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Congressional Reform That Rocks The House.....& The Senate

 

Background

The US Congress remains among the world's pre-eminent deliberative bodies, comprised of many great leaders. However, in recent years, resentment against Congress, and politicians in general, has steadily increased. The discontent is bipartisan, and is regularly reflected in opinion polls with dismal approval ratings. The very vocal disaffection contributed to the broad sentiment in many states in favor of term limits and aggressive campaign finance reform, and to the rise of the Tea Party and Occupy movements.

Despite the presence of many dedicated, principled, great leaders in our government, dissatisfaction with government institutions has grown among many portions of the electorate, stemming from various impressions and factors, including:

  • The influence of powerful lobbyists, to the detriment of the less-influential, less-monied majority of Americans, as embodied in the Abramoff scandal;
  • Congressional votes in which Members award themselves pay raises, even while refusing cost-of-living increases and cutting funds for programs which benefit the neediest Americans, under the rationale of fiscal discipline;
  • Press attention that disproportionately focuses on the legislators who abuse the system, rather than those who embody great statesmanship;


  • The commonly-held perception that some (though certainly not most) Members of Congress have the re-election of its members as its first priority, as exemplified by the cover-up of the Mark Foley scandal;

  • The common perception that some members of both parties are out of touch with the people they were elected to represent, and are more focused on their status and prize constituents (e.g., campaign contributors) than their duties as public servants, as was typified by the Duke Cunningham and Bill Jefferson scandals;


  • Public records which document that many seats were bought and retained with the candidate's own wealth;

  • The sole accountability of each Member to the voters of their district (who are often politically homogenous, which encourages extremism where primary elections matter more than the general), or, often, to power brokers who enable them to secure their hold on the district;
  • The historical exemption of Congress from many of the fair labor, equal employment, and workplace safety laws which it passed for the rest of the country; and

  • The feeling of many private citizens that they are voiceless, with their role being limited to writing letters and emails which may or may not be read by their Representatives.

It is disturbing that the image of Congress could be tarnished by the improprieties of a highly visible, yet small, minority of its Members. But, when a problem is more than an isolated occurrence, the entire Congress feels the impact.

Yet, many Members have, for years, actively and vocally condemned the improprieties, abuses, and temptations posed by lobbyists and other power brokers, i.e., not just when it becomes politically expedient to do so. Many generously share their time, efforts, and concern with less advantaged constituents, working hard to counterbalance the influence of others.

In fact, many Members, both past and present, have been absolutely inspiring. Some of them so adroitly combine intelligence, wisdom, integrity, and oratorical brilliance that it conjures visions of what Jefferson, Madison, Clay, and Webster must have been like. Some of these leaders want to rein in Congress not just for political advantage, but for the sake of the institution itself and the good of the country as a whole. This has created a tension between Members, as some resist any reforms, and do not welcome regulations that too severely restrict their activities.

The movement for serious campaign finance reform has taken root in recent years, starting with the McCain-Feingold legislation, and continues to garner public and legislative attention. Principally as a result of the Abramoff scandal, Congressional reform returned to the fore in 2006, and legislation was passed in 2007 in the form of limitations on earmarks, gifts from lobbyists, and travel and recreation paid by interest groups, as well as enhanced disclosure of fundraising activities. However, these measures do not go far enough in the effort to address systemic problems posed by institutionalized opportunities for abuse.

There are other Solutions that could have a much more meaningful impact and help restore the public's faith in the system.

Ideas / Solutions

Solutions must be bipartisan in nature, as they would apply equally to people of all parties, and they would benefit Americans of all parties. But that still doesn’t mean that they would be eagerly embraced by elected officials, since the reforms would change the way they do business, and inertia is likely. Reform of Congress would require grass roots bipartisanship as the driver for change.

One approach that would help level the playing field between incumbents and challengers would be to redefine campaign expenses so as to include election-year Congressional mailings, and other Congressional resources, as campaign expenses. Doing so would place a partial firewall between public resources and campaign resources, negate some of the advantage of incumbency, and give challengers a bit more of a chance.

                             The Bipartisan Bridge

A second, and more substantial, reform would be a prohibition on members of the House and Senate from discussing legislative or other policy issues with lobbyists who provide campaign contributions. Lobbyists should no longer be able to deliver a check one day, and deliver proposed tax, regulatory, or appropriations language the next day. It is at this nexus of money and policy, or campaign fundraising and legislation, where most cases of abuse occur, sometimes subtly and other times overtly. Prohibiting surreptitious earmarks in the appropriations process is an attempt to address this, but it does not go far enough. Only by severing this connection can the institutions be safeguarded from the dynamics that continually lead to problems. Such a proposal is likely to generate strong resistance from elected officials who have come to depend on this system. But advocacy for a flawed system that invites abuse is a tough sale, especially when there are alternatives.

Reform would carry a price tag, as there would have to be another way to allow all elements of society to express their views on governmental matters, to protect Constitutional rights to do so. The replacement for interest groups communicating their views through lobbyists would be the creation and operation of Congressional Interest Group Offices (CIGOs). The CIGOs could be designed to address major issue areas, or each Congressional committee could have its own dedicated CIGO. The CIGOs would be non-partisan and would be the offices that lobbyists could contact whenever they would like to put forth facts, requests, and views. A rigorous system would need to be developed to ensure that analysts were hired on the basis of their balanced, fair analytical abilities and not based on political connections. Private citizens who are not lobbyists could still meet directly with their own representatives, especially back in their districts.

The CIGO would generate briefing materials for each major issue coming up for a vote in committee or on the floor, but could also be directed to look into additional issues at the request of any legislator. Although this could be fairly pricey, it would be well worth the expense to ensure that Members receive objective, low-pressure information without the foul play or undue influence of lobbyists who argue for their clients irrespective of the public interest. In addition to severing the link between lobbying, fundraising, and voting behavior, the CIGO system could also ensure that Members would hear more than one side of every issue, which often does not happen today. If no other CIGO were assigned to cover the debate on a given bill, a CIGO designated as the Office of the Underrepresented would do so in addition to other issues within its scope. 

             

A third, more complex, contentious, and even radical innovation would be to set up tighter checks and balances for one of Congress's two chambers. One scenario, offered just as a theoretical example to explore the issue of comprehensive reform, would be for term limits to apply to House members and for their elections to be on a non-partisan basis, without political party affiliations. In exchange, House races could be publicly financed, along with spending limits. These changes (which would require a Constitutional Amendment) could transform the House from a very contentious body whose Members are highly focused on longevity in Congress, to an arm of government that is focused on contemporary insights and collaborative bold initiatives to steward an effective and efficient Federal government, just as envisioned by the Constitution. It would reduce the likelihood that Members are beholden to the interests of power brokers, solidified over years of catering to them and to the extreme elements of their party. It would extend the possibility of serving in the House to those without fundraising operations and close ties to power brokers.

Looking at the House side-by-side with the Senate, the House would truly become the dynamic podium of the people, as envisioned by the Founding Fathers in the 1700s. In contrast, the Senate would keep the House in check, just as intended by the Constitution, imposing a tempering force so that all of government is not conducted by contemporary impulse.

The Senate's institutional memory would prove itself invaluable, and the Senators' experience from long careers in Congress would help avoid pitfalls. The balance of power between the two chambers could be further maintained by giving the House additional "extraordinary" powers when they have a two-thirds vote on a bill.

                                                        

Establishing such a sweeping set of reforms would require broad-based popular support, as Congress would not make major changes on its own that limits its own tenure and restructures its structure. Influential industries and companies would also be likely to resist change, since each has vested interests in the current system. But sufficient media attention and grass roots traction could propel the reforms forward as voters and constituencies embrace the prospect of government reform and citizen empowerment. Congress would not be able to ignore such a group, nor such a movement.

Taken together, these proposals would restructure the way Congress does business, and they would do so in a purely bipartisan way, without advantage for one political side or the other. They present a long-term view toward protecting our democracy from the recurring improprieties and gamesmanship that arise from the realities of our present system, for the sake of future generations, if not for ours. If we are subjected to the same dynamics in 2020 that enable some interests to exert their will today on our government while the overwhelming millions of Americans are voiceless, then we will have failed in our responsibility. The 2007 reforms that prohibit gifts from lobbyists, limit privately-funded travel, and require disclosure of lobbyist contacts and contributions were a start. But our government faces structural problems that require structural solutions.

 
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