The Public Check on Congress
A non-partisan proposal for a Constitutional amendment to align the actions of Congress with America’s national interests.
“ In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary control on the government ….”
— James Madison, Federalist Paper # 51
“For some time, I’ve had a growing conviction that Congress is not operating as it should. There is much too much partisanship and not enough progress, too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving. Even at a time of enormous national challenge, the people’s business is not getting done. Examples of this are legion ….”
— Evan Bayh, February 15, 2010, Announcing his retirement from the Senate
“If the Founding Fathers were with us today, they would be just as disappointed in Congress as we are. But they would be even more disappointed in us, the American people, since they gave us the ultimate responsibility for fixing the political system when, as now, it becomes necessary.”
— Bill Bridgman, Founder, The Public Check on Congress Project
“If the leaders of Congress are faced with the choice of being tossed out as a group or shaping up, they will shape up.”
— Common sense
A warm greeting from Bill Bridgman to my fellow Americans, especially those who are ready to take action to dramatically improve the performance of Congress. You are ready for the ideas in this website if you, like me, are at an advanced stage of coming to terms with the fact that our national government is a mess.
We are beyond the stage of denial. We have watched for decades as Congress has dodged its responsibility for constructively addressing a long list of problems, including our national finances, immigration, public infrastructure, education, international competitiveness, improved energy self-sufficiency, modernization of national defense hardware and strategy, environmental issues, campaign finance reform, governmental ethics, etc., etc. Many of those it does claim to have tackled – for example, Medicare Part D, health care, financial regulation – result in sausage-filled special interest-driven half-solutions. As a result, you and I are now on the cusp of handing over to the next generation a country in decline. And you and I can blame no one but ourselves, because – in a country where government is of the people, by the people and for the people – we, the people have the ultimate responsibility.
We are beyond rationalization. We no longer think the problem will fix itself if we can just wait it out. We know that, under present circumstances, Congress is not capable of fixing its internal procedures which allow small groups – and even individual Senators – to stalemate progress on urgent issues and which encourage outrageous coddling of special interests. We also know that it won’t help to concentrate power in one party or the other. I can personally vouch for the fact that, over the past 40 years, it hasn’t made any difference which party has been in control of Congress; whether or not control has been split between the two houses of Congress; or whether the majority party in Congress has been the same as the President’s. Congress simply has not shown itself consistently capable of accepting collective responsibility for addressing urgent national priorities.
And we are even beyond anger and frustration with the members of Congress. We have come to realize that the problem is not that we need better people in Congress. You and I have been voting for the best people available for many years, and it hasn’t made much, if any, difference. The fact is that most of the people we have in Congress are decent people who work long hours, make significant family sacrifices, and do what they can for their constituents back home. As I think about it, I’m not sure that I would behave much differently from most of them if I were in Congress, responding to the same incentives that they have. As you think about it, you might reach the same conclusion.
We are ready to analyze the problem, find a solution, and take action. Those incentives are the heart of the problem. They de-emphasize any requirement to work together across the party aisle to address national problems with a broad, national, long-term perspective. Rather, current incentives emphasize (1) the need to satisfy one’s individual Congressional district or state constituency to get re-elected; (2) to help one’s party obtain the majority in a given house of Congress, thereby securing the outsized political power that comes with that majority; and (3) when called upon to explain the neglect of the national interest, to win the “blame game” – which has now become a key skill.
As a result, we need a systemic fix. One that provides a new incentive to members of Congress to address collectively national problems, and to be held accountable collectively for accomplishing those objectives.
We need the Public Check on Congress (PCC). If you have followed along so far, you are ready to hear about an idea for this fix to the system: the Public Check on Congress (PCC):
– A new check in the Constitutional system of checks and balances which would hold Congress as a whole accountable to the American public as a whole (in addition to the individual accountability of each member of Congress to their district and state.)
– It would allow the American public to express periodically their approval or disapproval with Congress’s overall performance.
– It would establish sufficient consequences for substantial, sustained disapproval of Congress to assure appropriate Congressional behavior.
– It would dramatically reduce the influence of special interests and fringe political factions.
One possibility for how the Public Check on Congress might work is described below. A national conversation is needed to develop a consensus around the specific mechanics and then put it in place.
One Possible Formulation for The Public Check on Congress
- A Constitutional amendment that calls for a nationwide “referendum” on Congress by the American citizenry as a whole once every ten years. Congress needs a 25% nationwide approval rating to “pass” and continue their good (or at least acceptable) work. If this occurs, there are no further PCC procedures until the next referendum ten years later.
- If the approval rating is less than 25%, a second, “recall” election is held within two years.
- If, again, their rating is below 25%, then one-third of the members of each house — the most senior third in terms of total tenure in Congress — are recalled and are to be replaced at the next general Congressional election. No recalled member of Congress, nor anyone who had left Congress during the previous five years, is eligible to run again for either house for the next ten years.
The “Public Check” referendum would be in addition to the existing elections for all Representatives and one-third of the Senators every two years. For administrative simplicity, it could be timed to coincide with one of those routine elections.
We need an urgent national conversation to agree that a new collective accountability for Congress is necessary. Beyond that, we would need to agree on how best to configure a PCC with respect to frequency, how the recall would be triggered, the proportion of the Congress that should be at risk, etc. Unfortunately, time is not on our side. This national conversation needs to gain momentum quickly.
To shape them up, not to ship them out. It goes without saying that the whole point of this new “check” on Congress is not to replace members of Congress frequently – or even ever – but rather to give them the incentive to dramatically improve their performance by constructively addressing issues of national importance, and, in the process, raising the public’s level of satisfaction with them. Of course, if Congress’s approval ratings were to remain so abysmally low that it could not reach the very modest approval threshold required in the Public Check for two consecutive years – despite the added incentive provided by the PCC – then we should get on with the business of replacing its senior members, and cope with the temporary disruption. However, given human nature – and particularly politician nature – this is unlikely to happen more than once every couple of centuries. If every ten years the leaders of both parties in the House and the Senate must stand together and explain to the American people why that Congress is worthy of retention, there is no doubt that they will figure out how to survive the Public Check by raising their game with constructive, bi-partisan action on the important national issues. As a result, with the PCC added to the Constitution, we can look forward to a high-performing, or at least a much better performing Congress.
Advantages. The Public Check on Congress would establish a new connection between Congress and the American people which would have many advantages. For example, it would:
Create, as noted above, an environment of increased co-operation within Congress – across parties and between the Houses – which will lead to the development and implementation of a constructive policy agenda consistent with America’s long term national interests.
Lead to a dramatic diminution of the role of special interest lobbying in the development of major policy legislation and a corresponding increase in the role of bona-fide non-partisan experts and public stakeholders.
Oblige Congress to fix its own rules, procedures, code of ethics, political campaign financing, etc., which the public would insist upon well in advance of the first PCC vote.
Dramatically improve the relationship (approval ratings, etc.) between Congress and the American public. Over the medium term, this could lead to public support for a significant increase in congressional salaries (offset several times over by cuts in other Congressional operating costs) and create a virtuous cycle which improves Congress’s collective self-esteem, making it a more attractive option for our best and brightest.
Create a stronger and more mature sense of responsibility among the American public to educate themselves on key national policy issues and fulfill more fully their responsibility to vote, including the PCC vote on Congress.
Reduce the influence of polarizing voices (e.g., certain media / politicians / special interest groups, etc.) on the public at large.
Since PCC serves as a ratification of Congress’s overall performance once a decade, rather than specific instructions as in the case of California’s proposition system, we would avoid the danger of public micro-management.
The longer you reflect on how the political climate in the US would be changed by the Public Check on Congress amendment, the more clearly you will see how this could be the game-changer we must have to correct the sideways / downward direction of our country’s current trajectory.
Disadvantages. There are, to be sure, some potential disadvantages that must be fully discussed and thought through.
The most fundamental question we the people must ask ourselves is whether we are prepared to exercise responsibly the additional power that comes to us with the PCC. In the end, the answer is easy; if a significant intervention is required to fix the political system, there can be no better place to lodge any associated increase in power and responsibility than with the American people. The large super-majorities required in two separate elections before recalling Congress should temper any tendencies toward “mobocracy”.
If at some point the senior members of Conress are recalled, there would be some potential disruption while the new members of Congress are elected and get up to speed. However, this risk is minimized by the large group of retained experienced members of Congress motivated to provide much improved leadership.
Other concerns will come forward as the PCC gets its airing in the public forum. The discussion will likely result in some modification of the proposal put forward here, or some other proposal that better accomplishes the same objective. There is, however, enormous urgency behind that discussion. To put a time frame on it, my view is that something must be done within the next five years to get our government back on track. If we don’t, in all likelihood, you and I will have failed both those who gave us our treasured political system (along with the obligation to fix it as necessary) and those who follow us who will give our generation an infamous name for allowing a great slide toward mediocrity to gain irreversible momentum on our watch.
What can you do? Hopefully, by now, you are asking yourself what you can do to move the Public Check on Congress forward. That is an especially relevant question because “we the people” are going to have to do the early heavy lifting on this project. Constitutional amendments do not come easily under any circumstances. This will be especially true for PCC. An unfortunate irony about any amendment intended to shape up Congress is that the very people who may feel most threatened by it are integral to the process for amending the Constitution. This includes Congress itself as well as the legislators of the 50 states who may see some unwelcome applicability of PCC to the situation within their particular states. In addition, we can expect fierce opposition from the big money campaign contributors and special interests whose access and influence will be significantly diminished when Congress is called upon to justify their actions to the country as a whole.
In the end, the most effective way I can see PCC or something similar becoming an amendment is by challenging candidates for the House of Representatives and the Senate to give ironclad promises of support for it when elected (or re-elected) to Congress. Since this is a proposal that has no partisan bias, broad public support should oblige every candidate in every primary and general congressional election in 2012 to give an unqualified pledge to sponsor and support it in the Congressional session that begins in January, 2013. That means, of course, an enormous effort must be undertaken to get the word out, fire up the general public, generate the conversation by which PCC is tempered and made ready for prime time, and then gaining commitments of support from Congressional incumbents and new candidates. A tall order, to be sure. On the other hand, as America’s first patriots discovered, there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.
Here are the first steps you can consider:
1. Explore this website. Contribute your views to the blog. Describe how we can improve the proposal and sharpen the argument in support of it. Review the reading list in the Additional Resources section of this website and check out any recommendations that sound appealing to you.
2. Share these ideas with your friends and acquaintances. Refer them to this website. Remember, this is a non-partisan proposal, so you should feel free to engage those to the right of you and those to the left of you, as well as those directly in line with you – anyone who is ready to discuss rationally how we can improve our government.
3. It is not too early to size up your Congressman or Congresswoman and your two Senators on this proposal. They will be asking you for your vote. Ask them in return for their support for PCC. If they haven’t heard of it, refer them to this website and tell them to get back to you with confirmation of their support.
4. Bring your favorite media on board. Get your sources of news and commentary to join the conversation. Give them the link to this site. Express your support. Encourage them to express theirs.
5. If you are able to support the PCC campaign financially, any amount will be welcome. At this point, your contribution is not tax-deductible, but it will be put to excellent use. Make your check payable to The Public Check on Congress and send it to:
The Public Check on Congress
7050 Arbor Lane # 102
Northfield, IL 60093
If, with your contribution of $100.00 or more, you request the PCC lapel pin, I will send it to you to identify you as an early advocate of PCC.
A closing thought. Ben Franklin was one of the great luminaries who attended the original Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787 in his hometown of Philadelphia. The attendees agreed to maintain strict secrecy throughout their deliberations. At the end of the convention, as he left the meeting hall, Franklin was asked by passers-by, “Dr. Franklin, what kind of government do we have?” He replied, “A Republic, if we can keep it.”
By this he meant, among other things, fixing it if it were to become broken. Article V, the amendment procedure, was put into the Constitution for that purpose. As I look at the dysfunction of our government over the past several decades, my inner Ben Franklin is telling me that we are now at that point. What is yours telling you?
You may have some further questions. If so, please check out the FAQ section of this website. There you will find the answers to such inquiries as,
Who is Bill Bridgman and why would he presume to know how to fix our political system?
If the Public Check on Congress is such a good idea, why didn’t the original framers of the Constitution put it in?
Under PCC, how will Congress know what the national interest is so it can legislate accordingly?
Won’t the Tea Party solve all our problems?
How can PCC help America become more competitive in the world?
Isn’t America too polarized now to have a broadly shared “national interest?”
How can the American public prepare itself to use its new PCC power as responsibly as possible?
Would the members of Congress see any benefits to this proposal?
Wouldn’t term limits for members of Congress solve all our problems?
What are the criteria for deciding whether the Constitution should be amended for something like PCC?
Would PCC work in individual states? How about in other countries?
Thank you for your time and attention, and for your interest in the Public Check on Congress.