Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

D.C. crisis could jump-start the case for reform

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 8:54 AM EDT, Mon October 7, 2013
The Statue of Liberty looms over visitors below on Liberty Island in New York Harbor on Sunday, October 13. The statue was closed to the public by the federal government's partial shutdown that began October 1, but reopened Sunday after the state of New York agreed to shoulder the costs of running the site during the shutdown. Many government services and agencies remain completely or partially closed. The Statue of Liberty looms over visitors below on Liberty Island in New York Harbor on Sunday, October 13. The statue was closed to the public by the federal government's partial shutdown that began October 1, but reopened Sunday after the state of New York agreed to shoulder the costs of running the site during the shutdown. Many government services and agencies remain completely or partially closed.
HIDE CAPTION
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: 2014 campaign could provide unusual opportunity for congressional reformers
  • He says Americans are fed up with the partisan battle in Washington and would welcome change
  • Sen. Ted Cruz is providing an example of how obstructionism gains support from party base, he says
  • Zelizer: Some modest reforms could make Congress more productive

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- It is rare when politicians decide to make government reform the centerpiece of their campaigns. Although Americans always complain about government, polls show that most voters care most about "bread and butter" issues when they make decisions about who their leaders should be.

2014 might be different. The partial government shutdown is just one more example in an ongoing series of political meltdowns that has left the country extraordinarily frustrated with Washington, and with Republicans in particular. On the second day of the shutdown, polls showed that congressional approval ratings had fallen to an abysmal 10%.

As a result of what has taken place in the past few years, there is a genuine opportunity for a marriage between partisan interests and government reform in the 2014 midterm elections. Democrats will have an opportunity to develop a successful campaign around government reform, returning to issues that President Barack Obama campaigned on in 2008 but has generally neglected ever since.

Many Republicans, equally frustrated with their tea party counterparts, might echo similar themes so as to not be outdone by their competitors.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

If Democrats are able to take control of Congress and create a united government for two more years, they would give Obama an opportunity to make progress on these issues before his term ends.

Budget reform must be at the center of the message. The budget process has become a total mess. Congress is unable to reach basic agreements about spending and the existing process offers legislators too many opportunities to wreak havoc in their effort to extract concessions from opponents.

There are many proposals for reform that have been floated. Eliminating the debt ceiling is one possibility, so that debates about spending cannot turn into threats to the global economy.

Another proposal is to move toward biennial budgeting to facilitate long-term planning and reduce the number of annual skirmishes that take place over funding.

Cruz: Obamacare is hurting millions
Shutdown drags on, debt ceiling looms
Panetta: Shutdown a 'tragic moment'

Centralizing and reorganizing the process could produce fewer points of conflict, while some experts, such as William Galston have proposed tying congressional pay to on-time appropriations decisions.

Campaign finance reform must be tackled. When Senator Ted Cruz delivered his long speech before the government shutdown began, he knew exactly what he was doing. His dramatic actions have been targeted toward issue-based interest groups that feed the coffers of legislators. This is but one aspect of a campaign finance process where the barriers toward injecting private money into elections have almost completely broken down.

The Supreme Court is currently considering a major case that threatens to undercut the limitations that exist on individual donors. But whatever the court does, Congress could pass legislation placing tighter constraints on contributions in the wake of the Citizens United decision, providing some form of public funding, and restricting the kinds of activities that third party organizations can engage.

These would help to lessen the pressure that members of both parties feel to please the donors during budget battles and enable them to focus more attention on the challenges of governing the nation.

The filibuster is another long acknowledged procedural problem which creates a difficult system in the Senate where a supermajority of 60 votes is needed to pass legislation.

Although the heart of the current budget stalemate has to do with the House Republicans, the supermajority requirement in the Senate has become a huge source of obstruction in recent years. As with budget reform, there have been many proposals to overhaul the filibuster, including lowering the number of senators needed to end a filibuster or prohibiting certain kinds of stalling tactics that do not technically amount to a filibuster.

The filibuster is not enshrined in the Constitution and has been reformed before, including in 1975 when the Senate lowered the number of senators needed to end debate from 2/3rd to 3/5th of the chamber.

The convergence of midterm elections and reform can have a powerful effect. In 1974, the newly elected "Watergate Babies" campaigned on the theme of government reform in the shadow of the scandal and many of the issues they tackled -- such as campaign finance reform, openness in government, ethics rules, and mor -- became enshrined in the law.

There is an opportunity for this to happen again. Although the current budget standoff is not a scandal akin to Watergate, the levels of public frustration are extremely high. Moreover, the consequences could be severe. If there is another shock to the global economy as a result of the debt ceiling debate, as we saw in 2011, the public's view of the urgency of changing the legislative process will greatly increase.

The issues could help Democrats regain their majority, and at the same time might create the right conditions for Congress to pass reforms in 2015 and 2016.

Enough moderate Republicans are clearly frustrated that they might join, making this a bipartisan effort, and one that changes the basic rules of the game for both parties going into the next presidential administration.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT