Written by: Michael Baharaeen and Connor Stangler
Too often our statesmen do not act like statesmen. Too often their response to our most pressing questions of life and liberty is to dig the trenches of partisanship even deeper. Though we recognize that politics takes places in the arena of the partisan, we hope for compromise, collaboration, and ideal representativeness. We hope that money wields less sway in elections and voters more. We hope that majorities use political advantage for the citizens’ advantage. We hope that power breeds civil responsibility and not more power. Today, the pointlessness of that hope prevails.
So we offer an antidote. We present a four-part series on practical government reforms: Congressional, electoral, campaign finance, and democratic. We direct this series at those who are most disillusioned, those who no longer believe they live and work in a republic of efficacy but in a republic of discord. We seek to fix the system, not escape it. We agree with former U.S. Congressmen Mickey Edwards that we want “people, not parties” to run our nation. And we agree with President Franklin D. Roosevelt that “government is ourselves and not an alien power.” Here then are our suggestions to make government less alien and more our own.
Part 1: Congressional and Procedural Reforms
Amendment and Debate
Current congressional practice gives the minority party little procedural influence, with the majority party controlling the flow of debate and the ability to introduce amendments. This practice is known as using “closed” rules. We would propose allowing any elected official to offer amendments and with rare exceptions put said amendments to a vote. If an amendment has substantial support — i.e. it meets a certain threshold of co-sponsors — it will be given an up-or-down vote on the House floor. Prohibiting closed procedures on the House floor, which preclude any minority amendments, would give the minority a greater chance to have their voices heard. To prevent procedural abuse — i.e. indefinitely offering amendments to stall the advancement of a bill — the House can create its own rules to expedite debate and bring the issue to vote, such as passing a bill with a 2/3 majority.
Leadership Structure of Congressional Committees
Congressional committees currently operate with a chairman from the majority party and a ranking member from the minority party. However, the scope of the ranking member’s position is fairly limited. An easy modification would be to require that each committee have a chairman from the majority and a vice chairman from the minority. The vice chairman would be allowed to bring bills forward and invite expert witnesses to hearings in the same manner as the chairman. In the chairman’s absence, however, another member of his or her party would ascend to the chairmanship, and not the vice chair.
Selecting Committee Staff
When one of the two parties wins a majority, its members fill the committee’s leadership positions. In addition, these new members are allowed to hand-pick their own staff. These individuals are typically from the same party. This practice fosters the proliferation of biased information and heavily partisan reports that are presented to the committee chairman. We recommend that committee staff be chosen solely on the basis of professional qualifications. This change would allow for more equitable and bipartisan fact and report gathering.
Fostering Increased Congressional Camaraderie
Prior to 1994, Congressmen would attend dinners and informal meetings with members of the other party. The subsequent relationships were vital to the process of politics as the art of compromise. Members felt less inclined to attack one another and more willing to work cooperatively with others. With the ascension of Newt Gingrich to the House Speakership in the ’94 midterms, however, members were strongly encouraged to return home to their districts when they did not have Congressional business in Washington. Our recommendation would be to require that legislators remain in Washington when Congress is in session and use their time out of session to interact with constituents. While there is merit in increased contact between the voter and his or her representative, the absence of strong bonds between members of Congress has led to higher rates of character attacks and less room for compromise.
Reforming the Capitol Hill to K Street “Revolving Door”
Recently, the former notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff wrote a book detailing his actions during his tenure as a lobbyist. He and his colleagues would visit Congressional offices and offer staffers positions in their company after they (the staffers or politicians) were done working on the Hill. At that point, his firm “owned” them. The staffers would not only do everything his firm requested, but they would actively seek out ways to further promote the interests of the firm that lobbyists couldn’t even think of.
The problem is that this practice is completely legal. In fact, K Street lobbying firms have recently developed “rosters” of Congressional officials who will be retiring in 2012. These rosters target officials who would be the most valuable addition to their firms. We recommend that Congress pass a law prohibiting elected officials or staffers from taking lobbyist positions for at least a year upon leaving office. This may give Hill workers less of an incentive to actively seek favors for lobbyists during their tenures.
Since the 2010 midterms and census, we’ve seen a lot of newly formed Republican state legislatures that are intent on redrawing Congressional districts that favor their party. As former Republican Congressman Edwards indicates, his district was gerrymandered in such a way to favor Democrats in surrounding districts. The problem that arose was that he was not representing a familiar constituency. While he was from the suburbs, his new district encompassed much of the countryside. In contrast, Congressmen who resided in the country were now representing urban districts. What results is that district boundaries are drawn along partisan lines rather than conventional demographic or geographical lines that would be derived from a nonpartisan redistricting process. Our recommendation would be for states to use independent commissions during the redistricting process. Thirteen states have adopted this practice, such as California.
Though many of our prescriptions have addressed the potential problems of an overpowering majority, there is one area of Congressional politics regarding the minority party that deserves contemplation. One current Senate practice that has severely inhibited the legislative process is the filibuster. This mechanism was initially intended to give minority voices a chance to forestall a piece of legislation if they had serious concerns. The only way to override a filibuster is with a 60-vote majority.
These rules, while at times used for good intentions, have been unnecessarily abused. The rule is no longer an honorable counter-majoritarian tool; it has transformed the Senate into political theater and rendered Congress impotent in the minds of the voters. For example, today’s Republican Party, which is staunchly opposed to helping the Obama Administration pursue its goals, routinely filibusters appointments, leaving several agencies without key leaders and officials. They have the power, if they don’t want the President’s initiatives to move forward, to block every single piece of proposed legislation. At that point there is little use in paying them for a job that consists of unproductive opposition.
We would propose that the Senate hold hearings and meetings on reforming the rule so that it could still be a valuable tool for the minority and not something that could be so easily abused. The filibuster remains as one of the few options for the minority to have their voice heard. Our goal is simply to ensure that it does not completely stall the legislative process but is rather used to voice serious concerns that a Senator may want to raise.
The foregoing recommendations should be easy fixes or, in the very least, noncontroversial items for discussion. Our ideas know no partisan ideology. As we continue our blog series, it is our hope that individuals of all political stripes will take heed of these suggestions with an open mind and that each proposal will be weighed on its intrinsic merits, without being observed through a veil of preconceived ideological standards.