Brinkmanship and crises aren’t random accidents in our democracy – they are inevitable outcomes of an electoral system that incentivizes and rewards them.
Single-member congressional districts make performative conflict easy and responsible compromise difficult, motivating each party to treat the debt limit breach as a weapon to use against the other, not as a crisis to be avoided.
WASHINGTON, DC – Today Fix Our House released a new report on the broken incentive structure behind Congress’s inability to promptly and responsibly address the debt limit crisis.
Debt Limit Chicken: Why Washington Plays Games with Disaster analyzes how with 9 out of 10 members of Congress coming from uncompetitive districts, few members have an electoral incentive to seek compromise with the other party.
The average margin of victory in the 2022 congressional elections was a blowout for both Democrats (27.7 points) and Republicans (30.2). Of the House majority’s five powerful caucuses – the “Five Families” – only the Problem Solvers Caucus Republicans have a significant number (about one third) of their members come from competitive districts.
“In uncompetitive districts, the potential to be primaried is a much greater concern than a general election challenge,” said Fix Our House Co-Founder Lee Drutman. “That motivates representatives to focus on pleasing their voting base and disincentivizes compromise for fear of appearing too weak on ‘the enemy.’ This problem is unique to America’s outmoded system of single-member districts, and it’s only getting worse as urban-rural polarization makes it even harder to draw competitive districts.”
Moving to multi-member districts with proportional representation – permitted under Article I, Section IV of the Constitution – would make all elections competitive and would incentivize representatives to appeal to voters in both parties, in turn motivating compromise around key issues like the debt limit and budget.
As the report concludes, “It may be tempting to blame individual members or to debate the merits of differing fiscal policies, but this debt limit crisis is a predictable result of our fundamentally flawed electoral system – one that rewards toxic partisanship and punishes compromise. . . If we want to address this systemic problem, we need to look at systemic solutions. Otherwise, we’ll find our representatives playing debt limit chicken again and again – and eventually, they might run into each other.”