August 19, 2012

Congress doesn't bear all the blame for the public's low opinion of Washington. It's the president's fault, too.

I'm not picking on the current occupant of the White House, but the presidency itself. For a variety of reasons – some within the control of the president, some not – the most powerful man in the world is, at times, quite powerless and unaccountable.

The checks and balances of the Constitution aren't the problem. This country has been well-served by having three equal branches of government. But does it make sense to have a CEO who can't conduct a simple reorganization, ax certain expenditures or work with the advisers of his choosing without the blessing of those who might be actively working to undermine him?

On the flip side, shouldn't the president be available to the press and the public to answer for his performance, good or bad? And shouldn't those interactions be unscripted and less tightly managed? Shouldn't the president be forced to step away from the teleprompter once in a while?

This campaign is not completely devoid of bipartisan, reform-minded ideas. The citizen coalition No Labels ( last month released an action plan it calls “Make the Presidency Work!” It contains 11 proposed reforms to the presidency – some requiring legislation, others involving congressional rules changes or individual choices – to rebuild public trust in the White House, make the president less isolated and remove some of the procedural roadblocks that prevent an administration from getting anything done.

“Modern presidents increasingly don't have the necessary tools to deliver what the American people demand,” the group writes. “Almost 40 years after Congress began the post-Watergate roll-back of the ‘Imperial Presidency,' America's chief executive now arguably faces too many impediments to enacting his or her agenda.”

No Labels consulted numerous former White House chiefs of staff – from both major parites – as well as presidential scholars to create this plan.

Some of the proposals are slam-dunks. A regularly scheduled, monthly presidential news conference, and twice-yearly citizen news conferences, where voters can ask questions via email and social media. Regularly scheduled meetings with congressional leadership, at least once per quarter. Making political parties, not taxpayers, pay for cross-country presidential fundraising. And, following a cue from the British Parliament, making the president visit one of the two houses of Congress each month for a 90-minute, televised question-and-answer free-for-all (popcorn not included). All this could happen tomorrow, if the president were so inclined.

A few ideas would require cooperation. One, reducing the number of administration positions requiring Senate confirmation, already is under consideration in Congress. Others include allowing the president to create a “slate that can't wait,” a group of nominees that automatically would move to the front of the line for background checks and confirmation hearings; and requiring the Senate to confirm or reject all presidential nominees within 90 days, at which point nominees would be confirmed by default.

Then there are the most significant reforms, requiring major legislation. Twice a year, allowing the president to introduce bills to Congress for a fast-track majority vote – no amendments allowed. Giving presidents expedited rescission authority – a “line item veto with a twist,” according to No Labels – which would allow him to cut out add-ons he objects to and send each back to Congress for an up-or-down vote. Allowing presidents to consolidate and reorganize departments with limited congressional oversight – a power that previous presidents enjoyed before the Reorganization Act lapsed in 1984.

Noticeably absent from the list is my favorite reform idea, modeled from Taiwan's parliament: open brawling and wrestling on the House and Senate floors – biting allowed.

I kid. Even a traditionalist with unyielding loyalty to the Founding Fathers can agree with many of these ideas. The voting public certainly likes them. A poll of 1,100 registered voters, with a 3 percentage-point margin of error, found overwhelming support for the entire No Labels agenda – 76 percent favor the full list.

No hiding. Less spin. More public debate and a greater ability to deliver on promises.

This is not some fringe group with little chance of being heard in the Capitol. No Labels previously submitted a “Make Congress Work!” action plan that led to the No Budget, No Pay Act, currently being championed by Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. The plan for Congress also calls for an end to the procedural filibuster by requiring senators to actually debate for hours on end to block a vote on a bill, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., recently suggested. And it overlaps with the White House proposal by promoting up-or-down votes on appointees within 90 days and a monthly forum with the president.

Admittedly, some of the group's ideas to improve Congress are troubling. It wants to prevent members of Congress from signing formal pledges – most notably Grover Norquist's pledge to oppose all tax increases. Considering most people justifiably don't trust politicians, there's nothing wrong with extracting a signed promise on a position and holding it up for the world to see.

And No Labels wants to stop incumbents from campaigning against other incumbents, so they might get along better once elections are over. Politics is a contact sport. Big boys and big girls get over it.

That said, the current campaign has been a typical scorched-earth, mutually-assured-destruction affair that will make it exceedingly difficult for the winner of the presidency to govern. Imagine if Republican Mitt Romney wins the White House, but Reid remains majority leader. The South Pole would be warmer than that relationship.

The No Labels agenda represents the kind of change President Obama promised to deliver. He didn't.

For these reforms to take place, the president himself must embrace them. I hope Obama and Romney are paying attention.


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