Voting out incumbents won't change Congress

  • Article by: TOM HORNER and TIM PENNY
  • Updated: July 14, 2012 - 6:10 PM

It's not enough to vote the bums out. We need reforms -- and here they are.

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This artwork by Nancy Ohanian relates to the notion that the U.S. Congress and government are "broken."

Photo: Nancy Ohanian, Tribune Media Services

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The public is disgusted with Congress, and for good reason. Some of the most important tasks of Congress -- and, consequently, those of the country -- are being ignored. Congress doesn't just fail to get its own work done.

It actively blocks the efficient operation of the rest of the federal government by delaying confirmation of key presidential appointments for reasons that have everything to do with politics and nothing to do with the constitutional role of advice-and-consent.

Voters' disgust with political dysfunction runs deep. Gallup rates approval of Congress at 12 percent, while the Rasmussen polling organization reports that 68 percent of Americans would like to see the entire Congress replaced.

Something has to change.

Low approval ratings historically have translated into anti-incumbent elections. Minnesotans are no strangers to the consequences of voter anger.

In 1978, Minnesotans elected Republicans Dave Durenberger and Rudy Boschwitz to longtime Democratic seats, foreshadowing a national trend that eventually saw the Senate flip to Republican control in 1981. But voters weren't just choosing parties, they were choosing good lawmakers.

Washington insider Ira Shapiro, in his book, "The Last Great Senate," chronicles the remarkable achievements of the U.S. Senate in 1979-80 -- a record of thoughtful public policy that extended into the early 1980s. Senate centrists, Democrats and Republicans, helped moved the country from the economic and social crises of the 1970s to the mostly prosperous 1980s.

Today, though, simply voting out incumbents won't change Washington. Congress itself is broken. Our solutions aren't an exhaustive list of needed reforms. But they have this virtue: They could be implemented by a simple majority vote in one or both houses of Congress, and are thereby readily achievable.

• First, adjourn Congress by Independence Day, with exceptions made for national emergencies or other significant circumstances. Even with nonstop sessions, Congress isn't getting its work done. Only six times in the 37 years since passage of the Congressional Budget Act has Congress actually passed a budget on time. Streamline Congress (more than 200 committees and subcommittees offer too many venues for grandstanding and stalling) and create an adjournment deadline with teeth. Let's dock the pay of members for every day spent in session beyond July 4th.

• Second, restore the traditional filibuster. Historically, the filibuster helped set the Senate apart from the more rash House of Representatives and was a powerful tool for the minority party. Today, it is a stalling tactic. Requiring senators to physically "hold the floor" during a filibuster and allowing the action only on actual votes to pass bills (rather than today's ploy of threatening a filibuster at every step of the legislative process) would eliminate many of the worst abuses.

• Third, set a deadline of no more than 90 days for the Senate to act on presidential appointments. According to the nonpartisan reform group No Labels, President Obama entered the second half of his term with 22 percent of the government positions dependent upon Senate confirmation vacant or filled only by "acting" officials. Voters elect a governing philosophy, not just a president. A new administration should have the opportunity to put its team in place.

• Fourth, comprehensive campaign-finance reform -- including overturning the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling -- will take a constitutional amendment. But Congress can shine a light on the worst of the undisclosed and largely unregulated political spending. Tighten the regulations defining political organizations, then require them to abide by a simple rule: They can't spend a dollar until they disclose the donor through a public website. And, while they are at it, Congress should follow the lead of the Minnesota Legislature and prohibit fundraising by members while they are in session.

• Finally, members of Congress should be subjected to the same laws they impose on the country. Attacks on the retirement benefits of public employees and righteous anger directed at Wall Street scandals are hollow coming from members of Congress who can retire with full pensions as early as age 50 and are caught in their own insider-trading outrages.

We can vote against incumbents, but that only places new legislators in a system that does not work. We think these reforms would help legislators get their jobs done on time while diminishing special-interest influence. Wouldn't that be nice for a change?

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Tom Horner is a public-affairs consultant and was chief of staff to former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn. Tim Penny is president and CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and is a former Democratic member of Congress. Both are former Independence Party candidates for governor.

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