If White House Chief of Staff and former member of the House of Representatives Rahm Emanuel had delivered the State of the Union and if he had faced none of the usual restraints that public speaking impose on his vocabulary he might have said something like this:
“What the F--- are you guys doing? I thought this place was F------ dysfunctional when I was here. Now, it’s worse. This place has become a F------ mess!!!”
Take the power back from the political parties and give it to citizens concerned about when and how primaries are held, how they are to be financed, and what punishments are to be meted out to those who break the law.
If he had given that speech, he would have spoken for a large number of Americans. Something is dreadfully wrong in our nation’s capitol. And the usual solutions—public funding of campaigns, repealing the right to filibuster and put holds on nominations in the Senate, term limits, changing one political party over the other, or changing political humanity’s behavior with presidential encounter sessions at Republican gatherings—are being trotted out as quick and easy remedies.
All of these might make things better at the margin. But they will not produce sustained improvement in the confidence of the American people that Congress can solve any problem that cannot be blamed on some unpopular group. It cannot resolve the conflicts that exist between those on the left who believe that unresolved issues like income inequality, unacceptably high levels of unemployment, the mounting cost of federal entitlements, immigration, energy and climate threaten our way of life and those on the right who are just as passionate about losing personal freedoms, the spirit of innovation and enterprise, and our capacity to compete if the reach of government is extended further. And it cannot solve problems that do not fully materialize in time to be included in a campaign advertisement.
The most drastic—and likely the one most needed—begins with an answer to this question: Does Article One of the Constitution (which creates the Congress) need to be changed? Though I have never supported any of the various Constitutional amendments proposed in the past 20 years, my answer is a resounding yes. It is time to re-write Article One.
To be clear: I do not support holding a Constitutional convention--something 32 of the necessary 34 state legislatures have already called for. I support a much more narrowly drawn set of changes to the article which specifies, among other things, how our Congress is to be chosen, operated, and compensated as well as clearly enumerating its powers.
Let me briefly make the case for change by recommending the reading of James Madison’s minutes of the proceeding of the 55 men who gathered in the summer of 1787 to write a modification of the Articles of Confederation. It is clear they produced a document intended to unite the nation in commerce and to enshrine certain inalienable, common and public rights. It has accomplished those objectives admirably. But it is also clear that the language was not written with a nation of 300 million people in mind—let alone the range of issues Congress faces today.
To start the debate let me suggest four changes I would like to see made.
1) Establish an open bipartisan national system of apportioning congressional districts. State legislatures are given this authority now. It is their gerrymandering of districts, which have contributed most to the polarized nature of congressional debates and to the sense that too few incumbents are actually at risk.
2) Set a limit of the number of terms that can be served. I’d say six in the House and two in the Senate should be enough to establish the continuity needed to maintain institutional memory.
3) Increase the qualifications for being able to run. Why not, for example, make everyone who wants to be a candidate for Congress take the same examination we give to men and women who want to become citizens? Shouldn’t each member of Congress know at least as much as a recent immigrant?
4) Create national rules for all federal elections. Take the power back from the political parties and give it to citizens concerned about when and how primaries are held, how they are to be financed, and what punishments are to be meted out to those who break the law.
No doubt the effort required to change our Constitution is daunting as it should be. No doubt the barriers to getting it done are large as they should be. However, there is also no doubt that the time has come to at least consider whether this is the only way to keep the American people from wanting to put an expletive as a qualifier in front of their description of our Congress.
Robert Kerrey, president of The New School in New York, served in the U.S. Senate (D-Neb.) from 1989-2001.