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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Real Reform of Washington

Congressman Richard Hanna (R-NY 24th) has again sent his constituents a colorful (and expensive) flyer that makes claims far beyond reality.  Entitled, “Reforming Washington to Work for You”,  this piece of propaganda makes the absurd claim that Mr. Hanna has been “focused on reforming government to make it more responsive and responsible.”

To back up this claim, he points to several pieces of legislation that he has either sponsored, co-sponsored, or voted to support:
--sponsored legislation that would put a “time-out” on rules and regulations
--voted to support a “balanced budget amendment”
-- voted to cut Congress’ budget by 5%
--offered an amendment that would ban Members of Congress from leasing luxury vehicles
--introduced a bipartisan “AGREE Act” which combines the best jobs ideas from Republicans and Democrats
--cosponsored the Congressional Budget Accountability Act that requires leftover dollars in congressional budgets be used for deficit reduction

Mr. Hanna desperately wants us to believe that these measures constitute reform of Washington.  They do not.  They simply nibble around the edges of what is being passed-off as reform by a regressive Republican majority in the House and a recalcitrant minority in the Senate.  Putting a time-out on regulation and rule-making, for instance, does nothing more than leave the playing field wide-open for those business entities that want to earn profits in an unfettered environment, and end up cheating consumers like you and me.  Look at what big banks are trying to do with outrageous new fees; or what Verizon wanted to do by charging you a fee to pay your bill by phone or online.  Anyone remember the Netflix debacle?

A balanced budget amendment is not reform.  It is a power-grab meant to limit the Executive’s ability to propose federal solutions to national problems and a way to put a cap on spending, especially for government programs that assist the poor and workers and the middle class.  It limits the power of the Presidency without a corresponding check on Congress.  If we need a Balanced Budget Amendment to limit the spending that the  President can propose, then we also must have a Line Item Veto Amendment to give the President some control over the penchant of Congress to pass unneeded spending within large essential appropriation bills.  It also limits the federal government from taking necessary measures to address an ugly recession or an emergency situation.  Moreover, it serves as a crutch for the Congress to lean on.  Instead of making difficult decisions like raising more revenue through a fair tax system, and cutting out all the loopholes in that system, they would get to hide from that particular responsibility. 

Real reform is what President Obama is trying to bring about with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (C.F.P.B.) that will regulate mortgage brokers, lenders and servicers, as well as payday lenders, credit card companies, private student loan providers, and all banks with assets over $10 billion.  This is a rulemaking and enforcement authority that has been consolidated out of 12 different federal agencies and placed in a semi-independent bureau that targets the very groups that happen to be large donor patrons for the Republican Party.  Congressional Republicans (including Rep. Hanna) tried to undercut the bureau at every opportunity.  Let me count the ways:

--trashed Elizabeth Warren in hearings when they thought she would end up being nominated as head of the agency.
--tried to replace the C.F.P.B.’s single director with a five-member bipartisan commission
--attempted to lower the number of votes required for the newly created Financial Stability Oversight Council to overturn any CFPB rule.
--proposed legislation to prevent the Bureau from functioning without a Senate-confirmed director in place; and then proceeded to hold up, oppose, and delay the approval of Obama’s appointee (until the President made a recess appointment)
--in addition, its budget is capped; it is subject to GAO oversight, and is required to report regularly to Congress -- all compromises with Republicans in order to get it passed as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

Real reform of Washington will be accomplished when politicians like Mr. Hanna stand up for consumer protection, public financing of elections, ending of all PACs that benefit no one but special interests;  re-districting drawn by non-partisan citizen commissions in every state; restricting amounts that can be spent for primaries or general elections for all offices; setting standards for political advertisements in all media and restricting the length of time allowed for campaigning; enhancing voter registration, not curtailing it with pseudo reforms like picture IDs.

Real reform of Washington will be accomplished when representatives and senators vote to amend our constitution in a thoughtful and balanced way:  by establishing term limits for congressional and judicial office-holders; outlawing any and all gifts or contributions (broadly defined) to office-seekers or office-holders;  severely limiting the ability of office-holders, and their family and staff members, from any involvement with consulting or lobbying firms while they hold, and after they leave, office; not only calling for a balanced budget but for a line-item veto; and, ending any ability to establish earmarks and tax loopholes that benefit a limited constituency.

Finally, real reform of Congress will involve the transparency of the budget of every congressional office; reduction in the number of committees and sub-committees (they all cost money); the demolition of all political offices within the leadership of the House and Senate;  the elimination of irrelevant or special privilege offices like chaplains or in-house medical clinicians; the elimination of all special privileges not available to most ordinary citizens (like leased limousines and special drivers; and corporate jet transport by big business interests); no more exemptions or exceptions for members of the legislative branch -- all laws passed must apply equally to them as to ordinary citizens; legal restrictions on the use of insider information to feather their own nests in the stock market, land development or 3rd party aggrandizement.

Although this is just a starting point, it is a much more substantive plan than that presented by Mr. Hanna, or by most of our representatives who fear real governmental reform and the threat it augurs for their positions, their power, and their crony capitalism.  Nibbling at the edges like Mr. Hanna wants to do will not solve our issues with a dysfunctional Congress, nor will it change the way Washington functions.  Real reform must aim at the very core of our governmental processes.  I challenge Mr. Hanna, and his colleagues, to make such in-depth reform of  our federal government a top priority and the imperative for our times.