The Final Word Less One - on any subject anywhere any time that the author finds interesting -

Sunday, September 25, 2011

How to Fix Congress

In response to my previous column on duct tape, a correspondent has asked if duct tape can't fix Congress would the "other method" help?

The other method of fixing things is to spray the object with WD-40 and then hit it with a wrench. I do not believe that this would help Congress as this is basically the same thing as "term limits". People, and all evidence shows that Congress is composed of people, cannot be improved with WD-40 and blunt instruments.

Nor is the solution to vote out the idiots we currently have and put in new idiots. Past history shows that the new idiots, once they learn enough to be useful, start acting just like the old idiots. This is an indication of systemic failure. What we see now in Congress is the result of forces, some of them present from the earliest days of the Republic, some the result of procedural changes in the Senate and some from forces outside government.

Three changes could be made that would make Congress a functioning institution again:

1. ABOLISH GERRYMANDERING - "Gerrymander" is one of those colorful American coinages to describe the practice of drawing up voting districts to benefit a political party. What happens is that as the state legislature redraws the political map after every census, "safe districts" are carved out, often by mutual agreement. Notable instances include the "earmuff" shape of the 4th Congressional District in Illinois and the 2003 lobster-shaped Texas District 22 which sent Tom DeLay to Washington. Gerrymandering reduces voter turnout, hardens partisan politics and discourages real campaigning. It is also against the law. The only solution is for voters to keep an eye on the process and to sue to have the law enforced. We shouldn't have to, but gerrymandering or "packing and cracking" are corrupt practices. Lots worse than tweeting pics of your naked abs.

Geographic definition and History of the Term

wikipedia on Gerrymandering -See Examples to view the Earmuff and the Lobster

2. REFORM SENATE PROCEDURES - Jimmy Stewart starred in a wonderful movie "Mr Smith Goes to Washington" where he played a young Senator filibustering to save the Boys Ranch. The modern filibuster does not work like that. First, the Senate only takes up business by unanimous consent, so one member can delay the consideration of a bill. This is why necessary legislation to re-authorize the FAA was not passed this year. The Senate also allows secret or "Mae West Holds". See the Mae West Hold --is that a banana in your pocket, Bill? This was used by the Democrats late in Bush's last term against some of his court appointments and by the GOP against Obama to prevent him from making appointments after he took office. The federal department that oversaw the oil companies and offshore drilling leases was one affected by this--so nobody was watching what BP was doing out in the Gulf. Finally, Senate rules allow multiple filibusters on the same issue, so a filibuster can be mounted against a vote to close debate on a bill  (cloture) and then on the bill itself. Senators don't have to actually filibuster either, just threaten to do so. As a result, the Senate doesn't take up many small bills, examine each one closely and pass or vote them down on their merits. Leadership cobbles together huge omnibus bills in the hopes that something in the separate parts will appeal to enough Senators that the creature will pass. This makes for sausage and not for good legislation. The solution: pass rules that make the filibuster the last resort rather than the first partisan option, abolish secret holds, and do away with multiple filibusters. If a Senator wants to hold up Senate business, let him (or maybe someday her) do so. But make him stand on his own two feet in the full light of day in front of the TV cameras and actually filibuster -- just like Jimmy Stewart. The filibuster is a useful tool that the minority has to force reconsideration on some topic. It is not useful when it is used all day, every day, in secret, to thwart the will of the people and to uphold secret and special interests.

3. ELIMINATE THE BIGGEST SOURCE OF LAWMAKER DISTRACTION - we elect people to Congress and send them to Washington to represent us, pass good laws and to consider the greater interest of America. Sadly, once they are there, each Representative is faced with the certainty that in two years, he or she will be running for office again. Three-term Congressman Scotty Baesler of Kentucky noted that in 1993 at his orientation for the House of Representatives, he was advised to spend from 4-6 hours every day raising funds for his next campaign. Running for office has only gotten more expensive since then. Our lawmakers do not have time to make laws; they must now fund-raise full time. With big corporate money and no limits, the ordinary voter has scant chance of being heard in the halls of power because his or her Congresspeople are always on the phone to the folks who have the $$$$$. Until this issue is addressed, all grassroots attempts to "take back Washington for the people" will fail.

Scotty Baesler, basketball player, mayor, Kentucky politician - a guy I admire, sadly, no longer in Congress

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, true. But largest threats to our American republic are always internal: corruption and lack of compromise. Only Congress can take the steps to fix Congress; it is up to the American public to put firecrackers in Congress's shoes and force them to dance the macarena.


Rebecca McFarland Kyle said...

Actually, the best way to prevent those "gerrymanders" from crawling all over your State's map is to have a computer draw up the boundaries for elected officials' districts. A computer can easily quantify "compact and contiguous" as specified in the US Constitution and avoid the partisan maneuverings as long as someone NONPARTISAN programs it.

Ellen Mizell said...

I agree, Becky. The computer could be programed to keep the population roughly the same in each district but there is also the issue of how to split cities and neighborhoods in a way that makes sense. For example in St Louis if you divide the city on an east-west axis you can create equal populations while keeping neighborhoods together but if you draw the line on a north-south basis neighborhoods get split in a way that impairs some ethnic minorities the chance to elect one of their own. Some basic geographic principles could be programmed in!

Rebecca McFarland Kyle said...

I think geography is the whole of it when you're talking Constitutionality. I'm at the point of saying just pick the most geographically compact and contiguous areas and let the chips fall. My reasoning is any time you start to set delimiters, you get in the mess we have today. Which, believe me, is a HUGE mess. I lived in a gerrymandered district that extended from Oklahoma City to the Kansas border--just so a Republican rep could keep his district.

While I'm at it, committee membership needs to be determined based upon experience rather than seniority and pull. Putting people who know nada about space on the NASA committee (an example) is wrong.

I also think our two-party system needs to go. For one, I want the Tea Party to shit or get off the pot. Either they are a party or they are not, but I do not think this "faction" thing is right. I want to clearly know who is TP and who is not. The folks need to declare and form their own party and let the voters decide.

Oh, and I want to break up the Congressional "Union." They represent themselves and they vote for their own pay. WRONG! I want to see performance based pay. One tier is based upon the economic indicators of their district and the other upon the country as a whole.

While I'm at it, they need to be on Social Security and other assistance the rank-and-file get. None of this "better." They already have to be rich as Croesus to run, they need a little dose of reality somewhere.

I'll think of other things as they come. :)

Ellen Mizell said...

Good points, Becky, but computer operating blindly would not necessarily keep from cutting up cities and doing the same thing. Especially since the structure is biased against cities, cities that are large enough should have the right to send one or more Reps to Congress.

Tom Daly said...

In California we passed a referendum to change the way we redistrict. It's now done by a citizen's commission instead of by the legislature. We should be having some more competitive races now.

Tom Daly said...

The senate filibuster and the amount of money spent on elections are my two biggest peeves about our government too.