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What Congress can learn from the writers’ strike

What Congress can learn from the writers’ strike
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Richards is an American television and film writer based in Los Angeles, California. He attended Texas Christian University where he received a B.S. in Radio, Television, & Film and a minor in English.

As a television writer in Hollywood, I know a thing or two about business grinding to a halt. So earlier this month when Congress voted to remove Kevin McCarthy from his post as Speaker of the House, I noticed parallels with my own experience in the 2023 writers’ strike. It’s unnerving that working out deals between sharply opposing interests may be easier in Hollywood than in Washington. But the writers’ strike offers a few lessons for how Congress can get out of the mess it’s in.

Last May after America’s major production studios (known as the AMPTP) failed to meet the demands of the Writers Guild of America – of which I am a proud member – 98% of our union voted to authorize a strike. Writing on TV and film projects across the country froze for nearly five months until the studios and the Guild were finally able to negotiate a new contract for TV and film writers.

Congress didn’t take five months to work out a deal and get back to work, but the process was equally if not more exhausting. Three weeks and many potential candidates deep, the House began to look less like a functioning body, and more like a low-budget reenactment of Lord of the Flies, with many representatives vying for leadership only to be quickly rejected by their own party or by the full House.

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But the fourth time proved to be the charm, as the Republicans finally found the votes to make Rep. Mike Johnson the new Speaker. But now we’re simply back facing all the problems we faced when this mess started. The government funding deadline is approaching quickly. The conflicts in Ukraine, Israel, and Palestine require America to act. Crucial legislation like the farm bill and the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration still face big uphill battles.

And even with a Speaker, Congress has shown a penchant for dysfunction, with shenanigans like this year’s standoff over the debt ceiling and government funding. When Kevin McCarthy was first elected Speaker in January, the process took four days and 15 ballots, and he barely scraped by. Although the House finally chose a Speaker last week, the larger problems that caused this mess remain. Congress is fundamentally broken.

There is a key difference between the gridlock in Congress and the discord that led to the writer’s strike: conflict in Congress is binary, between two political parties at war with each other with a winner-take-all mentality. The entertainment industry – between its many studios, unions, and talent agencies – is multidimensional. There are many varying interests but they often find ways to work together for the good of the industry.

In contrast, Washington’s “us versus them” prevents actual work from being accomplished. Because 90% of representatives are elected in districts that are “safe” for their party, whether through gerrymandering or demographic sorting, there is little incentive for members of Congress to work with the other party. And increasingly, representatives have less incentive to work with people even within their own party.

Much of the trouble in Washington is caused by the broken way America elects Congress. We use winner-take-all elections where every district has just one representative. This is not the case in many other functioning democracies around the world. This single representative, winner-take-all system is why 90% of elections are uncompetitive. It’s also why America has only two parties that are pitted against each other.

Luckily, there is a solution to this mess.

One possible reform, called ranked-choice voting, is used by the Academy Awards to select the Oscar winners every year. In the Oscars it allows voters to rank nominees by order of preference, instead of just picking one candidate. This method allows a less polarizing, consensus winner to be chosen, rather than one that a few loved but the masses hated.

A reform like this would allow voters the option to elect more consensus representatives in the House, which in turn would hopefully lead to more cross party compromise and less demonizing of the other side.

A second reform, called Proportional Representation (PR), would allow multiple representatives to be elected in each district, in proportion to their amount of support.

So instead of one representative receiving 51% of the vote and winning 100% of that single seat, multiple candidates would compete for multiple seats. 40% of the vote would mean that a party gets about 40% of the seats, 60% of the vote would mean 60% of the seats, and so on.

With PR, not only could Democrats and Republicans compete for multiple votes, but third parties and independents could also compete without risk of “stealing” votes from the major party candidates. Having more than two parties in Congress could be beneficial as it would allow House members more groups to make deals and reach a consensus with – just like deals are made in Hollywood every single day.

That’s exactly what America needs right now – a voting system that encourages cooperation and compromise, not partisan warfare. That’s why, on top of being a television writer, I’m also proud to serve on the advisory board for Fix Our House, an organization advocating for proportional representation in U.S. House elections. Reaching this point will take time – but it’s crucial that we start having this conversation now, on Capitol Hill and around the country.

The stakes in Congress are high – much higher than the conflict that led to the writer’s strike. Congress limped its way towards choosing a Speaker. In the long run, it needs to come together and implement reforms that reduce partisanship and repair some long-standing issues in the House once and for all.

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