So what is it about the Congress that causes this? What makes this equal branch of government fall even far below the ratings that the President receives even with his outlandish and often unlawful behavior as a style of governance?
Well, of course, the divided make-up, with the House controlled by Republicans and the Senate by Democrats certainly plays a role, but the problem is much bigger than that. I mean, really, do we truly think that if the Republicans gain control of the Senate and retain the House that things are going to be dramatically changed? Not on your life.
Some of that lack of action, of course, will rest with the President, for he will fight tooth and nail for his ideology which governs all that he does and he will use executive orders whenever and wherever he can. And will a legislature dominated by Republicans do anything about it? Well, they'll probably do a few things but, by and large, I don't think we'll see major action to shut his agenda down. Politicians after all are very weak, and the D.C. crowd seems to be more concerned with what the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the New York Times think much more than they are concerned about us.
The problem is largely their cocoon like environment, where they are surrounded by other politicians and, of course, the lobbyists who ply them with fancy trips and wine and dine them frequently to build personal relationships. It's going to take some major changes to break this cycle and whether or not that is even possible might be a stretch, but here go a few ideas to ponder. I'm sure most of you have many other possibilities.
1. Term Limits. What generally happens when a candidate is elected to either the Senate or House and decides to run again? Ninety-eight percent of the time they are reelected; the perks of office and the fundraising necessary to run a campaign are highly difficult for a challenger to overcome. But this wasn't the way the Founders thought about things when they set up our system. They envisioned a citizen-legislator who would serve honorably for a period of them, then return home and be replaced by another willing citizen to take a turn at service. That's what the whole idea was about: sacrificing their personal life for a period in service to country.
Today the term public service as it applies to long serving Congressmen is clearly a joke. They have unbelievable perks, name buildings after themselves, are treated luxuriously by lobbyists currying favor, and generally they return home after their "service" with a fortune far beyond anything amassed in terms of salary and benefits. This should not be so.
I've come to the conclusion that only term limits can turn things in the right direction. Power and money being what they are, it's just too attractive for most politicians to turn down the opportunity to a career of power and prestige where they so often lose sight of their purpose which is serving the people back home.
I would recommend a maximum of two terms in the Senate and four terms in the House. Further, I would not recommend the combination of terms in the two houses; once you've completed the service level in one you're done and out. I say this only because we are desperately in need of fresh and new blood, and seeing the lengths that the parties will go to for their incumbents (i.e., the Thad Cochran primary), something drastic needs to happen. We don't need any more great grandfathers being rolled into the chamber on a gurney to cast a vote.
2. Session Limits. This suggestion is, I think, a novel one. I would recommend limiting the term of a session of Congress to the period from opening in early January to the end of June each year, or basically one half of a year. In return, the long weekends and holiday periods throughout the year would be eliminated. This way, when Congress is in session it would be intense. The leadership would be required to actually plan their work in advance, thereby setting a calendar with something firm other than naming post offices, for example.
What would Congress do the rest of the year. Well, they would go home and meet and deal with their electorate. They would have to spend time at home with those other than their donors. They would be seen in and about town regularly and would be unable to escape visibility. That, friends, would be true accountability. They wouldn't be able to hide in Washington and avoid talking about the issues and their votes, because if people knew they were off half of the year, they would be expected to present themselves.
And I want to make it crystal clear that this type of arrangement should mandate that they occupy a real home in their home territory, not a lake cottage or property that someone else occupies. This will avoid the situation we have today of Congressmen literally living full time in D.C. or the suburbs.
3. Pay and Benefits. Since maintaining two "real" residences is expensive, I would let them retain their current pay rates, maybe even a limited raise, but it should have a proviso that they meet certain limited goals for the session such as having a budget. What a novel approach, even the Senate actually having a budget. Now that would be something.
As far as benefits go, the idea of a fat retirement check after service should be a thing of the past. Put them on a decent 401K type system and the same healthcare system that their voters must deal with. You want to clean up retirement scams and healthcare abuse? Put the elected representatives under the same system that we the people must deal with and things would be cleaned up fast, particularly the tax system.
Give them set travel allowances tied to the distance from home to D.C. for each and hold them too it. Any fact finding trips to foreign countries or other such requirements should be clearly in the House or Senate budget and corporate junkets and lobbyist paid travel should be eliminated. The idea here is to put the onus on Congress to do what Congress is paid to do; they are paid to represent we, the people first and foremost, not big business or big labor interests.
4. Restrictions on Lobbying. I recommend that no one leaving active service in Congress be allowed to work for any firm which has a direct lobbying capacity with the Congress for ten years. While this might seem harsh, coupled with a higher turnover rate of elected officials and the extended length of time since service, the likelihood of becoming employed as a lobbyist would be nearly eliminated. Today, too many Congressmen when leaving office move into million dollar opportunities to market their influence. Take this away and the lure of riches and power wanes quickly.
Now some will say we can't do this. We need experienced people, people who know the ropes and can get things done. To that I say, they've gotten plenty done, much of it legislation that should have never been considered in the first place. And since our current officials don't seem to read the legislation in the first place, they are playing a game with us, a dangerous game that puts their personal interests first and the interests of the country second.
The whole idea behind the recommendations is to put Congress back where it belongs as a servant of the people who have elected it. Unless we make that happen, the Washington cocktail and power broker set will continue to run rampant over policy based upon what serves its purpose, not the purpose of the nation as a whole. Power and greed tend to work together and become more infectious over time, so anything we can do to break the linkage can only be beneficial. Who knows, we might just able to put this albatross back in a functioning capacity as the Founding Fathers intended.
Think about it, revisit it and let's see if all of us together as a nation of Americans can make something happen. And yeah, you're right, I am a dreamer, but it takes dreams to get things started. We can no longer operate under the same old, same old. It is slowly killing us and the country that we love.