By Michael A. Nelsen
The writer, of Omaha, is a lawyer.
Recent opinion polls show that Congress is rated by the public right up there with televangelists, IRS auditors and Ponzi scheme operators. One wag has suggested that the entrance to the Capitol display the same warning shown above the portico to poet Dante’s hell: “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.”
Commentators lament that the dysfunctional, gridlocked Congress cannot timely or adequately address major issues facing this country — the deficit, entitlements, rising health care costs, immigration, unemployment.
What, if anything, can be done?
A national bipartisan group, No Labels, has put forth a 12-point action plan to “Make Congress Work.” Among its most significant proposals are the following:
>> Make Congress work on coordinated schedules (i.e., between the House and Senate) with three five-day weeks a month in Washington and one week in the members’ home districts. Right now, the work week is Tuesday to Thursday, plus numerous long holidays. (Congress took August off.)
Regular U.S. workers work longer hours by far than European workers. Let’s inject some good old-fashioned work ethic into Congress. There’s a lot of work to be done, but Congress needs to be in session to do it.
>> Fix the filibuster. This applies to the Senate. No more fake filibusters. If a senator wants to filibuster, he or she has to stand on the Senate floor and talk. That’s the way it used to be. For example, in 1957, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond held the Senate floor nonstop for 24 hours, 18 minutes. Let’s put stamina back into filibusters.
Also, no more filibusters on motions to proceed to an up-or-down vote. This will prevent every bill in the Senate having to garner 60 votes before it can proceed to an up-or-down vote. No business operates this way; the Senate shouldn’t, either.
>> Presidential appointments get an up-or-down approval vote within 90 days of submission to Congress. Thus, the president needn’t wait months on end to get his team in place.
>> Members would make no pledge except the Pledge of Allegiance and their formal oath of office. All other pledges would be deemed nullified. Why handcuff yourself on the great issues of the day? The Founding Fathers never took partisan pledges. What tangible benefit have these pledges ever brought to government?
>> Institute a “President’s Question Time,” similar to the prime minister’s in Britain. Let members of Congress ask questions directly of the president. Let him or her directly respond.
>> Finally, the one I like best: no budget, no pay. If Congress can’t pass a budget and all necessary annual spending bills on time, all pay is interrupted until it happens.
These and other ideas are no panacea. Given the bitter partisan division currently existing, the needed personal chemistry may be lacking.
Perhaps after the elections, however they turn out, a more congenial atmosphere will prevail. (Don’t count on it.)
But efforts must be made to make Congress work. The Chinese are crowing that their authoritative, top-down system performs better than ours.
Look at the Chinese growth rate — 8 percent to our 2 percent. If a high-speed rail system is decided on in China, the decision process is swift, resources are efficiently marshalled, and the work gets done. Unlike the United States, where everything gets bogged down in partisan rancor, the Chinese system promotes decisiveness.
We need to adjust our system, or the 21st century will be the Chinese century, not the American century.
Finally, although this idea doesn’t come from No Labels, I would propose a law that negative political radio and TV ads could be aired only during the last six weeks of a federal election. I’m tired of having my hair catch fire.
Alas, with the recent Citizens United case, the Supreme Court has ruled that such a law couldn’t happen.