Fixing Congress

I've long been a fan of term limits. When people aspiring to office know, going in, that they're coming out and going back to "real life" after a maximum period, there is less incentive to spend all their time working to be re-elected, and there is less influence that outsiders can wield with contributions.  This doesn't force officials to do the public's business, but it does raise it in the chain of priorities.

Of course, term limits for Congress are a hopeless battle. Even though certain states have managed to institute limits, there is no way that states with long-serving, powerful Congressional members are going to willingly give up the influence that accrues to members with seniority.

I saw this first-hand with local Congressman Bob Inglis. I met Bob twice while he was as yet a relatively unknown person challenging a well-known incumbent. I liked his policy philosophy very well, and his unilateral promise to limit himself to a discrete number of terms made him appear very honorable and earnest. Bob won his seat. His problems began immediately. With the knowledge that he wasn't going to scrabble and scratch backs for favors to help with his re-elections, he was immediately marginalized in committee assignments. Knowing he would not accumulate significant seniority, the power brokers refused to let him play with the big dogs.

It occurred to me today that there may be another, less onerous way of overcoming the bitter partisanship that plagues Congress than by sweeping them all out the door every few years.

You see, each time one of the parties gets big majorities in one or both Houses, it tries to institute rules that will favor it and disadvantage the other party. To my mind, this inevitably leads to such egregious behavior that eventually the electorate decides it's had enough. The pendulum swings the other way, and the majorities tip to the opposing party, which seems virtuous next to the crooks & thieves that have finally raised the public's ire.

After about eight years with the new masters of Congress, it's time to swing the pendulum again.

So, my idea is this: Remove the parliamentary rules and processes that freeze out the minority party.

It's amazing to me that a) the two Houses work under different rules, and b) both have a host of methods for managing legislation designed to bottle up the minority party.  The committee chairmen, who usually are the most senior members from the majority party,  can refuse to take a bill to the floor. The Senate Majority Leader and the House Speaker can both set the business in their chambers so that bills they don't support are never brought for debate or vote. In fact, they can refuse to accept offered amendments from the minority party.  Even if, for appearances sake, they allow the other guys some voice, they can make sure that their ideas go nowhere by enforcing "party discipline" against them. Since most Congresspeople want to spend nice long careers at their jobs, they are loath to cross the leaders. And there are other leaders charged with making them see the light, if they show signs of straying; why do you think the "Whip" got named that? The Senate even has procedures that let single members put anonymous holds on legislation for reasons they are not compelled to state. So when the electorate wants to know why the Senate is doing nothing on an issue, they can't even find out who is blocking it!

It's only major legislation that is closely watched by the electorate that has a chance of a revolt by the back-benchers. Being accountable to your constituents is not that easy when they're actually paying attention to how you're voting.

Result: Issue after issue voted along party lines on bills that are crafted with the ideas and input of only the party in power.

It's (I think) true that over the long-term, America is about 45% Republican and 45% Democrat and 10% truly independent and persuadable. To pass bills that ignore the input and ideas of one party is disenfranchising a huge minority of the country's citizens.

Right now, Obamacare is an article of faith among Republicans that it is a socialist vision with a huge price tag we can't afford. It's equally an article of faith for Democrats that Obamacare must be in place to provide health care to the "needy" (however that is defined).

If you get Congresspeople alone and off the record, you will find that both sides think there are parts of this 2700-page bill that we really need, and some that we'd be better off voiding and starting over. Few exhibit unalloyed happiness about it. The reason we have this is the determination Congress felt, when Democrats controlled both Houses, that we needed to move this bill written by anonymous staffers, and do it without fighting skirmishes over pieces of it with the Republicans. So it was rammed through with no Republican input... or votes.

Can anything be so vexing to a Congressperson as to be unheard because of party affiliation? But, absent some quantifiable leverage such as the House's control of the debt ceiling, there is no input sought or accepted from Congressional Republicans right now, on anything.

And I have perfect confidence that when the pendulum swings back, and Republicans are the majority party again, they will do their damndest to ignore Democrats while pushing their agenda.

The solution is to remove the devices, dodges, processes, practices, and maneuvers that are codified in the chambers' rules that prevent the minority party from being heard - that make compromise so tough. When (or if) we go back to civilly listening to the other side and candidly admitting that they might have some useful ideas too, we might stand a chance of getting the peoples' business done. And when BOTH parties stand behind painful compromises that address our pending fiscal crises, Congresspeople might be able to resist the inborn feeling they need to run for cover.

Come on, Congress. Clean up your act. Compromise. Get the deals done. Stop acting like children. Maybe then you could have a reason to feel as you do - that you're better than the rest of us.

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