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.
Check this out: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/13/us/politics/13congress.html?partner=rss&emc=rss With eight Senators planning to “kick the bucket” with the next election, some with 30 years of experience and several in charge of powerful committees, it is thrilling to hear them speak of their new empowerment. It’s as if now, finally, they can ignore the noisy fringes of their constituency and the high-access special interests and do the right thing for the country. It’s as if now that they no longer have to devote many hours a week on fundraising that they can focus on achieving badly needed legislation in the few months remaining while their legacies can still be written. There have been the cheap shot artists who have wondered what might already have been accomplished if they had only retired earlier; but I, for one, would be very pleased to see this group take the lead on installing long-term fixes for our national finances, tackling energy self-sufficiency, etc. They now have a chance to think exclusively about the national interest and act accordingly.
If I were to be wistful, it would not be about what if they had retired earlier. It would be what if we had the Public Check on Congress amendment in place so that all 535 members of the Senate and the House of Representatives felt empowered to work on their bucket list from the day they arrived in Congress. Think for a moment about a Congress that has fixed campaign financing so that it can tell the American people that its members don’t have to spend many hours a week raising funds from and making implicit commitments to special interests. Think about a Congress that can draw much more strength from the broad mainstream of the American public and reduce its dependency on or fear of an inflamed fringe from either the right or left.
We will all have a chance to ask our members of Congress to dream about such a day as they come to us for support during the upcoming election cycle. There are eight in the Senate whose dream of doing the country’s business with no strings attached has already begun. Eight down, 527 to go.
Don’t you find it strange that there is so little conversation going on about alternatives for fixing our national political system? This, despite the fact that a large majority of Americans believe that our system is not working properly, or is, in fact, broken.
While we have noisy arguments on virtually every conceivable policy matter, there is no discussion of addressing the most fundamental of our political problems. Today, for example, many of our finest political minds are filling the airwaves and blogwaves about the position we should take vis à vis toppling Middle East autocrats, the collective bargaining rights of public employees, when to get tough with Somali pirates, how much to cut from this year’s federal budget, who should be the Republican 2012 candidate, etc. Of course, many of these topics are important. But our country is suffering far more from the problem of profoundly inadequate governance than from whether another $30 billion should be cut from the budget, or from miscalculating when the handicapping should begin for the next presidential race.
Our politicians, our political scientists, and our other highly-trained experts from many related disciplines must begin an urgent conversation about how we can fix our government. And the rest of us must join in with a frenzy commensurate with the increasing possibility that the fate of our country will be strongly influenced by the outcome. To be sure, we have been spoiled. We were provided by our Founding Fathers with a system of government so well-designed over 220 years ago that the basic mechanism of checks and balances has required virtually no tinkering since then. But with the handwriting now so clearly on the wall that our under-performing government will lead soon to mediocrity for our society as a whole, we need our thought leaders and experts to give us the tough news – that our system now needs to be fixed – and to begin the conversation by which we reach a consensus on how to do it.
For many of us who claim to believe in fiscal responsibility, the frustration has been building relentlessly over the years: misleading budgeting of war costs; a massive, unfunded expansion of Medicare; tax cuts called “temporary” so that their long-term effects are hidden in the official projections; a new health care regime replete with accounting shell games; and the formation of a good faith bi-partisan Fiscal Commission which gets no support from any quarter of the government.
And so it is tempting to use any means necessary to cut the spending. It is tempting to hold Republicans’ feet to the fire of their campaign pledge to cut $100 billion precipitously and without regard to the harm to needed programs. It is tempting to use Mutual Assured Destruction brinksmanship to threaten to shut down the government or to freeze the debt cap without regard to the collateral damage to the country and to international confidence in our currency. And it is tempting to threaten any voices of reason with a challenge from the right flank in their next primary election if they don’t drink the Kool-Aid.
Perhaps, with things as they are, there is no other way to begin the much-delayed process of bringing our finances under control. But this approach is reckless, potentially dangerous, and will leave a legacy of further acrimony and bitterness with many new scores to settle among our members of Congress. And it won’t do anything to convince the broad majority of Americans that our government is good hands.
And saddest of all is the fact that it doesn’t have to be this way. The Public Check on Congress amendment, had it been in place, would have created a much hotter seat much earlier on fiscal matters and Congress would have been obliged to act as a single entity to implement and explain to America whatever tough choices had to be made. Decisions would have been made on a much more strategic basis, evolving over a year or two, with input and political cover provided transparently by appropriate advisory bodies. And the critical connection would be with the broad center of America, not with one political fringe or another or with campaign financiers.
The good news, of course, is that we Americans are a smart people: smart enough to see clearly that our system for making political decisions needs an adjustment, and to begin a serious look, with an appropriate degree of urgency, at alternatives to fix it.
I’m calling this week the first anniversary of the Public Check on Congress initiative. It was Tuesday, February 2, 2010 when Illinois held its primary election for the Congressional midterms. Groundhog Day, as it happened. The fire station where I vote is a short walk away. I vote just after it opens.
The man who had been my Congressman for the past 10 years now wanted to be my Senator. He’d been sound on local issues like keeping Lake Michigan clean and smiled at me when I shook his hand a few weeks back at the commuter train station, so why shouldn’t I vote for his promotion? I certainly couldn’t blame him for the last ten years of Congressional gridlock. My list of unaddressed priorities shows that Congress was dysfunctional long before he arrived and I certainly didn’t see anyone on that ballot who would do any better.
With his moving on, his seat in the House of Representatives was now open for only the second time in 30 years and so there was an attractive crop of candidates vying for it. They were all fresh faces with great ideas. Any one of them would do their very best to be a force for constructive change – from their new perch at the very bottom of the pecking order in an institution that reveres seniority above all else.
As I walked home from the polling station that morning, I was convinced that every candidate I had seen on the ballot for Congress was capable of excellent governance. I could have voted for anyone of them and felt good about it. And yet, despite having performed my civic duty in a most admirable way, I was equally convinced that I had done absolutely nothing to improve the performance of Congress.
Returning home, the sun started to peek above the horizon. I caught a glimpse of my shadow on the sidewalk in front of me. I couldn’t help but think that the only difference between me and the groundhog was that his “same old same old” would only last six weeks. And I muttered to myself, “We can do better than this.”
Last night, as I finalized the copy for this website, I tuned in the State of the Union address by President Obama. With Prom Night seating arrangements, the shared heartache at the sight of the empty chair of Representative Gabby Giffords, the “let’s work together” themes from the President’s speech – there seemed, more so than in the recent past, a sense of civil togetherness in the House chamber last night. On the other hand, there remains little expectation that that feeling will generate genuine cooperation among the members of Congress in the months to come as they develop their agenda and work to implement it. Perhaps as a portent there were not one but two rebuttal speeches following the President’s.
As the climate of “business-as-usual” returns to Washington, I launch this website to convince you that it doesn’t have to be that way. I hope you will look over the Public Check on Congress proposal and imagine how a climate of collective responsibility and accountability for members of Congress could permanently change for the better the atmosphere surrounding the work of Congress and its impact on the country. Your thoughts will be welcome.