and a path to citizenship; increase the number of available temporary non-farm work visas (H2B) from 66,000 to around 200,000 a year; increase the number of visas for low-skilled workers to move to the US for industries that need them, like agriculture and services; increase the number of visas for skilled workers to move to the US; increase personnel to speed processing of asylum requests; and provide aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the origin of many of our immigrants at the Southern border, to reduce the poverty and violence that forces so many to flee.

Americans want election reforms. Majorities support a constitutional amendment to regulate campaign financing that overturns the Citizens United decision. Americans seek greater disclosure from federal contractors, those who make $10,000 or more in campaign-related donations, and those who pay for political ads on TV or radio. Americans support term limits — three two-year terms for Representatives and two six-year terms for Senators.

Accepted police reforms include requiring all officers to wear body cameras, and to turn them on when they are on a call or interacting with a suspect, and establishing a national registry of police misconduct available to all police departments and the public.

Whether the topic is international trade, international security, nuclear weapons, diplomacy, net neutrality, poverty or clean energy, there is broad bipartisan support for certain reforms. The ones I have listed enjoy the support of sixty-fivepercent of both Republicans and Democrats. If one lowers the required threshold of consensus to fifty-one percent, or somewhere in between, even more consensus policy reforms emerge.

The solutions here will not fix all of the problems. For one, it does not place the conversation in an important set of budget trade-offs. What can we afford to do; and what can we afford not to do? The Concord Coalition has a balance the budget tool that could allow for bipartisan consensus building. The vitality of the deliberative problem solving is not that it fixes everything, but it fixes some things and opens doors to the next conversation. We should have a government that gets stuff done, knowing that more work lies ahead.

Voice of the People supports citizen panels that meet with elected leaders. I would take the idea two steps further. First, make citizen panels compulsory like jury duty. We should all take responsibility for our governance, and it would demonstrate how we the people can make a difference. Second, I would change the rules of Congress so that our elected representatives also engage in deliberative policymaking. Sen. Mitch McConnell should not be the graveyard for 400 pieces of legislation sent to the Senate by the House, most of which had bipartisan support. Nor should any single Senator hold up bipartisan debate through threat of filibuster. Let’s get working again.

The greatest gift a new President and Congress could provide is restoring our democracy and the confidence that our democracy works for us all. Let’s turn down the temperature, reduce the polarization, increase our collaboration, and solve problems. America’s greatest days lie ahead if we want them to be.

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C. Dixon Osburn is a noted advocate for domestic and international human rights and security.

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