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Reforming a moribund Congress

We can remake it into a functional body!

February 2012

Abstract:
Congress is sick with corruption and deadlocked politics. This practical clean-up program will renew Congress, reduce the influence of lobbyists and money, and make lengthy congressional careers a thing of the past. Everyone can participate for free.
Congress is the political heart of the United States, and it is deathly ill. It suffers from multiple diseases, related to money, partisanship, gigantism, abuse of power, narcissism, blind ideology, and love of perks, for starters. The end result has recently been even more disgusting than usual. Over the past year we have seen Congress repeatedly and needlessly drive the country to the brink of economic crisis. And it's no one's fault but their own. The members of Congress bear one hundred percent of the blame.

While there will always be conflict in Congress, conflict must be managed with courtesy and consideration for those who disagree. Leaders must be flexible and sensitive to the need for compromise. All this seems to have been lost in recent Congresses. Ideological rigidity and a view of the meaning of "opposition" that is nearly treasonous the idea that the job of the party that does not hold the presidency is to cause the President and the country's administration to fail have raised stubbornness and uncooperativeness to a virtue among many members of Congress.

After the obscene non-performance of Congress over recent years, one of our top-priority projects as a country must be to turn our national representative body into a place where relatively good decisions are made in a relatively timely manner (let's not expect too much). We have a right to be proud of our Congress. As it stands, we're ashamed of it.

But who will reform Congress? The incumbents won't, that is clear; most of them like the status quo, which has been fashioned by Congress itself to favor incumbents and the party in power. For the same reason, the two major political parties won't reform Congress. Fortunately, our Constitution gives the people the means to institute reform. The means is the ballot box, and fixing Congress is literally as simple as checking the right name on the ballot. Elect reform-minded independent Representatives and Senators, and reforms will come. These involve changing some rules of the House and Senate, making new law regulating Congress and elections, and adopting a couple of amendments to the Constitution. Sounds like a lot, but they're all doable. (I touched on this a few months ago.)

As I said, we can forget about the the congressional incumbents carrying out such reforms. They simply won't, and that fact gives us the first step in the reform process. In the end it will be the people who reform Congress, as it should be. Here is a program that will work, and it can start in November:

  • Step 1a: Fire the incumbents. This is obviously necessary. We can make exception for those few members who are committed to reforms that will make Congress functional, like the suggestions below.
     
  • Step 1b: Elect reform-minded independents. The two major parties in Congress will not carry out the needed reforms. Therefore we need members of Congress that are not dancing to the parties' tune.
     
  • Step 2: Get private money out of elections. This is the key to having a Congress that works, and it's the key point that candidates must agree to before deserving our vote. The present practice of sugar-daddies giving a candidate money to promote the candidate's personal career (and put him in their debt) is completely corrupting. The needed alternative is public funding of elections. This will require a constitutional amendment, along with some enabling law.
     
  • Step 3: Control lobbying. My solution to this is twofold: First, require all meetings of Congress members with interested parties to take place in their office, during office hours. Violation should result in censure and fine. Second, require all office meetings with interested parties (except perhaps government officers or staff, or highly personal meetings with constituents), to be recorded, preferably on video, and be made quickly available on the internet. Offers of money or benefits to the member (including campaign funds) should be criminalized as attempted bribes. These measures should slow down improper lobbying. The next point, below, will also help with this.
     
  • Step 4: Congressional term limits. This is necessary to prevent politicians from making Congress a career, and to guard against a growing network of corruption. A long term enables glad-handing lobbyists to ingratiate themselves with the politicians. Lobbyists should remain strangers, not friends, to our representatives. Members of Congress should serve, then move on. I propose term limits of 6 years (1 term) for Senators, 4 years (2 terms) for Representatives.
These are the get-it-done-now items. To really improve Congress, we should next achieve the following:
  • Step 5: Congressional pay and pension. No one on the public payroll should be able to set their own salary or pension. My solution is: Strike the generous congressional pension plan. We can replace it with a program where we pay reasonable contributions to a member's existing pension plan or new or existing IRA plan, during the member's term of office, without involving the public purse in future entitlements. As to pay, I suggest it be set by a randomly selected ad hoc panel of citizens, none of whom earn more than the nation's median income. They're unlikely to be more generous than necessary.
     
  • Step 6: Reform the rules of Congress. First: Both House and Senate rules make reference to the system of two political parties, and give powers to each caucus. The rules serve to lock in the party antagonism that exists in Congress. They need to be purged of party references. The parties belong outside the government, not inside it. Second: The system of Speaker power and chairmen power makes most Representatives and Senators powerless. This means that your district and mine have less power in Congress than the district whose Representative or Senator holds a power post, and that means that we're not equally represented, an unconstitutional situation. The correction lies in removing power from the Speaker and chairmen, and providing more opportunity for active participation by all members.

And to really polish up Congress, consider these improvements:
  • Reduce the size of the House by about half. It's true that we then get twice as many constituents per Representative, but the workings of the House would be much less unwieldy if its size were 200-220, instead of the current 435.

  • And finally, let's find a way to write smaller, simpler, clearer laws. No law needs to be thousands or even hundreds of pages long. The idea that neither the members nor their staffs have time to read the bills they're voting on, which is the case with many bills today, is very scary, and it's a stupid way to run a legislative body.

  • And finally finally, I'd frankly like to see Congress sit in session for three months in the spring and three months in the fall. That's all. That might discourage them from making more laws than we need. Of course they'd be paid a part-time salary.

That's all, folks. Keep the cards and letters coming.

© 2012 H. Paul Lillebo

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