Monday, January 7, 2013

5 Things We Could Change to Make Washington Work

There has been a lot of talk lately about Washington and our government being broken, lame, and even that we should throw out the Constitution (for the record, I think this is a ill-conceived idea, but more on that later).  But the thing is, there are simple, structural reasons why Congress in particular is not working well.  If we addressed those reasons, Congress would work better...

1. Reinstate the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Filibuster - I want to underscore that what is needed is NOT an abolishment of the filibuster.  While the filibuster has been used for bad things (like to prevent civil rights legislation - the dude who actually did the famous talk-til-you-drop Mr. Smith-style filibuster was Strom Thurmond, and it was against a civil rights bill, not for a greater purpose), there are reasons to like it, and it's hard to get rid of it.  But everybody should understand that Rs have been tying up Congress by just saying they want to filibuster, not actually having to stand up and publicly defend their views.  That's stupid.  If you want the power to filibuster, you should have to stand there and talk.


That's defensible.  It's political theater, it will get press coverage, and it will make the public understand the issue better.  To let people filibuster without drawing attention to what they are doing is contrary to democratic values of sunshine in governance.  This is a Senate rule.  The Senate could change it.

2. Abolish Anonymous Holds - A single senator can hold up a bill through a "secret hold" - anonymously.  Yes, the Senate put limits on this power in the last Congress.  But single Senators may still hold a bill or nomination, anonymously.  They shouldn't be able to do that.  In much the same way that filibustering senators should have to talk on the Senate Floor, senators who want to place a hold should have to do so in the sunshine.  This is a Senate rule.  The Senate could change it.

3. No More Hastert Rule - The leadership in the House has a great deal of power in determining which bills get a vote and how.  What does that mean?  Well, the Rules Committee, which is firmly under the control of the Speaker of the House, determines how bills are brought forward, how much time will be given to debate them, and whether any amendments may be offered to them.  How that rule comes out of the Rules Committee has everything to do with whether the bill will pass and what it will look like if it does.  The Speaker of the House can also generally stop a bill from coming to a vote.  And in the Republican Party in the House, there has evolved a private "rule" that the Speaker will not bring a bill to the Floor for a vote unless "a majority of the majority" - i.e. more than half of the Republicans voting - will vote for the bill.  It's called the Hastert Rule, after former Speaker Dennis Hastert.  Hastert oversaw a long run of very strict, hierarchical control by Republicans in the House, including effective and partisan use of procedure to diminish the power of Democrats in the House (a subject for another post, but trust me, it was a real phenomenon that in some ways continues today).

Speaker Pelosi (a Democrat) did not use this rule when she ran the House.  Speaker Boehner has used this rule, but notably broke from it when bringing forth the fiscal cliff compromise - passed by an 89-8 vote in the Senate - and relied on a solid majority of Democrats to cobble together passage with a small fraction of the Republican Caucus.  The Hastert Rule is also anti-democratic.  It cheapens the votes of the minority party, which cheapens the votes of all of the people who elected the minority party's representatives.  As Pelosi said, :

“I’m the Speaker of the House,” Pelosi told reporters. “I have to take into consideration something broader than the majority of the majority in the Democratic Caucus.”

Right on.  This is an informal House rule.  Boehner could just stop using it.

4. Reinstate the 5-Day Work Week - A lack of bipartisan comity is generally attributed to the times in which we live, or some such blather.  In reality, the lack of comity in Congress is directly attributable to the time when Republicans decided they only wanted to be in Washington 3 days a week.  When Members of Congress are forced to stay in town, they get to know each other, personally.  They attend the same events, socialize, etc.  Yes, this may mean more time out of district.  But it also means more actual, positive work getting done for the American people.  Plant your feet in DC long enough to like each other, and maybe you'll find common ground.  If Members only talk to their own Caucus, it's easy to vilify and assume the worst of the people with whom you disagree.  Set up a darn Skype town hall if you want to talk to your constituents.  But Congress should vote 5 days a week while it is in session.  This is a House scheduling issue.  The House could change it.

5. Public Campaign Financing - Duh.  What gets between you and your Congress?  Money.  If you want to be represented by your elected representatives, make it so that they are paid to listen to you, not other interests.  It's too expensive to run a campaign.  Ordinary people can't run without financial help.  So we the people should find a way to provide that.  This is a harder fix, but one that would bear the most long-term fruit for we the people.

If Congress isn't working, we can change that.  They're our Congress, people.

No comments:

Post a Comment