The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

US Capitol
As the US Capitol's dome undergoes renovations, some argue a renovation in representation there could improve the state of space policy, among other areas. (credit: Architect of the Capitol)

Untangling the knot: fix Congress, pioneer space

Bookmark and Share

Opening up the frontier of space is a bold and exciting prospect. Yet, without denigrating America’s outstanding civil space program, the “system” is hardly tapping our nation’s collective potential. We all know that we can be achieving much more in space and doing so on faster timescales. Political impediments, including the new entrant of mounting polarization, continue to hamper potential progress. Decent people are operating within a flawed system. What could America accomplish in space if it aligned its program closer to national popular interest, while subjugating partisan and narrowly defined interests, including geography and campaign contributions?

We all know that we can be achieving much more in space and doing so on faster timescales. Political impediments, including the new entrant of mounting polarization, continue to hamper potential progress.

Designed to represent the American people in all their diversity of opinion and interests, Congress should be a key forum for working through complex national issues. But it is broken, with single-digit approval ratings as an institution. In an increasingly connected world, America’s voting structures comprise part of the embedded “wiring” of our nation and society. Just as last-mile connectivity has evolved from dial-up to DSL, satellite, cable, and fiber, America has come a long way since its 18th century agrarian roots. A hidden culprit in our nation’s political wiring is our antiquated, winner-take-all, single-member district voting structure that inadvertently emphasizes where you live rather than what you think. The unintended consequences of this structure are influencing America’s collective behavior more than ever and deserve to be better understood.

Our nation’s founding principles are sound. America’s founding idea, as articulated in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, remains powerfully elegant and universal. And the core notion of separation of powers among three branches of government ingrained in the Constitution benefits from millennia of critical thought and lessons learned. Importantly, the Constitution prominently features a representative assembly providing for popular consent of the governed.

This last point is crucial. Americans fought the Revolutionary War over taxation without representation. The Founders seized on an unprecedented, blank slate opportunity to establish self-government. With steely-eyed foresight forged by that war, they conspicuously embedded popular representation from the outset. Founder and future President John Adams wrote that the Congress “should be in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them [in] equal representation.” Yet, this ideal is far from realized. In fact, a recent Princeton study concludes that Congress is now effectively unresponsive to the preferences of average American citizens. Such status is troubling, especially given the independent nature of so many Americans.

A lion’s share of attention goes to the usual suspects of campaign money, political parties, the media, politicians, and gerrymandering. But better illumination of the problem comes by viewing these factors as symptoms. Accurately conveying voter intent is first a structural matter. A major culprit is our winner-take-all, single-member, geographic legislative districts.

Voting structure as a hidden culprit

Winner-take-all, single-member districts are leading to systemic—and highly predictable—partisan bias in each district. This bias has become so predictable that non-partisan think tank can project two years ahead to the November 2016 House elections and confidently forecast that 373 incumbents will win out of the total 435 House races should they seek re-election. That works out to 86% non-competitive elections using a methodology that has missed just one of its last 700 projections. Even a district with a modest tilt towards one party—53 percent to 47 percent, for example—is nearly impossible for the minority party to win.

The American center has effectively ceased to be represented in Congress. The aggregate of winner-take-all effects translate into large swaths of voters being simply left out.

Meanwhile, winner-take-all also leaves conservatives stranded in liberal districts and progressives stranded in conservative districts. Large swaths of the electorate with a mix of conservative and progressive views are excluded altogether from the legislative process. Even if district boundaries were chosen without partisan bias, a mere 51 percent of the vote garners 100 percent of the representation. The other 49 percent of the people in that district are not represented at all.

Population migration across the past few decades has re-colored the nation into blue urban districts and red rural districts, introducing a structural bias favoring Republicans even if up through 55% of the popular vote goes to Democrats. For the party in a district whose general election victory is all but a foregone conclusion, primary elections increasingly favor extreme candidates whose voters are more likely to turn out than moderates. With primary turnout declining to all-time lows in most states in 2014, it leaves this key power to our most partisan voters. Once in office, representatives feel loyalty pressure to vote along party lines, as the winner-take-all dynamic plays out even further. Consequently, these basic structural attributes happen to be conferring outsized power onto the far right.

This new dynamic played out in spectacular form with the government shutdown of October 2013. A remarkably similar state of play mortally endangers the US Export-Import Bank. Will Congress permit the 81-year old Ex-Im Bank’s authorization to lapse at the end of this month? In a twist of plot, our antiquated winner-take-all voting system may end up as the root cause.

The American center has effectively ceased to be represented in Congress. The aggregate of winner-take-all effects translate into large swaths of voters being simply left out. What remains is a dangerous, zero-sum contest between party extremes. The implication is stunning. Most voters are structurally blocked from representation. It is no wonder that campaign money, political parties, and geographical considerations fill the vacuum.

Vote based on what you think rather than where you live

A fair and elegant solution addresses the structural flaw through the creation of multi-member “super districts” assembled from, say, three to five adjacent single-member districts. A recent Washington Post editorial, “Blending red and blue,” concurs. With multi-member districts, the contentious issue of geographical district boundaries simply goes away because the district boundaries themselves go away.

A further structural refinement called Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) enables voters to elect their super district representatives as a group by ranking them in order of preference. RCV gets rid of the need to resort to strategic voting to game the two-party system and expands the power of voters elect a representative. With RCV voters simply vote their true preferences, thereby eliminating any fear of “spoiling” or vote splitting among similar candidates that may undesirably benefit a dissimilar candidate. Every vote counts, and voters are no longer constrained by where they live but are free to engage by how they think. FairVote has created an excellent infographic and website that help explain multi-member districts and RCV.

Many city governments in the United States, including Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Oakland, have already successfully implemented RCV. Meanwhile, Maine will hold a referendum next year to adopt RCV for all congressional and state elections.

Today Americans incur an opportunity cost due to gridlock that transcends civil space, affecting just about every issue now contributing to societal tension.

Multi-member districts and RCV find broad support among both progressives and conservatives. See, for example the recent article by self-identified conservative and National Review writer Reihan Salam, “The Biggest Problem in American Politics: Forget gerrymandering. Here’s what we need to fix to ensure truly fair elections.” And the recent op-ed by self-identified progressive Katrina vanden Heuvel of the Nation magazine, “We Need a Fairer System for Choosing House Members.”

The United States would be one of the last great democracies in the world to retire single-member districts, which structurally tend toward a two-party system. Fair representation voting, also known as proportional representation, permits any number of parties or coalitions. However, unlike other democracies based on proportional representation, U.S. representatives under RCV wouldn’t need to caucus the same way on every vote or issue—an important feature given the U.S. system of separated government checks and balances that rewards compromise.

Fair representation eliminates incumbent advantage. Fair representation also offers other important benefits, including disincentivizing negative campaigning and incivility. America also suffers from vast underrepresentation of women in legislatures. Multi-member districts have been shown to be a major driver towards achieving gender parity while also resolving the current debate involving the Voting Rights Act over how best to represent racial minorities within winner-take-all elections.

In 1967 Congress enacted an obscure, one-paragraph mandate requiring that states use single-member districts, ending a long history of states often using multi-winner congressional districts. Overturning this mandate would delegate federal power to the states. It would enable states to experiment with multi-member districts. More ambitiously, Congress has the power to require all states to employ fair representation systems—and avoid partisans keeping winner-take-all rules in order to get an advantage over states using fair representation systems.

In contrast with reform proposals that would regulate campaign speech through a Constitutional amendment, voting system structural reform reduces the demand for money by striking at the underlying root cause: blocked representation. It also requires only a statute for implementation. (The same is true of the National Popular Vote, the presidential fair representation structural reform.)

Time for an operating system update?

Today Americans incur an opportunity cost due to gridlock that transcends civil space, affecting just about every issue now contributing to societal tension. The nation is deeply polarized, exacerbated by rising economic inequality. Obviously, fair representation is not a “silver bullet” and will not produce legislation around issue areas of disagreement. But it would open up open-ended new opportunities for bridge builders and entrepreneurs to explore win-win solutions whose benefit can grow over time. It would also re-engage the less ideological voters in the American center who are currently left out of the system.

What would civil space look like under fair representation? Under fair representation, national interest would be the primary driver. Fair representation enhances legislative competition, which would tend to discount geographical, partisan, and campaign finance interests, and more accurately respond to national coalitions and national popular interest.

The following table contrasts the Apollo era and present day civil space operating circumstances, assuming a functional Congress:

Program Parameter Apollo Present Day
Existential Threat Context Yes No
Political Motivations Defense Portfolio
Scope Specified Open-ended
Schedule Specified Negotiable
Budget Secondary Consideration Negotiable
Leadership Centralized Distributed
Entrepreneurial Partnership No Yes
International Collaboration Secondary Consideration As appropriate
Lead Government Branch (?) Executive Legislative

Unlike the one-off sprint to the Moon that was Apollo, present-day circumstances suggest a sustained, long-term, expansive, “all of the above” destinations scope for civil space, whose top-level variables in broad-brush terms are essentially the program schedule and annual budget.

What is different is that under fair representation, the government is better equipped to adopt a national, long-term plan—a living plan—dominated by a largely stable, non-partisan component whose horizon significantly exceeds election cycles.

Under fair representation, the healthy way forward is for space leaders inside and outside of government to organize the coalition and sell the vision directly to the American people. Fair representation also fosters entrepreneurship and is wholly compatible with policies encouraging public-private partnership and international cooperation.

The government is already configured to support civil space under fair representation. Congress enacts the top-level scope and budget, and the president administers and executes the program. What is different is that under fair representation, the government is better equipped to adopt a national, long-term plan—a living plan—dominated by a largely stable, non-partisan component whose horizon significantly exceeds election cycles. Fair representation would help the plan more smoothly adapt to and track evolving circumstances. Elections would then become an opportunity to fine-tune the plan, not radically revise it.

Importantly, fair representation offers a broadly inclusive means by which to build the national coalition. A portfolio of national interest areas touches on or overlaps with civil space, including space and Earth science, technology, human exploration and expansion of permanent human presence, education, commerce, small business, infrastructure, jobs, international influence and leadership, and national security. Not everybody will agree on every item. Nevertheless, the list is long, broad, and wholly consistent with making alliances and achieving a sustainable majority. Again, with fair representation, lawmakers need not caucus with their party on every vote. They may be bitter rivals on other issues, but assembling a national civil space position and plan building on their portfolio items would be readily doable.

Managing transitions: space policy and politics

Fair representation presents a new path to increased civil space funding and a faster-paced program to engage public interest. A key outcome for civil space policy would be to retire debate over priority of destinations in favor of pursuing multiple, coordinated pathways in parallel. Meanwhile, the government is dependent on contractor launch solutions, in part legislated by Congress. The National Space Transportation Policy falls short of calling for transition to reliance on a healthy, competitive US commercial space transportation industry that could save taxpayer money. Fair representation would reduce the inclination of Congress to resist a commercial approach. But managing transitions can also be challenging in their own right. Could fair representation also enable new space policy options and help the civil space community manage complex transitions?

Suppose we were to dip through a wormhole into an alternate universe and bear witness to fair representation America under multi-member districts and RCV. We encounter the same good people, the time is present day except as noted, and the institutions are similar. Fair representation offers a means by which Americans negotiate trade-offs, alleviate societal tension, and reclaim self-government. What seems to be their outlook? Many appear to exhibit diminished apprehension supplanted by newfound curiosity regarding the future.

The civil space coalition under fair representation (aided by social media) asserts actionable political power. Votes for civil space are no longer blocked structurally. Civil space garners a broader funding base because its nationwide supporters prioritize civil space political candidates, ranking them higher than candidates who generally oppose government spending.

Another key attribute of self-government is a separate, crosscutting taxpayer oversight and accountability coalition, with broader membership than fiscal conservatives alone, interested in identifying and eliminating inefficiency. Tension among these voter group representatives imbues self-government with reduced inertia and new responsiveness. As the civil space plan progresses, the community makes new scientific discoveries, invents new technologies, discovers new destinations, conceives new missions, introduces innovative new private and international alliance proposals, and identifies new cost-cutting means. Self-government is subject to healthy new pressure to make timely and thoughtful decisions to manage its risks and opportunities.

Mastery of fair representation improves over time. Multi-member districts merge further (and more geographical district lines dissolve) until legislatures are elected entirely at large via RCV. There is no intrinsic limit to the specificity with which a self-defined minority coalition can form alliances and assert itself.

This accountability and specificity empowers self-government with new legitimacy to operate competently in the national interest with private entities. The defense and space sector offers a sample challenge, where the expense of maintaining industrial base for two or more contractors to create competition on very large programs tends to be prohibitive. Unfortunately, containing expenses of a sole supplier on a long-term, cost-type contract can also be challenging.

Given that the nation’s treasure finances all of these expenses, a drive towards improved self-government should, in general, lead to more thoughtful public-private transition plans, options, and outcomes.

Today’s National Space Transportation Policy supports “public-private partnerships and other innovative acquisition approaches that promote affordability, industry planning, and competitive capabilities, infrastructure, and workforce.” Meanwhile, in response to the recent financial crisis, the October 2008 Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) established an unprecedented $700-billion fund used to take equity stakes in major US banks, auto companies, and a key insurance company. According to the US Treasury, TARP helped stabilize America’s banking system, prevented the collapse of the American auto industry, and circumvented failure that would have had a devastating impact on our financial system and the economy.

What if such an approach were applied not in a crisis situation, but as a new policy option? Not unlike private equity restructuring, could self-government acquire an asset, restructure it, and then privatize the result, all to accomplish a specific strategic objective at lowest cost? Such a management option would need to be used sparingly and with an “exit strategy” to re-privatize the asset at the earliest time.

The example of national security space launch commencing about a decade ago presents a hypothetical case study. Rather than granting antitrust clearance to the sole-source national security space launch supplier, what if fair representation-based government had brought the assets into public custody with a plan to:

  1. assure US government access to space, wherein the government is directly responsible for risk management, affordability, and transparency; and
  2. restructure and migrate the government assets to private ownership at the earliest possible time so as to encourage and facilitate the US commercial space transportation industry to increase industry robustness and cost effectiveness, foster innovation-driven entrepreneurship and international competitiveness, and benefit the US economy.

In addition to realizing significant cost savings over the previous decade, the approach would have retained a full suite of options to address today’s dependence on the Russian RD-180 engine along the path to step 2. To simplify matters, the government would own the launch vehicle design and production rights and other intellectual property. Government options would include but not be limited to (1) form, fit, and function engine-only replacement, (2) a new commercial offering built around the same vehicle design and a form, fit, and function engine replacement, and (3) a new commercial offering built around a vehicle/engine new design.

Another hypothetical opportunity regards the space transportation industrial base associated with the Space Shuttle upon its retirement. Without partisan, geographical, or pecuniary influence or institutional inertia (while considering the health of the US space transportation industrial base in accordance with existing policy), could a subset or superset of these assets be transitioned to any better purpose or in any better way than they are now?

Obviously, comparing hypothetical circumstances against a new framework is speculative. But given that the nation’s treasure finances all of these expenses, a drive towards improved self-government should, in general, lead to more thoughtful public-private transition plans, options, and outcomes.

Meanwhile, checking in on fair representation America in the alternate universe, its accelerated and vigorous civil space program has led to thriving settlements earlier than expected. Fully engaged are private and international partners, including an old friend, the UK. This time, no vestiges of taxation without representation are to be found.

Humanity’s values matter

Framing America as exceptional because it is a free nation based on personal liberty and democratic ideals is not just lofty rhetoric. If there is anything America’s pioneering history—including its Civil War—has taught us, it is that these core values are the source of America’s ultimate strength in times of both hope and fear. Interestingly, these core values don’t depend on where humanity happens to reside. The same is true for voting in America. What matters is what you think, not necessarily where you live.

America faces a crossroads regarding its dysfunctional Congress. Will we continue to tolerate our escalating polarization and gridlock, or can Americans reclaim ownership of the very institution that the Founders established for popular representation? Meanwhile, America’s civil space program comprises the part of government with license to realize the longest-range vision of all. As an emissary of humanity beyond Earth, what values shall America convey? We have always been limited only by our collective imagination. To update Benjamin Franklin’s musing as the Constitution was signed, is fair representation a setting star or a rising star?