Radical Reform in Running Congress

Approval Voting on Legislation Could Promote Consensus        Steven J. Brams

        The decidedly spotty record of the 103rd Congress in 1993-1994 raises once again the question of whether anything can be done to save Congress -- wallowing in its lowest ratings ever -- from itself. I believe a straightforward, if radical, reform of its voting procedures, especially in the Senate, would promote bipartisan consensus and attenuate the bickering and rancor pervading Congress today.
        The idea is simple. Instead of voting on bills one at a time, Congress would consider several bills on a particular subject -- health care, for example. Legislators would be able to indicate all the bills they considered acceptable -- including the status quo option to do nothing -- rather than being limited to vote for just the one they liked best.
        This method of voting is known as "approval voting." It does not assume that a particular quota, such as a simple majority of 51 votes in the Senate or 218 votes in the House, is needed to enact legislation. Rather, the bill garnering the most approval would win and become law -- or the law would stay the same if the status quo gained the most approval.
        One immediate objection to this idea is that legislation could pass with minimal support -- say, 30 votes in the Senate -- if all other bills got still fewer votes. To prevent passage of such fringe legislation, I therefore recommend that, in order to be voted on in the approval voting contest, all proposed bills would need either the support of more than one-third of the members of a congressional committee or more than one-third of all House or Senate members as sponsors.
        Experience with approval voting in single-seat elections with several candidates suggests that the winning alternative would probably garner more than a simple majority. In fact, several alternatives might do so, in which case a bill with, say, 60% approval would beat one with 55% approval.
        Amendments may or may not be permitted on the floor of each chamber. (In the House, they are not allowed if a so-called closed rule is in effect.)
But if amendments are permitted, the amended bills would simply be a new one to be considered, in addition to the unamended bills, when approval voting is used to vote on the entire set of bills.
        Thereby "killer amendments" could not be used to scuttle bills, which might otherwise have won had they not been amended. I would also recommend elimination of filibusters in the Senate, which now require 3/5 of the members to shut off.
        The legislators who filibuster should not be dismayed. In lieu of trying to prevent consideration of a bill, they can propose their own alternative. A healthy contest among competitive alternatives will thereby be fostered.
        To summarize, I propose that a bill could reach the floor of the House or Senate through more than one-third support in a committee or by the sponsorship of more than one-third of the entire membership. If amendments are permitted, unamended bills would still remain on the table, also to be voted on in the approval vote.

Addressing Real Problems

        Although the idea of less-than-a-majority's proposing, and possibly enacting, legislation may seem strange, an analogous system for the consideration of cases is used in the U.S. Supreme Court, where the support of only four of nine justices is required to grant a case review. Although a simple majority of justices is needed to render a decision, deciding a case is very different from putting together complex legislation in Congress, in which several reasonable packages may vie for support.
        This was indeed the case with health care legislation in the last Congress, but never were the several proposals considered together. Even if they had been, it is conceivable that the status quo might still have been the most approved alternative.
        But among, perhaps, ten or twenty packages that might have been proposed -- all "reasonable" in the sense that each would already have had substantial support -- I believe at least one probably would have defeated the status quo. It is a shame that congressional procedures possibly blocked such a consensus choice.

        Steven Brams is professor of politics at New York University and author of Theory of Moves (Cambridge University Press, 1994) and co-author of Approval Voting (Birkhauser, 1983).

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Chapter Six