Nearly 250 years since our nation’s founding, America once again needs independence from despotism. Not from some far-off king, as in 1776. No, today’s royalty is our very own Congress.

Election to that body has become nearly a de facto lifetime appointment. In the past 25 years, not a single election saw fewer than 80 percent of incumbent candidates winning re-election despite Congress, as a whole, often failing to gain the approval of much more than 10 percent of the public. In 2014, the re-election rate — in both houses of Congress — hit a possibly record 95 percent!

But should we be surprised? Because members of Congress are elected by district or state, none are accountable to the nation as a whole. Why should they address the nation’s problems if their jobs are not dependent on it?

America’s local governments fixed this problem long ago by inventing the at-large seat, elected by all citizens of the city or town. Today, a majority of America’s city or town councils include such seats. Would creating at-large members of Congress increase accountability to the American people? Probably, but with the number of at-large seats needed to make a difference, and the number of national races required, this approach may be impractical.

Instead, what if we made the entire Congress — as a whole — subject to an at-large vote, as a prerequisite for running for re-election?

This up-or-down vote on Congress would occur before the end of each two-year congressional term. If Congress failed to get a “passing grade” — 50 percent support — then all members of the House, and the one-third of the Senate with expiring terms, would be ineligible to run for re-election.

This seemingly radical approach actually just builds on our existing system. We already make candidates earn their place on the ballot through primary elections. This new vote on Congress would simply make the primaries a two-step process: first a vote on the Congress as a whole, then the traditional primaries among eligible candidates.

This electoral reform would also act as a form of term limit. Not, however, based on an arbitrary number of years. Instead, this would be a “performance-based” term limit. Not individual performance — that’s what the general elections are for — but performance of the Congress as a whole.

Think about it: Would a company with a 10 percent customer satisfaction rate remain in business? Of course not. Well, government should be no different. No matter how skilled the members of Congress might be at winning elections, if they are unable or unwilling to achieve results, they’re the wrong people for the job.

Let me be clear: “Throwing the bums out” is not the goal. The goal is to force members of Congress to address the nation’s challenges. What better way to do so than making their jobs dependent on it?

These are smart people — they wouldn’t have gotten where they are otherwise — and they will do everything they can to produce the results needed to win at least 50 percent support in these “performance-based” primary elections.

Democracy should not be static. Reforming our electoral processes, at various levels of government, has a long American history. At-large seats, primary elections, term limits, citizen referendums and recall elections are examples of ways our democracy has evolved since the nation’s founding.

Like past electoral reforms at the federal level — such as direct election of senators and term limits for the president — adopting performance-based term limits for Congress would likely require a constitutional amendment. No mean feat, but there are intermediate steps to take us toward that end.

Individual congressional candidates could lead the way by voluntarily pledging to step down within a certain period of time if Congress cannot achieve a 50 percent approval rating in public opinion polls.

Members of Congress have taken similar pledges before. In the 2010 elections, dozens of freshman representatives and senators pledged to self-imposed term limits. Others have pledged to step down if Congress cannot achieve goals, such as balancing the federal budget, within a certain time.

States and local governments, America’s “laboratories of democracy,” could adopt performance-based term limits for their state legislatures or municipal councils. Among the 50 states and nearly 20,000 local municipalities in the U.S., surely some are ready for this experiment in accountability.

It all comes down to this: Under our current electoral system, congressional failure to produce results has few political consequences. Introducing this performance-based vote would change that. It is a reform worth trying.

Jeff Edelstein is a Portland-based public policy mediator and author of the forthcoming book, “From Oath to Action: Restoring American Democracy, One Politician at a Time.”

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