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Chapter 14: Fixing our broken Congress

“There are two passions which have a powerful influence in the affairs of men. These are … the love of power and the love of money. …Place before the eyes of such men a post of honor that shall at the same time be a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it.”  -Benjamin Franklin

What’s wrong with Congress

  • A loss of confidence. Citizens have lost confidence in Congress, and it’s no wonder! Members of Congress stay too long, spend too much time raising funds for reelection, are too influenced by special interest lobbyists, and are too far removed from the people they are supposed to represent.
  • The best people don’t stay. Congress is too tradition-bound, seniority-dominated, inefficient, money-driven, and ineffective. Indeed, that’s why some of the finest people never run for Congress or else walk away from it in frustration instead of making it a career. The ones who stay usually end up far wealthier than they were when they got elected.
  • It’s too corrupt and too expensive. Members of Congress move to Washington to party with lobbyists, hire staffers (at taxpayer expense) whose primary mission is to ensure that their boss gets reelected, and stick taxpayers with travel costs for frequent trips back to their district to ensure they stay in office.

How to fix what’s wrong with Congress

  • Bold, radical reform. Bold reforms that bring real progress usually occur only in times of crisis. The United States is clearly in crisis now with budget deficits resulting from years of weak leadership, political gridlock, and outright corruption in Washington. Why not begin the reform precisely where most of the problems originate—with Congress itself?
  • Rein in the career politicians. A nation that wants to remain free will choose its leaders from among successful citizens who serve temporarily and then return to productive society. Capping the pay of public officials, eliminating their special benefits and pensions, and imposing term limits would be a good start.
  • Limit their power.  Limit the federal government’s responsibilities to a few well-defined roles, such as national defense, immigration, foreign policy, protection of individual liberties, and the assurance of equal protection under the law. Leave everything else to the state or local governments—or to the people themselves.  With strict limits on the role of government, Congress will have less power. There will be fewer favors that can be granted to supporters or denied to opponents. See the “Government” chapter for more discussion about the importance of limiting the role of government.
  • Stronger conflict of interest rules. It’s ridiculous that members of Congress can benefit from perks such as post-Congress jobs, insider trading profits, and access to initial public offerings that aren’t available to regular citizens. Former members of Congress should be banned from any government or special interest employment for at least four years after serving in Congress.
  • What if Congress won’t reform itself? If citizens put enough pressure on them, politicians could be forced to adopt meaningful reforms. If they fail to do so, constitutional amendments may be necessary, as described in the “Take Congress Back” chapter. The first new amendment could be worded something like this: No individual may serve more than twelve years in the United States Congress. Congressional salaries may not exceed the median income of citizens. There shall be no pensions or benefits for elected federal officials beyond Social Security and their own self-funded retirement accounts and insurance policies. Elected federal officials shall not accept any gift with a value exceeding $100, participate in initial public stock offerings or insider trading, or accept any government or government influence–related employment for at least four years after leaving office.
  • Rein in lobbyists & increase transparency. Again, enough pressure from citizens could force Congress to impose bold reforms. If not, another citizen-driven constitutional amendment may be necessary. This one could be worded something like this: “Any citizen or group that wishes to influence congressional legislation must submit their positions in writing. Any verbal communications with members of Congress about pending legislation must be followed by a confirming memo. With the exception of sensitive national security issues, transcripts of all congressional hearings shall be posted on the Internet for public access. All communications to members of Congress regarding specific legislation shall be posted on the Internet for public access at least twenty-four hours prior to congressional votes. Members of Congress shall be permitted to cast their votes electronically, so their physical presence in the nation’s capital will no longer be necessary.”
  • Make them telecommute. Keep members of Congress out of Washington (where they’re too tempted by lobbyists and too full of their own self-importance) and send them home (where they’ll stay closer to taxpayers and do less harm). With today’s technologies, members of Congress could use their computers, iPads, or iPhones to study issues, consider lobbyist arguments, participate in hearings and debates, and cast their votes—all on the Internet and visible to the public. (A two-week annual retreat could allow legislators enough time to meet newly-elected members and develop working relationships with one another.)
  • A telecommuting Congress. Salaries are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to legislative expenses. A telecommuting Congress would save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars annually in travel expenses, office space, mailings, telephones and faxes, secretarial support, and printing costs. Even more important…
  • Open up the process. With a telecommuting Congress, congressional service would no longer be a full-time or elitist job. Because our lawmakers would work from their homes, any citizen could serve—even those with real jobs and family responsibilities. The entire process would be open to all citizens. People who might never be able to attend a legislative hearing could read position papers and post their comments online at virtual public hearings.
  • Quality would improve. A telecommuting Congress would eliminate a great deal of political cronyism and replace it with merit-based analysis and discussion of issues. Lobbyists would have to make their cases in online position papers that would be posted for all to see instead of peddling their influence privately in back rooms, bars, and restaurants. Instead of meeting with special interest lobbyists, congressional staffers could spend more time studying issues, and their analyses could be posted online along with the submissions from citizens, cabinet members, and lobbyists.
  • Stop the pomp and circumstance. In a free society, there should be no office higher than citizen. There is no reason to call anybody “The Honorable” just because the person has been elected to office. The performance of our elected officials will tell us whether or not they are honorable.
  • Fewer laws. Individuals and businesses are being overwhelmed by the thousands of new laws that are passed each year. Citizens should urge that our politicians repeal three to five laws for every new one that is passed. Limiting the number of bills that each lawmaker can introduce would force them to be more selective and would simplify compliance for everybody. In addition, every new law should be written in plain English instead of language only a lawyer can understand. If we took these approaches, citizens would have a better chance of actually understanding society’s rules.
  • Ditto for state and local governance. Variations of many of the recommendations in this chapter could be applied to state and local governments, too.

“In my many years I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm and three or more is a congress.” —John Adams, American founder, lawyer and political theorist

“No man’s life, liberty, or property is safe while the legislature is in session.” —American author and humorist Mark Twain

“Talk is cheap…except when Congress does it.” —Unknown

 “There is no distinctly Native American criminal class…save Congress.” —American author and humorist Mark Twain

“If pro is opposite of con, then what is the opposite of progress?” —Attributed to a makeshift sign in a men’s restroom, House of Representatives, Washington, DC

  1. If the money would ever be let return to the resources, that are unnaturally connected to it, there could not be something like a debt ceiling anyway. It is the duty and purpose of a state to provide to all her citizens resources for living. That fact is devaluated, when a debt ceiling for a state is made. A state is absolutely not an institution, that exists among private institutions.


  2. While I appreciate your comments, Steven, I’m afraid I disagree. First, it is not the duty and purpose of a state to provide all her citizens resources for living. States don’t really produce anything; the most they can do is provide citizens with the freedom and opportunity to thrive — which is precisely why America has thrived an been the envy of much of the rest of the world. States that have attempted to provide for citizens instead of allowing them to provide for themselves have always failed. If you’re open-minded enough to consider a different point of view, please read the chapters about Big Government, Economics, Entitlements and Poverty.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Chapter 14: Congress: What’s wrong & how to fix it « Fixing America's Broken Politics
  2. Book chapters, with live links « Fixing America's Broken Politics
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