The Republicans have generated many questions with their Pledge to America. Some people are wondering what it would actually take to reduce the federal deficit to zero by 2020, while still making all the Bush tax cuts permanent and (as the pledge implies) safeguarding Social Security, Medicare, and the military.
“No more national parks, no more Small Business Administration loans, no more export subsidies, no more N.I.H,” says Howard Gleckman of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, who has run the numbers. “No more Medicaid, No more child health or child nutrition programs. No more highway construction. No more homeland security…Oh, and no more Congress.”
Others wonder why voters should believe a promise to balance the budget from a party that so badly unbalanced it the last time around. Still, others are confused by the logic of a document whose basic message boils down to: “We don’t believe in government. Let us run your government.”
Well, here’s another line of inquiry: what if a group of candidates who do believe in government—who care about the things it does and would like to see them done well--took a pledge of their own? I mean a serious one, intended to make our democratic institutions more effective, responsive, and worthy of respect.
Reforming Congress itself would be a good place to start. Of all the branches of government, none currently commands less respect. It follows that no cleanup job could do as much to revive Americans’ faith in the possibility of using government to advance the common good.
I hereby offer a simple five-point pledge for the consideration of all candidates:
1. Pass the Fair Elections Now Act. Modeled on the laws of Maine, Arizona, and Connecticut, this measure would allow House and Senate candidates to wage credible campaigns without having to prostrate themselves before the usual lobbyists, bundlers, and corporate bigwigs. By raising many small contributions from ordinary people, a candidate would qualify for a pool of Fair Elections funding. The money would be drawn from the sale of surplus broadcast spectrum (for House races), or from a modest fee on government contractors (for Senate races). Already tantalizingly close to passage in the House, this bill would allow our representatives in Washington to spend more time debating policy and listening to constituents, and less time on the phone dialing for dollars.
2. Adopt Nonpartisan Redistricting. In most states, the legislative majority draws the lines for congressional (as well as other) races. The result is an incumbent-protection racket, with districts often containing a 70-80 percent majority for one party, incidentally making the rest of the votes meaningless. There is another way. Redistricting can be done (as it already is in Arizona and Iowa) by a nonpartisan panel, which looks out for the electorate (keeping communities together, for example) rather than for the elected. With more outcomes up for grabs, more people are motivated to vote.
3. End the Committee Kitty. It is in committee, we all know, that the House and Senate do their real business—that is, the business of raising campaign money. Get yourself onto a banking, energy, or communications committee, and you become a magnet for money from the affected industries. The Supreme Court insists, on convoluted First Amendment grounds, that big-money contributions cannot be outlawed. But the House and Senate could adopt ethics rules prohibiting their members from belonging to any committee with jurisdiction over an industry from which that member has received money directly or indirectly. Pledgers could adopt this one reform as a personal practice, even before their colleagues make it official.
4. Unclog the Senate. Yes, the Founders (some of them, anyway) wanted the Senate to serve as a check on majority rule. But they did not intend to empower 41 senators, representing as few as 15 percent of the people, to filibuster any proposal to death. It was the Senate itself that cooked up that rule. The filibuster should be transformed (as Sen. Tom Harkin has been proposing for 15 years) back into what it once was: a way to extend floor debate for an extra few weeks, not to block action forever. For that more legitimate purpose, senators should be required to actually get on the floor and filibuster, not just call in a filibuster threat.
5. Work a Five-Day Week. Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann, authors of the The Broken Branch, want senators and House members to put in at least 26 five-day weeks (time spent debating, crafting bills, overseeing agencies, and meeting with constituents—in short, legislating) every year. To most Americans, that might not sound especially onerous, but five days would represent a significant productivity boost on Capitol Hill. Today, it is common to show up for work late Tuesday and leave by mid-day Thursday. In 2006, House members put in all of 65 full days of work for their $175,000 salary. “Nothing is more important to changing the decision-making and deliberative dynamic in Washington,” Ornstein and Mann write, “than making sure members are there for sustained periods of time, working on policy and oversight, and interacting with one another in committee and on the floor.”
My Pledge to Transform Congress is shorter and more specific than the Pledge to America. It might therefore appeal to no more than a few brave souls rather than an entire party. But since Americans currently hold both major parties in low regard, some legislators might be glad to have a new way to identify themselves. And many voters would certainly be grateful for a new way to choose—not between D and R, but between those who stand for honest democracy and those who are prepared to put up with endlessly more of what we’ve got.
Jim Lardner is a Senior Fellow at Demos, a non-partisan public policy research and advocacy organization, and the author of numerous articles and reports, including Good Rules: Ten Stories of Successful Regulation.