New Year's is a day for hope and optimism — two words rarely associated with the U.S. Congress.
Americans' disenchantment with their elected representatives is nothing new. “There is no distinctly native American criminal class, except Congress,” Mark Twain wrote more than a century ago.
But a Gallup poll in December showed that only 11 percent of Americans approve of Congress's performance — the lowest rating since the venerable research organization started asking that question in 1974.
It is no wonder. Partisan gridlock keeps Congress from getting almost any important work done. Worst of all, Republicans and Democrats have become captive to special interests whose big money funds their campaigns, often makes them rich and fuels a poisonous political climate.
How do we change things? Two recent bipartisan efforts offer some good ideas.
One is a movement called No Labels, which claims to include more than 180,000 Republicans, Democrats and independents. (Find more information at Nolabels.org.)
No Labels argues that the system is broken, but members of Congress could change their internal rules to fix many of the problems — if public pressure forced them to. Among No Labels' proposals:
- Require Congress to approve a budget on time. If members don't, they don't get paid until the job is done.
- Give the Senate 90 days to vote up or down on presidential appointments. If it doesn't, nominees would be confirmed by default.
- Curb filibuster abuse by requiring senators who want to stall legislation to actually take to the floor and hold it through sustained debate. Also, end the practice of filibustering “motions to proceed.” That would allow the Senate to openly debate and vote on more legislation.
- Allow representatives to anonymously sign discharge petitions on proposed legislation. Signers' names would become public if a majority of House members signed. That would prevent party leaders and committee chairs from killing popular legislation for political reasons without allowing a vote. Enact similar reforms in the Senate.
- Prohibit members of Congress from taking pledges other than their official oath of office and the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. That would stop special interests from controlling lawmakers through pledges such as those against raising taxes or cutting Social Security benefits. No Labels says a combined 80 percent of current lawmakers have signed those pledges, making it almost impossible for Congress to govern in a fiscally responsible manner.
- Require the president to appear before Congress for monthly televised question-and-answer sessions, such as the British prime minister does with Parliament.
- Encourage cooperation across party lines by ending partisan seating arrangements, initiating monthly off-the-record gatherings of lawmakers and creating a bipartisan leadership committee to work through issues. As No Labels rightly points out, how can people with different viewpoints work well together if they don't know one another and never talk honestly with one another?
Another good idea is a constitutional amendment proposed Dec. 20 by U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, a Louisville Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican. (The amendment's text may be found at Yarmuth.house.gov.)
The proposed amendment would get special-interest money and its corrupting influence out of politics by overruling key provisions of Citizens United, a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2010 that made a bad situation dramatically worse.
The amendment would specify that financial expenditures and in-kind contributions do not qualify as protected speech under the First Amendment. It also would enable Congress to create a public-financing system to be the sole source of funding for federal elections.
Imagine an election without endless attack ads and robo-calls funded by millions of dollars from often-anonymous special interests. Not to mention a Congress and White House beholden to the American people rather than the highest bidders.
Reform like this will never happen without significant pressure from average citizens. It will be opposed by many political leaders, not to mention partisans who cynically throw around words such as freedom and liberty as a smokescreen to protect the powerful people, corporations and organizations whose bidding they do.
Some people will resist change because the status quo works just fine for them. But if, like me, you are among the 89 percent of Americans who think Congress is failing us, this is a good day to resolve to do something about it.