Mike Kueber's Blog

July 4, 2012

Fixing Congress

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 3:18 pm
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Yesterday, the editorial board of the San Antonio Express-New endorsed the 12-point program of the nonpartisan No Labels organization.  The program, titled Make Congress Work, is a campaign aimed at something nearly everyone agrees on – i.e., breaking gridlock, reducing polarization, and promoting constructive debate 

There is an old saying that the devil is in the details, so let’s take a closer look at the twelve details, as described by co-founder Mark McKinnon:  

  1. No Budget, No Pay: Congress has passed its spending bills on time only four times since 1952. Recent failures to pass a timely budget led to significant disruptions of public services. No Labels believes that if Congress can’t make spending and budget decisions on time, it shouldn’t get paid.”  I think this concept is useful, but I prefer my idea of giving the voters every two years the opportunity to give Congress a 10% pay cut or a 10% pay raise.
  2. Up-or-Down Votes on Presidential Appointments: As of late 2011, more than 200 presidentially appointed positions remain unfilled, as senators of both parties have held up nominations, sometimes for trivial reasons. No Labels believes that all presidential nominations should be confirmed or rejected within 90 days of the nomination being received by the Senate.”  This is a no-brainer; I have never heard anyone defend the current practice on principle.
  3. Filibuster Reform: In its first 50 years, the filibuster was used only 35 times—in only the most extraordinary circumstances. Over the last two years alone, the filibuster was employed more than 100 times—often with merely a quick announcement—as a partisan means to disrupt majority rule. No Labels believes that if senators want to filibuster, they must take to the floor and hold it through sustained debate. We also believe that filibusters should never be permitted to prevent floor debate, as they paradoxically are now.”  This response is too weak.  The filibuster is a travesty and should be stoppable by a majority vote.
  4. Empower the Sensible Majority: Oftentimes, congressional leaders halt popular legislation from reaching the floor to protect partisan advantages. No Labels believes that every congressman should have the ability to anonymously sign discharge petitions to enable bills to go to the floor for a vote. If a majority signs the petition, the names would be released publicly, and the bill could be voted up or down.  One of the great misperceptions about the maddening way Congress operates is that it’s just following the rules set by the Founding Fathers.”  Procedural game-playing should be stopped; multiple channels for getting legislation to a vote should be developed.
  5. Make Members Come to Work: In 2012, the U.S. House has scheduled only two weeks when it will be in session for all five days. No Labels believes that Congress should put in a five-day workweek like the rest of us—with three weeks in D.C., and then one week back home with constituents.”  This makes perfect sense.
  6. Question Time for the President: In January 2010, President Obama attended a House GOP retreat to debate health care publicly. We haven’t seen anything like it, before or since. No Labels believes we should follow the example of the British Parliament and schedule regular, nationally televised question time for the president and Congress.”  Great idea; regular exchanges will improve understanding.
  7. Fiscal Report to Congress—Hear It. Read It. Sign It: One of the greatest obstacles to fixing our economy is that we can’t agree on a method for calculating the balance sheet. No Labels believes that Congress and the president should work off the same set of numbers, and that a nonpartisan leader—such as the comptroller general—should deliver an annual televised fiscal update, in person, to a joint session of Congress.”  This is too wonky for me to have an opinion.
  8. No Pledge but the Oath of Office: 238 House members have signed a pledge to never raise taxes. Another 110 have signed a pledge to never cut Social Security benefits. That’s 80 percent of Congress refusing to consider compromise on two of the nation’s biggest budget issues. No Labels believes that members should make no pledge but the pledge of allegiance to the flag and their formal oath of office.”  Pledges have gotten out of control and the pendulum is swinging against them.
  9. Monthly Bipartisan Gatherings: While there has always been partisanship, there recently was a time when members of Congress nurtured relationships with colleagues on the other side of the aisle. Today they are more likely to glare at each other from their partisan encampments. No Labels believes that the House and Senate should undertake monthly bipartisan gatherings, private and off the record, bringing in objective experts to brief them on policy issues.”  I have no doubt that bipartisan gatherings facilitate the functioning of government, so the idea of institutionalizing such gatherings is a good one.
  10. Bipartisan Seating: During President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union speech, some members of Congress left their partisan bunkers to sit next to someone from another party. While not an enormous policy step, it was a powerful symbol of civility and comity. No Labels believes that all joint meetings of Congress should have mixed partisan seating, and committees should arrange seating to promote bipartisanship.”  Ditto for the same reasons as #9 above.
  11. Bipartisan Leadership Committee: While ideologically polar opposites, President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill met regularly, had a cordial relationship, and worked together to make headway on major issues such as entitlement and tax reform. Now every meeting in D.C. seems like a partisan pep rally. No Labels believes that Congress should form a bipartisan congressional-leadership committee to serve as a forum for discussing both legislation and substantive policy solutions. The committee would meet weekly, and then monthly with the president.”  Ditto for the same reasons as #9 and #10 above.
  12. No Negative Campaigns Against Incumbents: Just a few decades ago, informal custom prevented one party leader from campaigning against a leader of the other party. This practice has devolved into a cycle of conspiracy and retribution. No Labels believes that incumbents from one party should not conduct negative campaigns against sitting members of the opposing party—no appearances in attack ads or direct mailings, and no traveling to play partisan attack dog.”  The erstwhile informal custom was a wise one and should be reactivated.

The Express-News editorial also discussed two suggestions from Bob Kerrey, who is running for the Senate in Nebraska.  Kerry wants to ban party caucuses and institute nonpartisan congressional elections.  Those suggestions are unlike the tweaking of No Labels; rather, they are revolutionary changes, and thus require consideration of the possible negative side effects.  But as for me, I am so frustrated by the uber-partisanship that currently afflicts us that I would be willing to vote for Kerrey’s proposed constitutional amendments.



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