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Monday, July 21, 2014

The Fourth Branch of Government

Our representative democracy is plagued with dysfunction. 

The Legislative Branch is at an all-time low in approval rating in various polls because it not only refuses to do its job of legislating to resolve or solve problems, its members can't even negotiate compromise measures that will benefit their back-home constituencies.  In other words, most members of Congress no longer represent the People, but represent whatever special interest group bought their election and their office.  Today, half of the members of Congress are millionaires or multi-millionaires, which means that they are members of an elite faction -- Plutocrats.  This elite-owned group is so dysfunctional, they cannot (won't) even pass legislation like immigration reform or extended background checks for gun purchases even though the population at large favors such legislation by 70-80%.  However it may look to us, they know what they are doing, and every move is calculated to bring them closer to their goal: to enhance their control and their wealth.  For them, the current dysfunction in the Congress is a tool, not a failing.  It serves their goal of weakening the federal government, de-regulating all industry, and getting rid of social programs that they do not wish to fund or support.

According to data from Spectrem Group, the Chicago-based wealth research firm, there are now 8.99 million U.S. households whose net worth totals $1 million or more (not including primary residence). That is up from 8.6 million in 2011 and just short of the all-time record set in 2006, when the United States had 9.2 million millionaire households.  However, the number of individual millionaires remains at about 1% of the total population of the U.S.  Yet, this small group basically holds sway over our government, our economy, our schools, our banks, our investments, and even of our tax system.  By means of a conspiratorial Plan (recall those secret meetings of wealthy corporation owners with the Koch brothers), they are out to take over ("revolutionize") our systems and our institutions.  Their Plan is to operate everything according to Right-wing ideology, and they have made too much head-way for any of us to be comfortable with what they are doing. 

The Executive Branch of government - the so-called "federal bureaucracy" -- is so dysfunctional that it can't get wounded veterans to proper treatment in a timely fashion.  It cannot do much about illegal immigration, nor about humanitarian aid to refugees (mainly children) who are trying to flee repressive and violent regimes or cultures in South America.  It can't even produce a healthcare website without major problems because it has so little control over private contractors.  In addition, much of its work in secret ("intelligence" work) is exactly that and is hidden from most of us by a veil of secrecy that only now and then has a slit in its fabric for all to gain a glimpse of what we do behind that veil. 

However, this dysfunction is nothing new; the bureaucracy has been out-of-control for some time.  Unfortunately, now that we have the technological knowledge to resolve many bureaucratic tangles, we do not have the wherewithal to afford to put effective practical hardware and software plus proper personnel in place!  The bureaucracy is so large that we can't afford to equip it adequately.  It is so large and unwieldy that no President can easily move it or get it to function quickly and effectively through Executive Order (perhaps excluding Special Ops forces that brought down Osama bin Laden!). 

It is basically a myth that an effective businessman or administrator as President could coordinate and oversee this labyrinth more efficiently and effectively, for it is essentially a diverse group of unrelated departments all functioning according to their own history, milieu, norms, customs and rules, with common threads between departments less obvious than their differences.  Loyalty is often measured by department standards, not by federal standards, and, in some cases, that misplaced loyalty affects what the departments or offices fail to tell the President or his staff.

We can find pockets of efficiency and effectiveness in certain departments and offices, usually with a narrow scope of operations and purpose, but in the broadest sense, one can expect to find uncertainty, disinformation, ineffectiveness and incompetence no matter who is the President.  And yet, we do see the Executive branch operate well enough that we forget the dysfunctions until attention is drawn to them.  After all, our mail arrives as do our social security checks, our taxes are collected, our medical needs met by Medicare and Medicaid, our emergencies are met by first responders, our military functions keep us safe, and schools provide education every day of the week.  So, what's the problem?

The Veterans Administration is just one example of dysfunction, and it appears to go much deeper than the fact that some veterans failed to obtain an appointment or any treatment, even though paperwork had been submitted as initiating a claim.  It appears from testimony of "whistleblowers" before a House Committee, that the top personnel are not being held accountable for their actions, that middle management and others are being poorly trained, and that an "atmosphere" exists that does not put the veterans' needs and service first and foremost.  The testimony indicates that the VA is a mess, pure and simple.  Is this Barack Obama's fault?  Probably not, since many of the problems existed before his presidency.  The problems of VA autonomy, separation from the White House and other departments within the Executive Branch and reluctance to utilize outside resources are evident and need to be explored in-depth. 

Having dwelt on the dysfunction, let me also say that President Obama has issued the smallest number of Executive orders of all the Presidents in recent history.  In the absence of congressional legislation, and to avoid tie-ups within large departments, the President has instead acted on his own to make things happen. During this broad salvo about dysfunction, let us remind ourselves of some of the important accomplishments of this President through Executive Orders or Presidential Memoranda (some of which involved getting a department or office to act, and some of which did not):

*--Use of torture by CIA and military to interrogate prisoners prohibited; ordered a review of our detention and interrogation policy prohibited use of torture; and ordered interrogators to limit their actions to the Army Field manual

*--Within days after taking office, Obama signed an Executive Order ordering an audit of government contracts, and combating waste and abuse

*--Created the post of Chief Performance Officer, whose job it is to make operations more efficient to save the federal government money.

*--On his first full day, he froze White House salaries

*--He committed to phasing out unnecessary and outdated weapons systems

*--Through an executive order, he created the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform

*--Obama created business.gov, which allows for online collaboration between small businesses and experts re managing a business; also launched recovery.gov, so that taxpayers could track spending from the Recovery Act. 

*--Obama crafted an Executive order establishing the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability to assist in financial education for all Americans

*--Obama ordered 65 executives who took bailout money to cut their own pay until they paid back all bailout money

*--He established a Consumer Protection Financial Bureau designed to protect consumers from financial sector excesses

*--Obama appointed the first ever Special Assistant to the President for Disability Policy.

*--He extended benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.

*--He issued a Presidential Memorandum reaffirming the rights of gay couples to make medical decisions for each other.

*--Obama wrote and signed an Executive Order establishing a White House Council on Women and Girls to ensure that all Cabinet and Cabinet-level agencies evaluate the effect of their policies and programs on women and families

*--He signed an Executive Order that established the White House Office of Urban Affairs

*--He re-established and reinforced our partnership with NATO and other allies on strategic international issues. Closed a number of secret detention facilities.

*--He returned our focus to Afghanistan, and began the process of withdrawing our troops. Fulfilled campaign promise and ended our involvement in Iraq.

*--He signed an order banning gifts from lobbyists to anyone in the Executive Branch.

*--He signed an order banning anyone from working in an agency where they had lobbied in previous years. He also put strict limits on lobbyists’ access to the White House.

*--He held the first-ever online town hall from the White House, and took questions

*--He crafted an Executive Order on Presidential Records, which restored the 30-day time frame for former presidents to review records

All this occurred just within the first few years of his Presidency.  I haven't even gotten to some of the Orders he has signed since then, including several regarding sanctions on Russia, establishing minimum wage for government contractors, establishing an Executive Emergency Board and improving critical infrastructure cybersecurity!  With his determined Republican detractors, he can't win no matter what he does:  he's leading from behind if he doesn't act precipitously; or he's lazy because he plays golf or drinks a beer with someone somewhere; or, he's being sued for acting when Congress refuses to act.  Often, he is blamed for consequences or outcomes originally put into law by Republicans.  Thus, if he puts a waiver on something in the ACA to accommodate small businesses, he gets sued for it, even though he was following what the Republican Congress asked him to do!  The President has been one of the most prolific we have had in a long time in terms of  pieces of legislation signed and executive actions that made a difference in how government operates.  Even LBJ might be envious!

The Judicial Branch is in the spotlight of dysfunction right now.  At times, it now seems incapable of determining what the Constitution says or means mainly because the Court operates with a conservative majority who are loyal to certain tenets and principles that can't be easily found in the Constitution.  These right-wing Justices tend to rule according to their conservative ideology and then try to find a basis for that in the Constitution or in legal precedent.  Sometimes they succeed -- as with the ACA; and other times they fail miserably, as with Hobby Lobby, McCutheon, Quinn, and McCauley.  This is a Court intent on destruction of rights (speech vote, collective bargaining), benefits (women's health), safeguards and protection (McCauley), equality under the Law (nullification of part of voting rights act) and no establishment of religion (Hobby Lobby), except for the wealthy.  As far as the right-wing judges are concerned, the SCOTUS is functioning just fine.  For the rest of us, every day in a term seems to bring another decision that diminishes, damages or eliminates something that we thought we could count on as stable. 

All three branches of the federal government are dysfunctional, which leaves us where?  We may have only one recourse:  the fourth branch of this democracy -- the People.  It is not talked about a lot, but the Constitution does say in its Preamble that the Constitution is established by the People.  Then, there is that mention of this other branch in Amendment X, which puts a proper cap on the Bill of Rights (the first Ten Amendments that constitute rights granted to "the People."): 
 

        "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, not prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people." (Emphasis mine)

Moreover, don't you just love Amendment XIV, Section 1?

        "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of the citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

The time has come to take this Fourth Branch more seriously as an entity with potential power and authority.  It is therefore, my intention, to bring to your attention (as I have briefly in past posts such as 5/26/14, 3/23/14, 1/18/12 and 6/20/10), the importance of placing ordinary citizens in positions that can directly influence the governing of this nation.  Some would argue that the states are the Fourth Branch, but I prefer to think of them as adjuncts to federal government, operating often in compliance with federal laws, appropriations, and grants, rather than as a separate branch.  Arguably, the People have greater standing as a separate Branch, since they are seen as citizens possessing certain powers, rights and privileges granted to them, that are not reserved or delegated directly to the states.

It is my purpose, then, to propose to you that the People need to be included at all levels of government (states included) in a role that will enhance their importance as citizens, counselors and as voters who have, albeit, undefined "powers" not delegated elsewhere.  I venture to assert that some of the powers they derive is that of experience as citizens; acquired expertise by a lifetime of work or study; wisdom acquired by life's experiences, and authority gained in part by all of these attributes.  We also need the practical problem-solving capacity that ordinary citizens can bring to a dysfunctional government out of their own endeavors.  We desperately need the practicality and the pragmatism of our citizens inside our governmental structures, not outside and distant from them!

Thus, I propose a network of Citizen Advisory Panels (CAPs) (or call them Peoples' Advisory Councils (PACs) or Citizen Advisory Boards (CABs) if you prefer), to advise all elected officials, offices, departments, commissions, committees, judges, panels, legislators and cabinet members -- with nothing and no one excluded. 

Here are my specific proposals:
1)    Ideally, a constitutional amendment would serve to cement this concept, but that may be entirely impractical as a first step;

2)    Legislation that makes the operation of such Panels or Councils legal and binding on all parts of government

3)    Procedures for electing and/or appointing citizens to these positions, including basic qualifications and disqualifications for candidates, excluding any private money from elections and making citizen advisor elections publicly financed to protect their unique status;

4)    Place advisory panels in Inspectors General offices wherever this is feasible and appropriate; this might be possible by Executive Order, but may not be wise politically’

5)    Assign particular duties to every panel or council that is seated.  Some of these might include: advise on legislation pending or in progress; advise on fiscal matters, particularly on how money is spent or can be saved; evaluate proposed goals and objectives (a department or office Plan); evaluate accomplishments and outcomes; evaluate private contracts in terms of cost vs. outcomes, etc.

6)    Findings or reports of all evaluations sent to the Inspector General, to the department lead or head officer, and the White House.

7)    Advocate best practices; bring experts in for personnel training

8)    Every advisory group should have the ability by law to be a whistle-blower, if that becomes necessary; 

9)    Advisory groups should not be unduly constrained in their ability to act on areas where they have not been invited or consulted;

10)  Terms of office should be limited to 2 or 3 terms of not more than 2 years each

11)  All travel expenses and accommodations must be furnished by the budgets for the departments or offices served by Citizen Advisory Panels.
 
Our "Representative Democracy" no longer works as it should, except for the benefits it brings to the wealthiest, the most powerful, the One-Percenters, the Elite.  Before the Plutocrats destroy our national government -- the one that watches out for our life, liberty, property, opportunity, welfare and rights -- I suggest to you that the only real counter to the forces of the Right-wing oligarchy now in charge is the grassroots common-sense of ordinary citizens like you and me.  The Fourth Branch -- We, the People -- have to infiltrate and reform our dysfunctional three existing branches with the activism and determination of citizen commitment.  We cannot get to that point until reform candidates with progressive values are elected to office.  The national and state elections of 2014 will be critical to the future of this representative democracy.