Congress seems to enjoy its blatant displays of dysfunction and self-interest. First, they display their contempt for 90% of the public by voting down legislation on universal background checks for gun-buyers that the public overwhelmingly supported. They blatantly put their desires in the foreground and voted down the Manchin-Toomey bi-partisan amendment that would have put common sense background check wording into the original bill. Not only did that vote show their outrageous arrogance about most people’s opinions and concerns, it demonstrated that their own self-interest takes first place in terms of their jobs.
Their self-interest was clearly in high gear when threatened with the disappearance of campaign funds, and with the possibility of primary battles against well-financed candidates that the NRA and gun manufacturers would likely fund and support in every way possible. Even then, there were also added attacks on the rules of order that allow the leaders to agree to a 60-vote majority for each of the proffered amendments, despite the fact that such a standard is nowhere to be found in our Constitution. So, although a clear majority of senators voted in favor of the amendment on background checks, the amendment failed because of a rule that essentially defines the dysfunction of the Senate. You would think that this would be enough to illustrate for the public a dysfunctional, arrogant, non-legislating, corrupted legislature. But it wasn’t.
The Senate needed to get home for another recess, and thereby hangs a second tale of self-interest taking over the legislative process. If you missed it, here’s the story. Sequestration has begun to take hold in many ways. One very annoying example of the consequences of this foolish policy decision is that government-employed traffic-controllers have begun to be furloughed to meet budget cuts. Interesting that the Congress seems oblivious to the consequences of its actions. Imagine their surprise when airlines began to experience flight delays because air traffic got backed-up. Many passengers began to complain, especially frequent-flyers, many of whom were connected to businesses that just happen to be contributors to certain congressmen. However, what put the icing on the cake was when legislators realized that they themselves were going to experience delays as they looked toward their spring break. So what did they do within a matter of hours? They passed legislation by huge margins to exempt the air traffic controllers from sequestration so that furloughs would be ended at least through September. Interesting precedent. Does that mean that old folks and some younger folk with disabilities will be exempt from the burden and harm that will be caused by drastic cutting back of Meals on Wheels? Not likely.
So these vignettes clearly illustrate what it takes to get our representatives to act decisively: whenever they are personally affected by legislation that they foisted on the rest of us. And don’t forget: the Congress has passed vast amounts of legislation from which they exempted themselves. One example: the Affordable Care Act, and from Social Security itself. That aside, this latest occurrence is shameful. It illustrates the horrendous tendency of this Congress to ignore the needs of 98% of the population while it tends to the needs of the richest among us and to everything that is self-promoting! Is the only way they can become bi-partisan is to be forced to do something for themselves? So it appears!
And why would we be surprised by that? After all, at the very base of the Congress is the overwhelming need to be re-elected which is the epitome of self-interest. Thus, every decision a congressman or senator makes must be evaluated in terms of that opportunity and challenge. Connected to that basic tenet is another equally gripping criterion: the overwhelming need to raise money and to cow-tow to those sponsors who are already donating on a regular basis. With the combination of the self-promoting need to be re-elected and the coercive power of money, it’s a wonder that anything beneficial gets legislated. Lately, it appears that nothing actually is being legislated with any substance. As responsible citizens, we must take action in regard to both of these obstacles to meaningful law-making.
The first step we must take is to examine the need, once again, for term limits. The Congress will never basically change if there exists the possibility of making a career of being a Representative or Senator. These positions were never meant to be concretized by such on-going entitlement. It is necessary to the nature of the Congress to prevent this from happening. We need to have a citizen legislature, not a Congress made up of professional politicians. We need people who are elected for a brief time and then who go back to their communities to inform, reform and strengthen those communities. It is not in the best interest of our country to have professional politicians calling the shots rather than citizen representatives. They come from entirely different points of view and perspectives.
The professional politician is terribly concerned with his/her image, position, status, welfare. The true citizen politician is less concerned with those issues than with how to be a good representative, how to serve his constituency, how to relate to his home community, how to train worthy successors, how to influence the future of this nation. When there is an end time to your office, you tend to want to get things done before your time is up. One of the major things to be considered is how professional politicians cling to the atmosphere, the contacts and the privileges of office. Many of them are looking forward, not to how they can influence the future of their country, but rather their ability to influence the “movers and shakers” who are in positions of being able, when elected tenures are done, to offer lucrative positions in their businesses or in lobbying firms .
However, we must also dig below the surface and recognize that term limits are not adequate without a method of preparatory and on-the-job training in best practices. We seem to think that it is just fine for these senators and congress persons to learn “on-the-job.” With term limits, we would no longer have that luxury. As concerned citizens, we would have to find ways – in schools and colleges, but also in academies, think tanks, forums and convocations – to train our future representatives. We can no longer afford the lack of training and nurturing that too many of our political representatives currently have. We (meaning the concerned political parties) need to consider establishing regional training centers where nascent representatives of the people can be trained in problem-solving, effective law-making, group dynamics, public speaking, political science, effective constituent services, and leadership, to name a few subjects. Such training would go a long way toward creating effective leaders and competent problem-solving advocates for the people instead of self-advocates. It wouldn’t hurt at all to have these Centers develop programs designed to train mentors who would assist new office seekers and office holders with the day-to-day questions that may arise. Mentoring, nurturing, training - sounds like something that might produce a whole new breed of leaders.
The discussion to set term limits ought to also focus on the length of terms, especially in the House of Representatives. Two year terms are almost a joke. By the time a congress person gets oriented and begins catching on to what is happening, it’s time to face an election. The second year of a two-year term is spent raising funds and schmoozing donors, not legislating as one should. What we need are three-year terms for Congressmen, with a limit of four terms in overall tenure. That would equal a 12-year limit or two terms for Senators. What a blessing it would be for citizens to know if they make a mistake and elect a real dud, he or she will not be able to continue on forever even in a solidly red or blue district. That brings up one more piece to this puzzle: re-districting of congressional districts must be put into the hands of ordinary citizens who do not hold any public office. This is imperative if we are to ever have a system built on real representation and not on a carved-up district designed to benefit one party or the other. It can be done, and needs to be done.
Finally, there is the question of money in politics. It is ruining the concept of our representative democracy, and destroying the very fabric of our system. We cannot continue to allow money to rule rather than the people. First, the Citizens United decision has to be overturned by a constitutional amendment. Such foolishness as declaring a corporation equivalent to a person is a travesty. And while we are at it, let’s also get rid of lifetime tenure for judges and justices. A limit of 20 years on the bench should be sufficient.
But, more especially, we must have public-financed elections with strict limits on the amounts that candidates can receive from any one individual, and with corporations, and other incorporated or combined entities such as PACs, forbidden from making any contributions to any election in any way, either by first party donations or by 3rd party advertisements and flyers or brochures. Let’s make candidates responsible for their campaigns, and let them spend public monies according to guidelines established by a permanent election council. Second, let’s have a “truth-in-advertising” panel that will determine if anyone is in violation of fair practices, if anyone is guilty of using non-factual material, with the power to impose heavy fines and to bring other charges before a court. Third, there must be a limit on the amount of money that can be allocated or spent on each race, and it must be set at reasonable levels of expenditure. Finally, we have to shorten the election season, and restrict campaigning to about 6 months for any office. Then to top that off, we must open up voter registration and voter participation.
We have been too long involved in making up rules that restrict these two very important activities. Registration ought to be allowed when one registers a car; when one enters a public building; or even when one sits at his home computer and fills out a voter registration form online. Elections need to be held on days when people can get to the polls. A Tuesday work-day is not the most convenient time for people to vote. We have to change this to be at the advantage of the voter, not the advantage of a politician, a corporate CEO or a member of the 1% of the population. This is our right and our duty. Let’s make it easier to register and to vote. The only way to do that, once again, is to enshrine it in the Constitution, and to make sure ordinary citizens are involved in the Commissions and Committees that are formed to keep things honest and forthright.
We cannot abide, nor can we afford, to proceed as we are now doing. The dysfunction is clear; the corruption is rampant; destruction is near. Our form of government is being taken from us and we are almost powerless to stop the process of disintegration unless we have a ground-swell of support for reform that changes everything from the ground up. We have precious little time to waste before the oligarchs, the right-wing nuts, the liars and the cheaters, the lobbyists and the lawyers take from us what we dare not lose: our representative democracy. The Congress -- both Senate and House -- have already demonstrated that neither represents the citizens of this country. They are too busy tending to their own selfish needs. Don’t ever let yourself forget the rapidity with which the Congress got rid of sequestration cuts that affected them so they could get home on another intolerable recess. We must throw the bums out, but first we have to fix the system, and we can’t do that without fundamental changes in our Constitution. We can make piece-meal changes with legislation, but fundamental change requires that we amend the document that defines our system of governance. Let us start by over-turning Citizens United.