The Public Check on Congress
A non-partisan proposal for a Constitutional amendment to align the actions of Congress with America’s national interests.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who is Bill Bridgman and why would he presume to know how to fix our political system?
A more detailed biography is provided on the “About Us” page of this site. In summary, I consider myself an Eisenhower Republican, which means I have long felt homeless among today’s political parties. I spent nearly thirty years in the corporate world headquartered in Chicago, and ten more as a second-career educator. More importantly, I have three children who, although grown, are entitled to a better country than the one we are rapidly becoming. My commitment to fixing our national government increased over the course of the past several years as it became obvious that the members of Congress were not taking our long term problems seriously. When I finally asked myself, “What would I do if I were the boss of this outfit?” it struck me that this was not a hypothetical question. I am one of the bosses of the politicians in Washington – just as you are. It is not presumptuous of us to fix this system. Rather, under our form of government, it is our duty. Once we agree on that, it is just a matter of thinking through what we should do as enlightened bosses of a severely dysfunctional team. I am putting forward the Public Check on Congress as a possible solution which deserves a robust discussion. Given that we need to do something, and if we conclude that PCC is the best of the options for obtaining the quantum improvement we must have in our national government, then we have no choice but to take our best shot at putting it in place. But we do not have much time. We must agree on our course of action soon and move forward.
If the Public Check on Congress is such a good idea, why didn’t the original framers of the Constitution put it in?
My layman’s research into those times yields three reasons why something like the PCC was not included in the Constitution. (If a trained historian has something to add or subtract, let us know.)
1. In 1787, the Constitution represented a huge leap forward (from the then operative Articles of Confederation) in terms of strengthening the national government at the expense of what was then often referred to as states’ sovereignty. There was simply no way that, in addition to the many powers that the states were giving up, that they would also allow their choices for senators and representatives to be rejected by the people of the other states of the Union. Nowadays, most people I know would be willing to sacrifice their representatives in Washington if, in return, they got a significantly improved Congress. Of course, as mentioned several times, the point of PCC is not to sacrifice anyone. The significant improvement will be reflected in the behavior of the Representatives and Senators we already have, as they consider the alternative of being ignominiously thrown out, ineligible to run again for ten years, and branded forever with a scarlet “PCC” by which all will know that they were the members of a disgraced Congress.
2. Back in 1787-88 there was the hope – so naïve it seems now in retrospect – that political parties and factions would be a minor factor in the functioning of the Congress. Thomas Jefferson is famously quoted as saying around this time, “If I could not go to Heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.” Alas, just a few years later, Tom was the leader of one of the parties in the first great bitter factional struggle within our new government. As for Heaven, I have every reason to believe that, when the time came, he was able to see his way clear to accept his invitation.
3. Finally, whatever you may think about the size of our federal government today, the fact is that it is far larger and more dominant in terms of the impact on us of its policies than any Founding Father could have imagined. When Congress gets things wrong – or when it doesn’t get things at all – the consequences on the country are simply too huge for us, the people, to continue to indulge puerile behavior, and worse, among our public servants.
All of these factors have contributed to the fact that the members of Congress now must be held collectively accountable for their actions. It simply isn’t enough to ask each constituency back home to judge their individual members of Congress on the basis of Congress’s overall behavior. Over the years, the members of Congress have gamed the system through its rules and procedures, tribal party discipline, campaign financing shenanigans, gerrymandered districts, the benefits to the district of incumbents’ increasing seniority, etc., to the point where a new check is needed to establish a broader, national accountability. I can tell you, without any fear whatsoever of being proven wrong, that if we were to summon back Washington, Franklin, Madison, and the others to return today to update the Constitution, their first order of business would be to insert something like the Public Check on Congress.
Under PCC, how will Congress know what the national interest is so it can legislate accordingly?
The fact is that, in a great many instances, the members of Congress already know the right answer to a national problem. They are, after all, American citizens. Most have been serving on committees long enough to hear all sides to many issues. What they are missing, all too often, is the incentive to implement those solutions given the compromises that must be struck to satisfy party and special interest considerations. PCC will be most helpful in encouraging members of Congress to do what they already know is the right thing to do.
However, there are also many situations where the problems are quite complex. The interests of various constituencies are in conflict and tough choices will have to be made. Expertise will also be required to gather and examine the facts, and often to make recommendations. These functions must be done in some other way than the than the all too common mechanism used currently of relying excessively on input from the lobbyists of special interests, major campaign contributors and fringe voter groups. Congress may have to rely more frequently on special commissions to provide the input for some of the more challenging problems.
A good example of this approach from the past is when Congress had to make some very tough calls on closing hundreds of military facilities throughout the US, including some that were built to fight the Indian wars of the 1800’s and had since evolved into useful centers of economic activity in their respective communities. Congress set up a non-partisan commission to make recommendations. After extensive and fairly transparent deliberations by the BRAC (Base Realignment and Closing) commission, which weighed military and community considerations, Congress had to vote on its package of recommendations – up or down – without modification. Of course, Congress could have rejected the entire package of recommendations and asked the BRAC commission to start over, but that would have required a highly scrutinized explanation to the American public which, through several rounds of base closings, Congress was not able to make. The result was a series of base closings that saved the Department of Defense many tens of billions of dollars, allowed for modernization of key elements of our military establishment, reflected the best expert input tied to the national interest, and satisfied the public that – whatever the local pain – they were the right long-term decisions. What was generally absent from this decision-making process was the back-room deal-making, the lobbyist-sponsored “field trips”, the mutual back-scratching and logrolling to save politically favored but militarily marginal facilities, and the other business-as-usual congressional decision-making mechanisms.
This approach to making tough, fair, nationally important decisions, unfortunately, is the exception rather than the rule. Congress is extremely reluctant to allow expert non-partisan commissions put forward recommendations for up-or-down votes, despite the fact that it retains its prerogative to simply reject a package it finds unacceptable. It would all too often prefer to put together its own package, under the public radar through its sausage mill of committees and lobbyist consultations, rather than explain in the light of day why the expert recommendations were unsatisfactory. A good example was the Fiscal Commission assembled early in 2010 to make long-term strategic recommendations on how our government could bring the monstrous projected fiscal deficits under control. Congress opted not to force itself to vote up or down on whatever recommendations came out of the Commission. Some members of Congress who were on the Commission went so far as to noisily challenge preliminary recommendations even before a final package was assembled. I have no doubt that the Public Check on Congress would have gone a long way toward supplying the fiscal backbone long missing in our national leaders of both parties. We the people know that something must be done to fix this fiscal mess which is, by any reckoning, among the most serious of our national problems. The preliminary recommendations of the Commission, so quickly dismissed by members of Congress and ignored by Congress as a whole, were, on balance, reasonably sensible. An endorsement of them by Congress before year-end would have gone a long way toward convincing the American public – and those abroad whom we count on to trust the dollar – that there is recognition of the severity of the problem and a rational, carefully developed and reasonably fair starting point for managing it. This would have been the likely outcome with PCC in place.
Beyond fiscal recommendations, I can easily see expert commissions being formed to provide comprehensive recommendations on immigration policy, environmental issues, energy policy, education, trade policy, etc. etc. Members of these commissions would be drawn from Congress itself, the administration, academia, think tanks, the public at large, and even special interests as appropriate. They would be given enough time to approach each challenge strategically and with whatever level of transparency is called for under the circumstances. Congress would establish the membership, set the rules for each commission’s deliberations, its time frame, whether its recommendations were advisory or must be voted on up or down, and other elements of its charter. And whatever it decides to do, it would be obliged to explain itself to the American public in a periodic report from Congress as a whole to the nation to keep itself on the right side of the Public Check on Congress.
Won’t the Tea Party solve all our problems?
The Tea Party movement has done a great service to our country by providing a vehicle for so many citizens to express their frustration with the current politics in Washington. It remains to be seen if the Tea Party supporters in Congress can put forward the ideas that will strategically address America’s long-term problems to the satisfaction of a large majority of the American public, or whether it will express only the policies and values of a much smaller segment of the American public. If the former, PCC will provide them with a powerful boost. If the latter, PCC will, over time, move them to the sidelines.
How can PCC help America become more competitive in the world?
If we have strategic policies and legislation coming out of Washington to improve our educational system, encourage entrepreneurship, protect individual freedoms, and strike a sensible balance between economic growth, regulatory oversight, and security for our citizens, we will repair an enormous amount of damage which has been done to our competitive position in the world over the past decade, and avoid yet more to come with a continuation of our ad hoc knee-jerk special interest-driven reactions to the crises of the moment. We may even get our government strategically engaged to the point where they can prevent or soften the impact of clearly discernible approaching crises, rather than the current modus operandi of trying to clean up the mess after the fact.
A major question being asked by those who study contemporary political economy these days is whether the “Washington Consensus” will continue to dominate world economic development, or whether the “Beijing Consensus” will take over that role. The Washington Consensus has arisen from the values of the Western enlightenment – individual freedoms, representative government, free markets – and the network of international economic institutions installed after World War II. It relies on the empowerment of individual citizens by providing education and opportunity supported by intelligent policies and a light but vigilant touch of regulatory oversight. America was the first country since ancient times to go all-in on this model and our success for the past 200 years has been a guiding light to most of the rest of the developed and developing world.
However, the recent success of the model used for the past 30 years by China, known as the Beijing Consensus, has raised questions as to whether some sacrifice of individual rights and political freedoms can allow a highly centralized and authoritarian government to foster greater economic and national success. The international financial system meltdown in the Western developed countries followed by deep recession, slow growth and persistent high unemployment – all largely avoided in China – have heightened this issue. My view is that this question does not arise because of any inferiority in our values or because we must surrender some rights to our government. Quite the contrary. If we can give our citizenry a bit more power to force Congress to deal properly with national challenges, we will eliminate all questions about whether the time of the Washington Consensus is past. I’ll let you fill in the blank on how we might accomplish that.
Isn’t America too polarized now to have a broadly shared “national interest?”
This is a much debated question. You will find eminent political scientists and sociologists on both sides of it. In the “Additional Resources” section of this website I have listed recommendations for several books on this subject, presenting both sides of the question. My own view is that we may be slightly “polarized” and perhaps trending toward becoming a bit more so over recent decades, which may help explain why an Eisenhower Republican has difficulty finding a good political home. On the other hand, we are not nearly as polarized as many who have a stake in the game would have us believe. Among those who are trying to convince us that we are irretrievably polarized are the politicians themselves. This partly results from their long-established self-serving practice of drawing safe “gerrymandered” legislative districts within their states. Once safe republican and democratic districts have been drawn through the once-a-decade redistricting exercise (which is about to commence) the general election becomes largely academic and the key to success is to win the primary election of the dominant party in that district. Primaries have notoriously low voter participation rates, and the largest share of the participants consists of the more passionate, extreme voters. Primary candidates must therefore compete with each other to appeal to the “passionate fringe,” giving us candidates espousing more extreme positions than is true of the general electorate. Of course, in the process of espousing extreme positions, it doesn’t hurt to demonize everyone else. This has given rise to the heavy reliance on negative campaigning.
It is unfortunate that our media are more frequently taking sides in the political debates. Again, passionate loyalty these days seems to be strongest at the fringe, and TV stations, bloggers, newspapers, etc., depend on that loyalty. And so there are many voices out there telling us how polarized we are. But you must ask yourself, to paraphrase Jane Eisner of the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Are we polarized? Or just our choices?” Her answer is the latter. PCC will give us new choices. And we will find out that we, as a country, are not so polarized that we, together, won’t be able to tell the difference between good and bad solutions to our challenges.
When someone has spent many years bringing together broad, representative groups of people throughout the country to address serious national problems, I pay attention to what she has to say. Carolyn Lukensmeyer has been President of AmericaSpeaks, a non-profit organization doing this kind of thing since the mid-nineties. Ms. Lukensmeyer describes the dynamic within these discussion groups this way: “Number 1, the radical solutions on both the right and the left, fall off the table in about 25 minutes.” From there, people focus on broadly acceptable mainstream solutions. Ms. Lukensmeyer summarizes her 15 years of experience of bringing together broad cross-sections of Americans, in groups from 10 to 10,000 at a time, with this: “The vast majority of Americans still feel responsible for the common good.” That is the bedrock upon which we would place PCC. (Ms. Lukesmeyer’s complete comments are in the Brookings Institution’s transcript of its conference, “Is Government Broken?” referred to in the Additional Resources section of this website, with weblink, beginning on page 75.)
How can the American public prepare itself to use its new PCC power as responsibly as possible?
This subject should be part of the dialog leading up to our approval of the PCC amendment. My own view is that the public is already in fairly good shape on this. We have a mature democracy and the citizens of America well understand the importance of their approval in democratic processes. Hopefully, with the PCC being a once-in-a-decade opportunity with the most serious of consequences, regardless of which way it turns out, we can expect voter turnout to be greater for that vote than we have historically experienced for most other national elections.
Beyond voter turnout, the most important aspect of assuring an excellent outcome is to increase the level of understanding among the public of the key national issues of the time. I have been quite disappointed at the extent to which the key facts underlying important issues have been organized and made available to the public. For example, the two major initiatives that President Bush (43) undertook in his second term were reform of immigration and Social Security. In both of these cases the political dialog was greatly inflamed. People looking for an understanding of the extent of these problems and the impact of alternative solutions were not well-served by politicians or most media. Academia and non-partisan think tanks seemed to keep their analyses under a bushel or did not translate them into everyday English. Much can be done to set up accessible, intelligible analyses on important issues and make them available to the citizenry. That way we can talk about the costs, benefits, strategic implications, and values behind immigration reform proposals and not get tangled up in twenty-five definitions of the word “amnesty.”
Would the members of Congress see any benefits to this proposal to themselves?
It may take a while, but, over time, those members of Congress with 20/20 vision will ultimately see very significant benefits to themselves for PCC, in addition to the benefits any fair-minded member of Congress will see immediately for the country. Congress is now one of the most untrusted and unloved institutions we have in America. Quite frankly, they have earned that station. The sad aspect of that story is that almost every member of Congress is incredibly hard working and has made significant family sacrifices in order to serve his or her constituents and campaign supporters. Alas, serving one’s constituents and campaign supporters, as we have seen by now, is not the same thing as serving one’s country. PCC will help them bridge that gap.
I would expect national approval ratings to dramatically improve under PCC. Congress’s individual and collective self-esteem will also improve. When they fix campaign financing and the rules of lobbyist engagement we can expect that they will no longer have to spend a large fraction of every week raising money so that the quality of both their political and home lives will be much enriched. Codes of ethics will be overhauled and rigorously enforced so that the bad eggs in Congress that have been tolerated and often protected will be hung out to dry. And, of course, Congress will have a new national mandate under PCC to give it stronger footing vis-à-vis the executive branch and the judiciary, allowing it to more fully perform the role originally intended for it in the Constitution. As this virtuous cycle continues, I can see the American public supporting substantial increases in Congressional salaries to attract an even higher cut of our best and brightest, and keep them in the capitol building rather moving to a K-Street lobbying firm. Yes, it may take a while. But as the conversation on PCC gains momentum, more and more members of Congress will begin to see some personal benefits from this proposal to themselves.
Wouldn’t term limits for members of Congress be a solution for our problems?
Term limits would not do what PCC would do. The main problem is not to terminate the members of Congress who have been around a long time. The problem is to change the behavior of all members of Congress. Some of the newer ones are every bit as problematic as the older ones. We need a new sense of collective responsibility among all 535 members to bring forward policies upon which our country can make progress. That is the essence of the PCC amendment.
In addition, reports from those who have seen term limits in action in state legislatures have been mixed at best. Some of your best legislators are the ones who have been around long enough to have a mature understanding of the issues and the “gravitas” to make the right things happen. When these people leave, the vacuum tends to be filled by bureaucrats and lobbyists, who have no term limits. We need to carefully look at past experience and think through future implications before becoming enamored of term limits.
What are the criteria for deciding whether the Constitution should be amended for something like PCC?
Constitutional amendments do not come easy. This is by design as the framers looked for a way to avoid both total inflexibility and capricious change. The Articles of Confederation erred too much on the side of inflexibility, requiring unanimous agreement among all thirteen states to approve an amendment. The Constitution backed off unanimity, but still requires double supermajorities of both Congress and state legislatures. James Madison, who was to write the first ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights, believed that amendments should only be associated with “Great and Extraordinary Occasions.” That was over 200 years ago.
For more recent thinking on this subject, I would refer you to an excellent document listed in the Additional Resources section, “‘Great and Extraordinary Occasions:’ Developing Guidelines for Constitutional Change” by the Century Foundation Press and The Constitution Project, available at this web location: http://www.constitutionproject.org/pdf/32.pdf . This paper lists several guidelines for determining whether a given improvement in our political system should be implemented as an amendment to the Constitution or by some other mechanism. (It does not provide guidelines for determining whether a given idea is good or bad, but fortunately we already know the answer to that with respect to PCC.) According to the guidelines the PCC is a very appropriate candidate for a Constitutional amendment, and it certainly cannot be accomplished by any other means. It will require a full public debate and perhaps a time frame for approval. Overall, in the opinion of one who has thought about it more than anyone else as of this writing, PCC meets the amendment guidelines in stellar fashion.
By the way, I see a parallel between the process of amending the Constitution and the process, under PCC, by which we would determine whether to retain or remove the leaders of Congress. We need to strike a judicious balance between being able to consummate this removal if absolutely necessary, but not otherwise. This led to the thinking that it should take two elections a year apart for removal of Congressional leaders, and that further, this should only be accomplished through 75% supermajorities in both elections. I’m guessing that, if Mr. Madison were designing the Public Check on Congress, he might come up with a similar formula for achieving the PCC objective while maintaining appropriate political stability.
Would PCC work in individual states? How about in other countries?
I see no reason why PCC would not work in most or all of our country’s states. The first question one should ask is whether a particular state needs it. I know a few which have sufficiently dysfunctional legislatures – without prospect of much improvement – that there may be some urgency in beginning the conversation. In these instances, the pattern is the same as at the national level: the legislators have learned to get re-elected by their local constituencies without addressing constructively urgent state-wide problems. Amendment procedures will vary and would need to be examined to assess the practicability of implementing PCC for a given state.
For major counties and cities, PCC might also play a useful role where a stronger team spirit aligned with the broad public interest is needed among council members.
As for other countries, democratic governmental structures and cultures vary so much that a broad generalization is hard to make. Parliamentary democracies, for example, can usually be more efficient and decisive than is true in the US. However, it may not hurt to have some form of “Public Check on Parliament” to put periodically senior members of Parliament at collective career risk if they stray, as leaders of the institution, too far from alignment with the public interest.
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