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Q&A with Michael Golden, author of "Unlock Congress"


While writing his new book, “Unlock Congress: Reform the Rules – Restore the System,” Michael Golden spent two years researching the inner workings of the United States Congress and identifying the institution’s structural defects that contribute to the public’s negative opinion of congressional performance. In the book, Golden outlines what he found to be the systemic flaws in Congress’s work and provides suggestions for reform.

Drawing on his background in journalism and his work with political campaigns, Golden begins by discussing the history of Congress’s creation. He then moves into an investigation of the problems in Congress’ current operations. Golden argues four specific defects are preventing Congress from properly functioning: gerrymandered districts where outcome of races is essentially predetermined, two-year House terms, the Senate filibuster, and the soaring cost of running for a congressional seat. Golden argues that those systemic problems make it impossible for House and Senate members to do their jobs effectively and are some of the main reasons for Congress’ historically low approval ratings.

In “Unlock Congress,” Golden lays out several reforms Congress could make to regain the public’s trust. Those reforms include establishing multi-seat congressional districts that have proportional representation; setting up public financing to match small-dollar contributions; and lengthening House terms to four years so representatives do not have to be constantly fixated on their re-election campaigns.

The Daily Whale recently spoke with Golden about his book and his involvement with several nonprofit education initiatives. An edited transcription of that conversation follows.

DW: Can you give us an overview of what your book “Unlock Congress” is about?

MG: Unlock Congress is about looking at the rules inside Congress for major defects that are structural instead of pinpointing blame at individuals or even specific political parties. There’s a lot of conflict between the parties in our system – we know that – but over the years there’s a set of defects that have more to do with how the rules work in Congress that make it incredibly difficult for people who work really hard to get elected to Congress to accomplish anything. The book is nonpartisan, it’s an argument toward reforming the rules so we have a more pragmatic system and more meaningful legislation can get passed that will be helpful to Americans, who had a 93 percent lack of public confidence in Congress last year, the worst rating in 40 years of Gallup asking that question.

DW: Why did you decide to write "Unlock Congress"?

MG: I revere Congress as an institution. [For] over 25 years I worked in journalism covering campaigns and elections and public office holders. I worked as a strategist running campaigns for the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House and then as a higher education advocate working to secure scholarship funding and programs for public school students and community college students. I’ve worked with them. I’ve worked alongside them. There are a lot of really good people in Congress that have good intentions. They’re smart, hardworking people who have sacrificed a lot to get to Washington. I’ve seen it. But I think they’re shackled by rules and impediments in the system that just frustrate all of them and, by extension, the American people. I really want to see it work better.

DW: What was the most surprising finding from the research you did on your book?

MG: I’d say the most surprising finding from all of my research was that even though gerrymandering is a major problem in terms of how we elect U.S. House members, an even bigger obstacle … is single-member districts with winner-take-all elections instead of a form of proportional representation. It divides us. It distorts election results and American voting totals. And we didn’t always do it this way. So even though it’s good that the Supreme Court upheld independent districting commissions to draw lines more fairly in the state from the Arizona case, we need to look at fair representation voting where more political minorities, more women, more segments of the electorate that don’t really have representation in Congress, would have some form of representation … There are other ways to do this and other advanced democracies do use proportional representation. I’m in favor of the Fair Vote organization’s plan for fair representation voting, which I go over in the book.

DW: How can Congress regain the trust of the American people?

MG: Often we see these public spectacles of ethics violations or controversial stories about mouthpieces in Congress, but that really is the headline-grabbing stuff. Again, most of these members of Congress work really hard and they want to get things done, and a lot of times they even want to negotiate with the other side. But again, because of these four rules: two-year House terms, the rigging of Congressional races, filibuster in the U.S. Senate, … and then the money flood, … it makes it incredibly difficult for members of Congress to negotiate in good faith and come up with creative, practical solutions and then vote on them in a bipartisan fashion. I’m not some wild-eyed optimist that thinks any of this is easy. But changing some of these rules … would allow these members of Congress to act in a much more mature fashion, at least publicly, and listen to each other – listen to ideas coming from across the aisle and consider them in a genuine way instead of political posturing, which is what a lot of these rules compel them to do to get reelected.  

DW: How do you plan on informing the average disgruntled American about solutions that are available?

MG: The first half of the book is not even about the problems I diagnose in Congress and a platform of solutions. The first half of the book is getting people to care, an effort to get Americans to care enough to learn about this stuff. … It goes over our history and how Congress was created, and why, and the Federalist Papers and using interesting examples. I use analogies ranging from football to poetry to movie lines to break this stuff down and really show people that we’re not getting our money’s worth. We pay taxes, we fund Congress[‘ operations], … and only seven percent of us have public confidence in what they’re doing? So the first part is we need to get passionate. We need to get a little angry about this defective product that we’re receiving and then look at the defects and figure out why. My plan to get folks involved, directly to your question, is to keep writing and speaking about this: at colleges, at universities, [at] think tanks – keep publishing pieces and try to draw attention to the book.

DW: You have held several political positions throughout your career. In what ways did those experiences shape your outlook on politics?

MG: A lot of folks have this idea of politics being this shady practice and political strategists sometimes get a bad name because it’s such a cut-throat business in trying to win. But working in political campaigns, I view as a public service. It’s fighting for a cause, and that cause is a person who embodies ideas and is going to fight for them. So covering candidates and office holders as a journalist is one thing, but working inside campaigns and then working with them and advocating for higher education opportunities showed me that there are a heck of a lot of people in politics that really believe in this stuff too, but they getting sucked down into a system that makes it very difficult for them to maintain their integrity and get things done at the same time. … These people work really hard. They don’t get to see their families. They have to engage in the pride-swallowing activity of sucking up money every day just to be competitive in a race. It’s a really difficult job. … How sad is it that America has this incredibly negative opinion of all these officeholders who really – a great number of them – work really hard to try and do good.

DW: How can leaders at the state and local level take your recommendations from "Unlock Congress" to improve transparency and accountability in their agencies?

MG: I think the way to move this forward is to inform as many people as possible to put pressure on either people who are running for re-election or the challengers in particular, people that are running for election and to have them try to focus a bit on some of these solutions. Not just on the issues we hear about all the time: jobs, healthcare, social security, but on actually reforming some of the rules in the system that will allow them to actually pass public policy on those issues. It’s easy to speak in platitudes for office and say the things your party is saying, but it would be quite something if we motivated some of these candidates to sign onto a pledge and support some of these reforms that are in “Unlock Congress.” Are you for four-year terms? Are you for publicly-financed elections to reform the way money courses through the system? Are you for returning the Senate to majority rule, the way the constitution designed both chambers of Congress?

DW: You are the co-founder of One Million Degrees, a nonprofit program providing financial assistance to low-income community college students. What inspired you to start a program like this?

MG: One Million Degrees, when you break it down, it’s really my heart. It’s what I care about the most in terms of over the last decade of all these opportunities I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in. The reason we started it was the lack of education opportunities we saw across the board, particularly in community college. Sixty-three percent, roughly, of Illinois students go to community college, not four year schools. But traditionally they’ve failed out at a really staggering rate. So we provide them a really comprehensive, a 360 degree model, not just financial assistance but academic advising, mentoring and tutoring. They get this 360 degree support that helps them in work, in school and in life. It prepares them beyond just getting good grades. … It also gives them the confidence and thought skills that will help them become successful in whatever they choose to do once they’re out of school. … This was a way to do something in a private scholarship program where we could raise money to help students and do it at a level where you get to feel the impact of what you’re doing very quickly. You get to know the students – I’ve mentored a couple of them. You get to see their successes, and it’s a fantastic thing. The idea of One Million Degrees is not that it’s a huge, gargantuan goal of a million degrees, but every degree a student achieves has a ripple effect. … It’s wonderful.

DW: You were also involved in the founding of "Complete the Degree." Tell me about that initiative.

MG: Complete the Degree is the sister organization of One Million Degrees … It’s an effort that grew out of the Chicago Workforce Investment Council (CWIC) that Mayor Daley created. It started as this entity that would go out and motivate adults that had started college but not finished to re-enroll. We first try to reach out to get adults motivated to get back into the system and complete their degrees. Then we give them advising to help them navigate the system because many of them haven’t been in higher education in many years. It offers less hard assets than One Million Degrees does, but it does outreach and recruiting to get folks back into college because we know more college degrees will help our overall economy in Chicago.

DW: Are you a Chicago resident?

MG: Yes. I live in the West Loop. I’ve lived in Iowa and California [while] reporting for several years, but [I] moved back home to Chicago 15 years ago.

DW: What do you like most about Chicago?

MG: The Blackhawks, Lou Malnati’s pizza, and playing golf in the summer, on the days when it’s dry.