Thoughts on Improving Congress

Disclaimer:  I wrote this a few weeks ago as part of a competition sponsored by The Washington Post.  Over 1,400 people entered the contest, but only 10 finalists were selected.  I didn’t make the cut (top 0.7%), so I decided to share my thoughts with you.  I will mention how members of Congress focus too much on re-election.  This may seem odd considering that it is election season and their focus should be on getting re-/elected, but as you read, consider the 22 months outside of election season.  Hopefully you’ll enjoy this more than the panel of judges at the Post.

President Woodrow Wilson once said, “If you think too much about being re-elected, it is very difficult to be worth re-electing.”  Apparently, Congress didn’t get the memo; its members always seem more focused on the next election than on working together to provide significant results.  That’s likely why only 11% of Americans have a “great deal/quite a lot of confidence” in the institution, according to a recent Gallup survey. 

This constant focus on Election Day politics is the reason why Republicans offered their “Pledge to America” five weeks before Election Day instead of sitting down and doing the hard work of helping the Democrats to govern earlier during the 111th Congress.  It’s also why congressional Democrats brought up a vote to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell before the military completed its review, which is scheduled for release in December.  This unyielding drive to “one-up” the other party, raise money for re-election and feed the news media’s insatiable appetite is damaging to our country.

Another president, Harry Truman, offered some insight that, if practiced, could improve the legislative process:  “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”  So in that vein, I offer these proposals to our legislative branch:

  1. Craft legislation in private during joint party meetings comprised of members who have backgrounds in or who are policy experts on the specific legislative initiative.  Of course, all members should offer healthy debate on final legislation before passage.
  2. Close congressional debates and hearings to media cameras.  Allow only note-taking by reporters.
  3. Allow only members in party leadership positions to give interviews with national media (local media from their state or district is fine for all members).
  4. For complex laws, vote on each provision separately for final passage.
  5. Report the final vote count in terms of overall votes “for” and “against” a bill instead of breaking it down by party or individual member.  Release the comprehensive numbers after a 30 day period.

Before you knock the lack of openness in these proposals, remember that the Declaration of Independence was drafted and debated in secret.  These proposals have the potential to help members of Congress create more thoughtful laws, promote lawmakers communicating to their specific constituents, allow party leadership to deliver consistent national messages, eliminate showmanship and promote more reading of the news.  Maybe then, we’ll regain confidence in the so-called “People’s Branch.”  What do you think?  Join the Discourse!

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4 Responses to Thoughts on Improving Congress

  1. Kathryn says:

    Post, Schmost. I liked it.

  2. Ben says:

    It sounds like an interesting plan. Here are my thoughts on your 5 points…

    1. Sounds good to me. We don’t constantly need to know what is going on in there. If they have a chance to make some legislation in private, maybe they won’t be so easily swayed by the extremely vocal minority.
    2. Might as well. How many people actually watch C-SPAN anyway? Haha.
    3.The only problem with this might be that with the way media operates these days, those interviews with local media would be picked up by national media pretty quickly. It’s hard to keep anything from getting out these days if it gets to even one media member.
    4. YES!! I’ve often thought laws should be voted on like this. There’s no good reason to attach an amendment to a defense spending bill that has to do with welfare (for example). Everything should be voted on piece by piece and then you wouldn’t have the gamesmanship with the amendments.
    5.My only question here is don’t you want to know how your Congressman voted? I mean, how else can you tell if he is representing your views in D.C.? Just a thought.

    • My thoughts on your thoughts:
      1. 2. 4. Good, we agree!
      3. You’re right, but at least they would have to talk to their local media. And I guess the idea is that the national media would have less people to talk to and have arguing in front of the whole nation.
      5. I guess I wasn’t clear, but the individual votes/party breakdown would be a part of the “comprehensive numbers” that would be released in 30 days. Perhaps exceptions would be made for September through Election Day of an election year so that ridiculous votes couldn’t be crammed into that period.

  3. metaspyder says:

    Sounds good — and in some ways (at least, in my mind), not too dissimilar from what the founding fathers seem to have intended for Congress. Or at least, the Senate.

    The problem is that such changes, in light of modern events, would give Congress unprecedented power. Instead of two seemingly dis-unified houses, you might have one powerful, very secretive one. I imagine something akin to the media’s portrayal of China. Of course, I could be wrong.

    The present (mockery of) Transparency, which allows the media to be present at certain political proceedings, is useful because it forces politicians to at least appear to be working for the American people. I imagine that allowing them to do as they please, and subsequently explain themselves later, would be a dangerous development.

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