The Spitfire's Grill
Regular Rants from a Pragmatic Liberal
Wednesday, June 01, 2005
Topic of the Day: Congressional Reform
Today's Topic of the Day was inspired by Bruce Reed's article ("There's something rotten in Tom DeLay's Washington. Here's how to clean the place up.") in the Blueprint (the primary publication of the center-left Democratic Leadership Council). I was just going to put it in the Daily Aside at first, but I chose not to.


When the GOP came to power in 1994 under Newt's leadership, they used a populist message to overturn a corrupt liberal Congress. People realized there was a problem with Congress, the Republican's solution sounded good, so they went for it. That doesn't mean the Contract with America actually was a good idea.

Things like Congressional term limits (termed "The Citizen Legislator Act") sound nice because we tend to think of the longest standing incumbents--who tend to also be the leaders--as the most corrupted by the influence of Washington and the least likely to be responsible to the American people. We also seem to trust bills that hurt those who vote for them. That might be true, but if you think term limits solve the problem, I invite you to watch the Florida Legislature.

The members of the Florida House and Senate have proven they can be just as un-responsive to the people of Florida despite the 8-year term limits. It seems that it isn't time that corrupts, but indeed it is power that corrupts. Furthermore, the faster you push people through the Legislature, the more veteran good-ole-boy lobbyists there will be waiting to show the rookies the ropes of how to get re-elected and rise to power.

The signature Bill of this year's legislative session was termed the "Wild West Bill" by Democrats because it could allow people in Florida to return so much as a threat of violence with actual violence. The Bill was the first of its kind among the 50 states that I'm aware of, and the NRA has plans to establish it in more and more states soon. The NRA writes fat checks and brings in crucial rural voters for the Republican Party, so the legislature treaded dangerous ground for them. Now I'm all for the "your home is your castle" philosophy, but I also realize in a public place it often takes two to fight. Imagine how many bar fights will occur when drunk men don't have to worry about getting arrested.

Bill Frist was elected to the US Senate in 1994, pledging to impose term limits on himself if a law wasn't passed to force him. He's found himself so deep in the Religious Right's pocket (the people who claim all social conservatives are as nuts against Spongebob Squarepants and fighting AIDS in Africa as they are) that Pat Robertson barely acknowledges his existence (to paraphrase: "Oh, I don't think he's running for President").

There were other parts of the Contract with America that were similar to term limits, if anyone shows interest I'll make a "Contract with America, Revisited" Topic of the Day, perhaps.

My point is that Reed's "10 Reforms" are eerily similar to the Might-Get-Us-Elected-But-Won't-Solve-The-Problems Contract with America. Some are even extremely similar to the individual planks of that contract. For example:

"4. Take the quid out of quid pro quo." Basically he's saying that using political threats or campaign funding bribes should be illegal. Well I remind my readers of a time where meetings of elected officials could be secret. To reveal to people how decisions are made we got the Sunshine Laws, and guess what? Since decisions couldn't be made secretly in meetings, decisions stopped getting made in meetings (ha!) and we've evolved to Joe Biden whining about John Bolton on C-SPAN. Now I'm not against the Sunshine Laws, but quite frankly they didn't generate nearly the amount of transparency we were hoping to receive. Similarly, I don't think this will change much. There will just be more winking and nodding and less actual discussion.

"5. Break the fund-raising circuit." I go back and forth on this, ultimately giving money is considered free speech, so the only reason to talk about it is to get votes...Ultimately I'd like to see it happen, but I'm sure we'll have some sort of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth backlash.

"6. Create a real Ethics Committee." Basically, former members, retired federal judges, and citizens become the new Ethics Committee. Anyone else think that somehow it'll be populated by Jesse Helms, Robert Bork, and James Dobson clones (pun, as always, intended) on the Right and not any less partisan on the Left? It probably wouldn't solve anything. It also looks awfully familiar to the Contract with America's 2nd Plank: "SECOND, select a major, independent auditing firm to conduct a comprehensive audit of Congress for waste, fraud or abuse;" Ultimately, who watches the watchers? Why, the people they're supposed to oversee do!

"7. Make Congress put responsibility before personal gain." Limiting Congressional salaries merely reduces the pool of citizens from which to draw. We don't need Congress being any more of a millionaire's club than it already is.

Now there are certainly reform ideas by Reed that I do like (#9, ending corporate welfare, and #10, redistricting reform), and some just make plain sense (#3, real-time disclosure of lobbying status). There are certainly plenty of meaningful reforms that Congress can enact to make it more responsive to the American people.

The reason I wrote out this whole long post is not to dissuade people from Congressional Reform. The point is that just because an idea sounds good doesn't mean it will work out well. Talking about forcing Congress to clean up its act is good for votes, but the best thing that can happen to Congress is for some cocky legislators to come around who think there's no way they can lose an election so long as they avoid some big campaign fund-raising scandal (because, in reality, that's pretty much the current state of affairs). These legislators won't say things like "well Nancy Pelosi does it to!". Rather they'll understand that in the Information Age consistency is integrity and inconsistency gets leaked quite quickly. And after years of being scandal free people will be more likely to elect them to higher office. Self-serving? Absolutely, but last time I checked that's how our Founders designed it. If Americans pay closer attention, checks and balances will work in our favor as opposed merely hoping politicians will be more humble and altruistic.

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