As Thanksgiving approaches, we take some time out to count our blessings. It is one of the healthiest things each of us can do for our dispositions. We should do it more often.
On that list of blessings every year, near the top, continues to be our political system. We have seen so many accounts of the deterioration of democratic governance in this country that it is sometimes difficult to appreciate the bigger picture. If you have that difficulty, ask just about anyone in this country who grew up on the other side of the Iron Curtain. They can help you see the big picture. Happy Thanksgiving!
The anger and frustration with our government is intensifying. All of us are feeling it, whether we hail from the left, the right or the center. The sensible response is to analyze the cause of the anger and fix it. Most will agree that the underlying cause is that for decades, our Congress has been fearlessly unresponsive to the will of the people. Its members simply take no joint responsibility for the nation’s well-being. They have been far too successful with fighting, obstructing, and blaming. Last November, 95% of running incumbents were reelected, while Congress as a whole had an approval rating below 20%. Since then Congress has done even less than usual to lower the level of dissatisfaction.
Again, the sensible response is to analyze the root cause — lack of incentive for members of Congress to collaborate and compromise across party lines in the nation’s interest. The solution is a mechanism like the Public Check on Congress to hold them accountable for doing so. This can be done with a straightforward constitutional amendment — equivalent to a wrench to tighten up accountability.
Unfortunately, there are other efforts afoot trying to tell us that the solution is a constitutional convention of the kind held in 1787 which wrote the original constitution. Under this scenario, a complete overhaul of the system would be on the table — the equivalent of a jackhammer.
We need to do something more than fix gerrymandering or installing term limits. But we don’t need to risk tearing down the system and starting over. Let’s come up with a solution that is commensurate with the problem. For a problem caused by poor incentives and lack of collective accountability, let’s take out our wrenches and tighten up Congress’s accountability to the people. Let’s not be taken in by the wrecking crews with their jackhammers.
The senior Senator from Arizona has been leading the charge lately for a return to bi-partisan cooperation and compromise in Congress. In a column in today’s Washington Post he said, “Congress will return from recess next week facing continued gridlock as we lurch from one self-created crisis to another. We are proving inadequate not only to our most difficult problems but also to routine duties. Our national political campaigns never stop. We seem convinced that majorities exist to impose their will with few concessions and that minorities exist to prevent the party in power from doing anything important. That’s not how we were meant to govern. Our entire system of government — with its checks and balances, its bicameral Congress, its protections of the rights of the minority — was designed for compromise.”
Given the enormous respect Senator McCain has earned over the years from his colleagues, we can expect that his exhortation will have some beneficial effect. But the tribal partisan behaviors will quickly return.
It would be far more effective — and permanent — if that exhortation came from the American people, backed up by the Public Check on Congress mechanism by which Senator McCain’s colleagues would feel severe consequences for ignoring it. Much of the original vision of the Founders concerning compromise would be restored.
Lately we have seen a disturbing phenomenon within both of our major political parties: signs of significant fracturing. The Democrats are witnessing a factional fight between a strong “progressive” insurgency which first showed itself with Bernie Sanders’s upstart presidential campaign. It continues with his grass-roots “Revolution” movement and draws support from parts of the DNC apparatus and several members of Congress including Senator Elizabeth Warren.
The Republicans are facing an historic internal squabble between “Trumpism” and the traditional establishment core of the party. Since they are the governing party with control over both Houses of Congress and the White House, their battles are particularly visible.
It has been a long time since the American political system has been called upon to deal with such extensive rifting of established parties. If it continues, the public will question even more insistently whether something should be done to dampen our politicians’ tendencies toward intra- and inter-party squabbling and strengthen our system’s capacity to function coherently in the national interest.
The Public Check on Congress is an answer that should be investigated, modified as necessary, and presented to the public for their consideration. This website puts forward many of the arguments to justify that consideration. Today’s increasing incoherency raises the urgency and the stakes.
Feel free to contact me, Bill Bridgman, Founder of the Public Check on Congress project, on the Contact page of this website for further information.
Many paradigms have been shifted during the past several years in our understanding of how our political system is supposed to work. The presidential election of 2016 in particular generated a heightened sense of pessimism among many Americans that our system is not functioning appropriately. Unfortunately, rather than generating a “can do” spirit that manifests itself in an outpouring of determination to identify root causes of dysfunction and fix them, we see instead a general fatalistic sense that this is something we must continue to live with.
It is time for a renewed sense of urgency to perform one of the most fundamental tasks the Founding Fathers required of us when they established “we the people” as the sovereign authority of the American republic: to fix our system if it is not working properly.
One option we must consider for dealing with the dysfunction in Congress — a root cause of much else that is out of sync — is the Public Check on Congress collective accountability proposal outlined in this website.
There is so much talk about the “fiscal cliff” that you would think that it is the moral equivalent of war or of a monstrous natural disaster. It is of course quite monstrous, but it is not natural – quite the contrary. This potential disaster is man-made, or, more accurately, Congress-made. And so, as we cross our fingers that the fiscal cliff issues can be constructively addressed before year-end, let us not forget that its very existence signifies several great failures for which Congress must be held accountable no matter how successfully it can address the cliff itself.
The most obvious of these failures is that the cliff results from that epitome of congressional dysfunction, the debt ceiling debacle of the summer of 2011. At the time the debt ceiling was raised no remedial fiscal action was agreed upon, only a “supercommittee” process which, if it failed, would lead us to where we are today. That possibility was deemed so unacceptable, that it was assumed that failure of the supercommittee was not an option. Once that failure occurred, about a year ago, the course we are now on was determined by Congress.
Another way in which Congress has failed, regardless of any success in avoiding the fiscal cliff itself, is by addressing it through last minute brinksmanship. The issues involved affect virtually every sector of our society, from those who pay taxes, to those who are affected by the government spending on the bubble, to those who are affected by fears that another recession might be triggered. The deleterious effects of this needless uncertainty over the past six months or so are huge, even if not easily quantifiable.
And further, while Congress spends virtually all its time on this remediation of its past toxic behavior, all legislative oxygen is being consumed, and a great many important policy needs fail to get addressed.
There will be much self-congratulation if the fiscal cliff is avoided. Among those who understand that this necessity to avoid it is itself a great governmental failure, there will be less congratulation.
Another moderate centrist in Congress finds what we used to call “the world’s greatest deliberative body” so dysfunctional that continuing to serve in it would be a waste of her time. Three-term Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine is one of the few in that body who could work across the aisle on important national issues. Yesterday, in her departure announcement, she says, “I find it frustrating that an atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies has become pervasive in campaigns and in our governing institutions. … Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term.” It’s the same sentiment that Democratic Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana expressed two years ago when he made the same decision (see his quote on the Home page of this site) and many others who had been previously able to help shape sensible political compromises.
Experts tell us that our Congress has never in living memory been so polarized. The results of their work over the past several decades bear that out. The diagnosis is straightforward – lack of sufficient incentive to legislate common sense solutions to the growing backlog of problems. And the answer, as Ronald
Reagan would have said, is “simple but not easy.” “Simple” in that a single Constitutional amendment, the Public Check on Congress, would change the entire magnetic field surrounding the decision-making incentive system in Congress to make a quantum difference in their ability to serve the public. “Not easy” in the sense that it will take some heavy lifting to pass that amendment. And yet, with 310 million lifters in America who will benefit enormously from a well-functioning government, the task would, once again, become simple.
For the past year I have been sharing the Public Check on Congress with a broad range of audiences. Virtually everyone sees the need for fixing Congress and most see the advantages of the systemic fix this proposal offers. A frequent lament, however, is what can be done in the meantime while a Constitutional amendment works its way through the process of Congressional and state ratification? One response, of course, is that as soon as the possibility of PCC registers with members of Congress they will not wait until it is fully ratified to begin changing their behavior.
We now have another response to that question. The non-partisan organization No Labels has introduced a very impressive suite of recommendations that Congress can immediately implement itself through its own procedural rules. These twelve modifications to Congressional procedures will help break the gridlock, promote constructive discussions, and reduce polarization. Check out the details at: http://nolabels.org/make-congress-work . After the year we have just been through, and the early signs for the year ahead, we need some “quick hits” to get our government to take some sensible actions.
As legislative stalemates go, some are dumber than others. The one we have at the moment concerning the national debt limit is about as insane as they get. Any rational legislator would pick virtually any other decision point to put his or her stake in the ground on spending, taxes or any of the other dimensions of fiscal responsibility. The best time to do it, of course, is at the time a budget is poured, and it would be quite straightforward for Congress to use the current impasse to covenant that there will be no more continuing resolutions – and immediately raise the debt limit.
But to tell the world, as our Congress has for the past several months, that the bargaining chip of choice is that most elemental of governmental commitments – to pay its bills – is sheer stupidity. That is particularly true for our government, which must maintain confidence among foreign countries who hold several trillion dollars of our national debt and because of the enormous benefit which we derive from the dollar being the world’s major reserve currency. If we disturb that confidence such that we must pay several percentage points of additional interest, the added financial burden over the next ten years could dwarf any of the debt reduction proposals being discussed by either Republicans or Democrats.
Of course the reason so many smart people can collectively do such a dumb thing is that they do not have any collective responsibility for the outcome of their actions. Everyone involved seems to be rehearsing their blame game chant; something which would be of no use if the Public Check on Congress were in effect.
The other day my Congressman held a town hall meeting in my neighborhood. Interestingly, he started off by mentioning that this 112th session of Congress had just completed its first one hundred days. The reference rang a bit hollow to that audience since normally government officials look upon their first 100 days as a chance to accomplish great things. Unfortunately, this Congress cannot take much pride in the fact that virtually all they accomplished, after a titanic struggle, was to avoid a government shutdown. And yet it seemed to be enough for much self-congratulation. At the meeting, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to ask my Congressman if he would take a look at the Public Check on Congress proposal: something, I said, that would allow him and his colleagues to be substantially more productive. He graciously agreed. Stay tuned.