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Sunday, October 20, 2013

What Would YOU Do?

During a grassroots Rally to protest government inaction on the government shut-down, I was asked by a TV reporter: what would you do about this issue if you were in Congress?  I responded that it was a very good question, but one that was difficult to answer.  Perhaps I should have said that it is a question that’s been made difficult to answer because of all the shenanigans surrounding this budget debacle.  In fact, the answer that I would have given if there was time, was far too complicated to approach in a brief interview.  So here is an attempt to redeem myself just a bit.

Let me start with a recent occurrence in the House of Representatives.  Available in the House was a piece of legislation (H.J. Res. 59) already approved by the Senate that supported a Continuing Resolution of the federal budget at current levels for a period of time so that a budget deal could be worked on, and the debt ceiling issue attended to.  After the shut-down had entered its second week, Rep. Chris Van Holland (D-Maryland and ranking member of the House Budget Committee) and others, decided to use Rule XXIII 4 to present the Senate-passed Res. 59 under that rule as a matter of privilege.  But the House Rules Committee had previously voted to change that rule for this one specific bill. They added language dictating that any motion "may be offered only by the majority Leader or his designee." They then obtained enough Republican member votes to put that new rule into effect. 

When Democrat Chris Van Holland tried to present H.J. Res. 59 for a vote. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah temporarily occupying the Speaker’s chair, denied his motion, based on the new rule in H Res. 368.  Van Holland was outraged and said aloud, “Democracy has been suspended.”  Congressional historians agreed that it was highly unusual for the House to reserve such power solely for the leadership.
For me this means the first thing to be done would be to limit the rule-making power of both houses, either through legislation or by means of constitutional amendment in order to prevent the shut-down of democratic procedures.  Things have gotten so out-of-hand that I would opt to introduce an amendment that would remove the 60-vote majority that has become necessary to pass major legislation in the Senate (because of the filibuster/cloture rules), and then limit both Houses from making any rule that applies solely to one piece of legislation.

Next, as long as I had started down that road, I would introduce other constitutional amendments.  Most important would be to overturn the Citizens United decision of the SCOTUS by denying corporations the ability to be seen as individuals, and forbidding any contributions by other than individuals.

Then I would introduce amendments (or legislation) to:
-- make public financing the accepted method for all elections with possible exception of allowing restricted individual contributions
-- prevent the states from promulgating legislation that restricts voting and allow for voting in many different ways (early voting; online voting; voting at federal or state offices) throughout the country along with setting a national election “weekend” that would keep polls open for two days
--set strict term limits for both Senate and House members, as well as judges;
--prescribe maximum expenditure limits for all elections
--disallow any 3rd party financing
of a candidate or any advertisements for that candidate; --in that connection, submit legislation that would re-instate the equal free-air time for any candidate who has been demeaned personally or had his record distorted by the opposition; a non-partisan citizen commission would be necessary to decide who deserves such free time
--close the revolving door from office-holder to lobbyist after term is complete
--ban all donations and contributions intended to influence legislation and legislators
--ban earmarks
--place ordinary citizens into advisory roles in every branch of government
--permit only non-partisan commissions to re-draw congressional districts every ten years.

Next, I would have a plan for immediate legislation on major issues.  Since I wouldn’t necessarily have a number of terms during which to formulate and offer legislation, I would see to it that a plan was put into effect almost from the first day.  Here are some items I would want to address right away:

Social Security must not be allowed to be attacked by those who want to privatize or disrupt it, so I would propose legislation:

--that would make privatization illegal. 
--to raise the level of taxed income allowed for purposes of SS; include other than wages in that calculation, i.e. interest income and capital gains 
--that would increase benefits because the age of eligibility for full pension has been raised and is still rising.

In the same way, Medicare must be protected against those who would dismantle it.  I would sponsor or co-sponsor legislation that would:
--raise the amount of taxed income for Medicare purposes; no one should be exempted
-- call for annual evaluation of Medicare contracts; of savings from waste & abuse;  of quality care innovations

Medicaid must also be attended to and protected from those who want to devolve its administration to the states.  I would propose the following:
--prevent devolution from occurring
--restore provisions for long-term care
--propose a citizen advisory committee made up exclusively of Medicaid  recipients with powers of evaluation, audit, and making proposals for changes; but responsible to HHS director.
--generally, in relation to health care, propose a single payer system utilizing the best parts of Medicare and Medicaid with a time certain for its implementation; the system would take into account both the UK and Canadian systems

My next area of concern would be support for those issues that President Obama has recently identified:
    -a workable, fair and just budget
    -comprehensive immigration reform
    -a strong farm bill

The next area for concern would be that of programs aimed at helping those living below the Federal Poverty guidelines.  I would propose:
    -creation of jobs and repair and refurbishing of infrastructure
    -increases in food stamps, WIC, and support for child care & transportation
    -restoration of Head Start funding with increases based on evaluation of measurable program outcomes
    -restoration  and increases in scientific research into the causes of childhood and other illnesses as well as environmental causes for illness
    -gun violence control legislation which would expand background checks, eliminate automatic rifles, restrict ammunition clips to at most 10 rounds
    -legislation to address the flaws in the mental health system of this country, such as the inability to share or address violent tendencies in children and youth across disciplines and authorities
    -education reform, starting with the equalization of resources available to school districts which could be accomplished by ending the use of property taxes to fund schools, and substituting a small national education tax based on total income, not just wages.  Those who pay no income taxes would be required to pay this tax through their local  tax office, except that in-kind contributions to schools,  including community service on behalf of a school, could be used as payment (other reforms have been covered in previous Blogs, including the one for September 1, 2013)

Admittedly, this is not only an ambitious agenda, but one which many would call unrealistic.  It is only unrealistic if one holds to the viewpoint that there is nothing amiss with our representative democracy.  The main work of government right now, in the wake of the budget battles taking place in Washington, is not the winning of elections, but the reform of our dysfunctional governing processes.  We must start on the long-term road to reform and renewal, or we shall surely forfeit what has been the best democratic structure for governing that the world has ever seen.  We must repair that structure beginning right away!

Sounds interesting, but what does that mean?  Well, here are a few thoughts:

--I would start by forming an Advisory Council of local constituents who represented a broad cross-section of ordinary citizens to advise me on all matters of legislation and appropriations;  it would meet on a regular basis
--I would set a schedule of visits to local areas and constituencies of my district on a regular basis, to include people living in poverty, groups of concerned citizens, programs and services operating with federal money, and many other citizen groups or organizations such as Business, Labor and Veterans, in order to understand the frustrations, the accomplishments, the needs, and the desires of a broad spectrum of the people of the district.  These visits would not preclude privately held appointments, but would instead open up access to me  and my access to the people.
--I would try to have a system set-up that would meet constituent needs for assistance, but would not simply involve visits to the Congressional offices, but would occur during, and as a result of, my visits to constituencies as well.  My feeling is that congresspersons need to get closer to the people and not burden the people with always having to seek out the congressman.

--I would institute a practice regarding monetary contributions that would put donors on notice that their money does not equal automatic access.  I would have every large donor (under present circumstances they are necessary) sign a memorandum of understanding that would outline how I would use their contribution, and what they could expect from me for donating.  More precisely, I would outline for them the services that any constituent can expect, and make clear that they would not have any special access to me, or any control over what I do based on their contribution

--I would become a “revealer” and a protestor.  Every procedure or activity that I perceived as anti-constitutional, a distortion of facts, or favoritism for one class over another, or the taking of special privileges based on holding of office, I would challenge or reveal, through the usual media channels and by way of social media as well.  Is this counter-productive, given that others‘ support is needed to pass legislation?  Perhaps.  But how else are the people going to know what is actually going on behind the scenes?  Without truth-tellers, we shall find ourselves being ruled by an elite that cares little for our concerns or our issues, and caters only to a small group of people who are like-minded and basically like them in almost every aspect

--I don’t believe in “compromise” as the quintessential strategy for governing or for writing laws.  Compromise is defined as: “a settlement of differences by mutual concessions; an adjustment of conflicting claims or principles by yielding a part of each; arbitration.”  I’d like to start at a different point, and that is from the perspective of problem-solving, in which compromise may play a part, but so does fact-finding and brain-storming and testing solutions and “consensus”.  The latter implies a more active and positive concept of seeking agreement rather than passively assenting to a watered-down version for all involved.  In some cases, it implies the giving up of some strongly held positions in order to join in supporting the consensus of the group. 

--I would not, under any circumstances, put winning of an election above the importance of principles or of meeting the needs of people.  Being of a certain older age, allows one to not care as much about being elected but to care more deeply about being a public servant in a real and demonstrable way.

--I would make sure that legislation was in place to prevent any exemption of congressional members and staff from provisions of laws passed by the Congress.  What’s good for the goose is good for the gander!

--If I were in Congress, I would operate on a problem-solving model that actually has steps that can be followed to a workable conclusion.  And, I would push hard for training in that technique to be a must for all staff  and members, so that the Congress could get about the business of problem-solving and not just of “posturing” in order to win elections.

So, you ask, what is this but just the same old liberal clap-trap?  Well, the first difference is, I would not implement any legislation until I had looked carefully at the problems that exist out there in the real world and try to put them into words that actually describe a real situation.  In other words, I would not simply legislate based on an ideology or personal agenda.  I would use every resource at my disposal to actually study the problems in these areas of concern and try to define them with some specificity based on facts, figures, interviews, and surveys.  So the first difference is the approach to legislation as a solution to a real and well-defined problem.

The second difference would be the way in which possible solutions to the well-defined problem would be collected.  I would seek the input of colleagues and staffers and educators and researchers.  But I would mostly rely on the thoughts and opinions of those most affected by whatever the problems are.  That’s a major difference.  Instead of proposing legislation that never has input from the people most affected by it, I would invert this and get the most information from those who would be most affected!  I’m tired of the tendency of too many legislators to base their legislation on what special interests or rich people or what constituents say on paltry and insignificant “questionnaires” sent out by congress persons in order actually to raise money and to seek pre-arranged agreement with their views.  These questions, and the resulting answers, do not provide enough real information upon which to base a problem statement or a solution to a truly well-defined problem.

Another difference would be in the testing and evaluation of possible solutions.  What used to happen much more than it does today is that legislators often found ways to test out or pilot certain ideas or solutions before a full-blown solution was legislated.  Not a bad idea.  I would return to that concept and try to test out possible solutions before they became law. 

And finally, I don’t see the making of a law or laws as the end of the process of legislating.  I believe in evaluation based on established criteria and expected outcomes from the proposed solutions.  Once a law goes into effect, the Congress usually steps back and lets the Executive branch take over.  If the law doesn’t do what they intended , then they hold hearings and blame the bureaucracy for messing up.  This is time spent wastefully by the Congress.

Instead, problem-solving legislation should have built into it the criteria for evaluation, with reporting scheduled in certain increments, and the expected outcomes or results of a program or service outlined as a matter of course in all such legislation.  The Executive branch should be responsible for reporting their findings back to the Congress so that Congress can then build a better piece of legislation and thus better programs.  And, it wouldn’t hurt for the legislative and executive branches to work together in this endeavor.  My inclination would be to support legislation that called for ordinary citizens to be involved in the evaluation and adjustment stages so that the result would include the concerns of those affected by the legislation and by its unexpected outcomes.

We certainly have a long way to go to arrive at such a point, but that is why a legislative plan and a problem-solving technique are needed.  One can’t waste time and energy playing political games.  All one’s energy must be devoted to rational and reasonable efforts to define problems, to gathering precise information, to testing and implementing solutions that will then be evaluated according to certain criteria.  Sound like some method to my madness?  Yes, there is, and what’s really appalling, is that such a modus operandi is missing from our dysfunctional Congress wrapped up in crippling fights of ideology and politicking.  We need a more rational approach to one of the most important processes in our representative democracy: that of legislating what is tried and tested and found to be most helpful for the greatest number, or most vulnerable segments, of our citizenry. 

Finally, I would have to say that I would set a term limit for myself.  Two terms would bring me to the age of 80.  That’s long enough.  But it would also lend a freer hand to all that one might try to do.  The plans outlined above would be very difficult for someone who is younger and ambitious and looking to make a career of public service (or of what public service could lead to, perhaps).  I think it is a mistake to think of the holding of congressional or senatorial seats as a career.  That is why we need term limits.  Career politicians are the bane of our existence as a representative democracy, for public service can too easily turn to feeding at the public trough, or making a name for oneself, or becoming so self-important that one starts running for the Presidency on a full-time basis even though the citizenry has not given its approval or its consent. 

It comes down to that old adage that we need citizen politicians not career politicians representing us.  Anything else is inconsistent with the nature of the office, which is to represent a constituency for a time and then to return to take one’s place as an experienced representative who can teach and mentor and advise and enable others to be better citizens and better representatives of the people.  The vision of what a representative ought to be has been eroded by systemic flaws that persist to the ultimate degree in our day.  We must go down a different road. 

Thanks to that reporter’s “difficult” question, I’m trying to think this through, and I hope you will as well.