Congress Is Making a Case for a National Referendum

Joe Mathews

Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)


A major tax bill is now going forward in Congress, but it is not really being studied or debated, as you might expect if the United States were the democracy it claims to be.

There are no hearings on the bill. No testimony from experts. Just a lot of drafting and maneuvering behind the scenes.

This isn’t unusual. The Republican attempts to change Obamacare work the same way. So do other major legislative initiatives.

This doesn’t work. Democracy and representation require deliberation in public. IF Congress isn’t going to provide it, then there isn’t much point in having a Congress.

It also means that the people have to step in and provide that deliberation.

And the best way for the people to do that is to establish a national referendum.

I’m surprised to find myself writing that the U.S. needs a national referendum process. I’m deeply skeptical of the way direct democracy is practiced in California and many of the American states that have it. While initiative, referendum and other participatory tools can be powerful, they also can be misused.

But what recent years have shown is just how undemocratic the U.S. is at the federal level. Yes, we’re a rich tapestry of state and local democracy, but our national government is anti-democratic and unrepresentative in a host of ways. And while Americans can freely debate what it does, they don’t have much impact on democratic outcomes.

The American government thus requires democratization, and that can begin with a national referendum. Through the gathering of signatures by citizens or votes of a certain number of state legislatures, national laws should be put to national votes. This would re-introduce real deliberation into national lawmaking—both by giving the people a forum to decide, and by putting pressure on Congress to return to real legislative processes that include deliberation.

This is new territory for the U.S. We don’t really have national elections. We vote state by state even for president. But that state by state approach adds to our frustration, and gives us, for example, a racist sociopath of a president who actually lost the popular vote.

America needs democratization. Let’s start with the national referendum.

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