July 13, 2012
WASHINGTON — In all the discussion these days about how dysfunctional Washington has become, attention usually centers on a fractious Congress riven by partisanship and paralyzed at times by rules and obstruction. Often lost in that conversation is the possibility that the presidency itself may need fixing.
At least that is the conclusion of a bipartisan group of former advisers to presidents and would-be presidents who have drafted what they call a plan to make the presidency work better. With the help of several former White House chiefs of staff, the group, called No Labels, has fashioned a blueprint that would make whoever wins in November both more powerful and more accountable.
The idea is to cut through some of the institutional obstacles to decisive leadership that have challenged President Obama and his recent predecessors, while also erecting structures to foster more bipartisanship, transparency and responsiveness. If the proposals were enacted, the next president would have more latitude to reorganize the government, appoint his own team, reject special-interest measures and fast-track his own initiatives through Congress. But he would also be called on to interact more regularly with lawmakers, reporters and the public.
“There aren’t any magic answers to Washington’s problems,” said Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist who worked on several presidential campaigns and now directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “But what these reforms do is make it easier for elected officials who are serious about solving problems to do so.”
Nancy Jacobson, a longtime Democratic fund-raiser who, like Mr. Schnur, is a co-founder of No Labels, said the purpose of the plan was to find ways to make a difference, taking into account the current atmosphere. “We’re trying to make the presidency more effective,” she said.
The plan is a follow-up to a similar blueprint from No Labels for making Congress work better. Among those consulted by the group — which describes itself as a movement of Democrats, Republicans and independents devoted to crossing partisan lines to solve problems — were William Daley, a former chief of staff to Mr. Obama, and Joshua B. Bolten, who was the last chief of staff to President George W. Bush.
The plan advances 11 proposals, some of them relatively minor but symbolically important and others fairly sweeping in scope. Many of them may be unlikely to be adopted, but the authors hope at least to prompt a debate about ways to address the dysfunction they see.
To build accountability, the plan calls on the next president to hold monthly news conferences and twice-a-year citizen news conferences; meet quarterly with the Congressional leadership of both parties; bill his political party for travel that involves fund-raising, rather than schedule extraneous official events so that taxpayers pick up part of the tab; and submit to 90-minute question-and-answer sessions each month on the floors of Congress, much as the British prime minister does in Parliament.
To build presidential power, the plan proposes that the next president be given expanded authority to send individual items in spending bills back to Congress for up-or-down votes. It also proposes renewing presidential power that lapsed in 1984 to consolidate and even eliminate parts of the federal government.
The next president would also have more freedom to appoint his administration, a process now widely considered broken. The number of positions requiring Senate confirmation has grown to 1,400 from 280 in the last half-century, and the average confirmation time has increased from 2 ½ months to more than 10 months, according to the group’s research.
To streamline that, the plan endorses a bill, which has passed the Senate and is awaiting House consideration, to trim the number of midlevel posts requiring confirmation. It also proposes that the winner of the election name a list of can’t-wait nominees who would be expedited, and that all nominations be confirmed or rejected within 90 days. Any that were not acted on by then would be confirmed by default.
Perhaps most provocative is a proposal to allow the president to send legislation to Congress twice a year that could not be amended but only approved or rejected. That is patterned after what is known as fast-track authority, often applied to trade agreements. By preventing lawmakers from changing such legislation, a president could get yes-or-no answers on his top priorities.
William A. Galston, an aide to President Bill Clinton who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, suggested that one possible subject of fast-track authority could be the bipartisan plan to reduce the deficit that was created by a presidential commission led by Alan K. Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, and Erskine B. Bowles, a White House chief of staff under Mr. Clinton. The Simpson-Bowles plan included a cornucopia of unpopular tax increases and spending cuts, but under this proposal Congress would have to accept or reject the whole plan.
Mark McKinnon, a Democratic media consultant who crossed lines to work for Mr. Bush’s campaigns and later helped found No Labels, said that the fast-track idea “would be a big game changer” by itself, but that the overall effect of the various proposals would go a long way toward restoring faith in the presidency.
“In their parts, they’re effective, but cumulatively can have a huge impact,” he said. “The voters are just hungry to see any problem solving. If they start to see action on any or all of these, I think it will have a measurable impact.”