Debt Consolidation

An America That Reforms Its Poltics (chapter two)

Posted on: June 05, 2008
Written by: UWSA Staff

AN AMERICA THAT REFORMS ITS POLITICS (chapter two)

Our political system has lost its moorings. It no longer rises to meet new challenges.

It seems designed to avoid solving problems.

The first words of the Constitution are "We, the people." We created the Constitution. We created Congress. It exists for us, not the other way around. We hire and pay for the bureaucracy. They all work for us.

Before we can hope to face up to our problems, we have to restore the intent and meaning of the Constitution we created. We cannot repair our economic engine, retool our economy to be competitive in a new age, and put ourselves on a solid footing for the future unless we take back control of our government that has been taken from us.

The first and most important action we can take as a people is to treat our elections seriously. Candidates for public office must be required to lay out their proposed solutions to the problems that confront us. They avoid this like the plague. They'll raise false issues, appeal to the voters' self-interests, or sling mudanything to avoid facing the tough issues.

The Savings & Loan crisis is a case in point. In 1984, the administration and Congress believed that the S & L crisis was a $20- to $30-billion dollar problem. The special interests mobilized. The S & L operators flooded Washington with lobbyists, campaign contributions, PAC money, and free airplane trips to fancy resorts. As a result, the issue was swept under the rug. It didn't reappear on the screen during the 1988 elections. The day after the 1988 election, our Republican President and Democratic Congress suddenly discovered we had a $400- to $500-billion S & L crisis that could no longer be ignored.

In 1990 we were told by Washington that the deficit for the next five years would be $547 billion. A year later we were told there was a slight mistake. The five-year deficit would total $1 trillion. As usual, nobody wanted to talk about it.

Do not allow any candidate in this election to ignore our deficit. When Governor Clinton talks about his new programs, ask him where the money is coming from. When President Bush talks about finishing the job he started, ask him when he's going to start on the job of getting this country back on track. If you will hold all the candidates accountable, then we'll be on the way to getting this problem fixed. You will have done your part no matter for whom you vote.

After the election the real work will begin. The men and women who are chosen by the people to go to Washington in 1992 should pledge themselves to restore the people's control over our institutions. That will mean irritating their powerful friends and big donors. It will also mean shutting the revolving door. It will mean restoring the intent of the Constitution.

START AT THE TOP

Before we can hope to eliminate our deficit, we have to overhaul the political system that created it. Our Founders built a beautiful ship of state, but the barnacles have latched on and the hull has rusted. It's time for a scrubdown from top to bottom.

It's not just a matter of bringing in new people. It's not just a matter of replacing a Republican President with a Democrat, or a Democratic Congress with a Republican one. To throw the rascals out is an impulse as American as apple pie, but it alone won't do the job.

The wave of new members of Congress who were elected in 1974 as reformers in the wake of the Watergate scandal were as bright and sincere as Congress has ever seen. Eighteen years later those who remain in office are as encrusted in the system as the people they replaced. They enjoy the same perks, PAC payouts, bounced checks, fawning staffs, and personal exemptions from the laws they pass.

Take any good, decent citizen and put him in a limousine, hold the red lights for him, give him a private jet for personal use, supply him with free tickets to any place he wants to go, and he'll lose touch with reality in a hurry. If we replace every person in Washington tomorrow but keep the present system intact, in a few weeks the new people will be just like the old people.

The British aristocracy we drove out in our Revolution has been replaced with our own version: a political nobility that is immune to the people's will. They have created through our campaign and lobbying laws a series of incentives that corrupt the intent of the Constitution.

It's time to make a few changes. Specifically, we need to insist on a sweeping package of reforms for our political system:

* Restrict campaign contributions to $1,000 period. No more "soft money" contributions of up to $100,000 from corporate interests, labor unions, and rich people. No more $8-million extravaganzas where the dinner seating is determined by how much money you gave to the President's campaign. Think of it. This is the presidency of the United States. This is the office George Washington once held. We will no longer allow it to be demeaned and cheapened by pandering to wealthy donors from all over the world.

* Curb political action committees. In 1974 PACs contributed nearly $13 million to congressional candidates. About that time lobbyists noticed that congressmen returned their phone calls if their PAC had given money. In 1990, PACs contributed over $150 million, an eleven-fold jump. Who are we trying to kid here? We know what they're out to buy. It's time for the owners of the country to declare that the United States Congress and the White House are not for sale.

* Give the Federal Election Commission real teeth. Right now, the President appoints six members. By tradition there are three Republicans and three Democrats. Guess how many tie votes there are. You can also guess at the amount of winking and nodding that goes on around the table. No wonder it's a paper tiger. It must be revamped. Let's have five members appointed at staggered terms. Give it criminal prosecution powers to enforce our election laws.

* Change the way we hold elections. First, shorten the campaign season. Five months is long enough for anyone to make a case. Hold elections on both Saturday and Sunday so working people can go to the polls. Release no information until all polls are closed. Since the airwaves belong to the public, require equal free time for candidates for federal office. Joined with easier voter registration, these measures will improve our elections and stimulate more voters to go to the polls.

* Eliminate the electoral college. There's no reason to filter the people's vote. Why shouldn't we let the people directly choose their President and Vice President? Whoever gets the most votes of the entire country should be the President.

PUBLIC SERVICE IS A PUBLIC TRUST

Reforming our campaign laws is only the beginning. We have to restore the idea that public service is a sacred trust. Being an elected, appointed, or career public servant is a noble calling. Some of our elected and appointed officials see their terms of office as interim steps to high-paying lobbying jobs. We need to make it abundantly clear that anyone who enters the federal government comes to serve, not to cash in.

* Make it a criminal offense for any foreign government or individual or company to attempt to influence American laws or policies by means of direct or indirect campaign contributions. Tighten laws requiring full and prompt disclosure.

* Rewrite the foreign agent registration and lobbying laws to close the loopholes. Today there is not even a clear definition of what lobbying is. For example, if you don't want to be accused of hiring a lobbyist, you hire a law firm to accomplish the same task.

* Forbid any former President, Vice President, cabinet officer, agency director, Federal Reserve governor, commission director, White House staffer, trade negotiator, member of the Senate or House from accepting one penny for any reason from any foreign interest ever. Anybody who holds one of these high offices does so because the American people gave them their trust. That trust should be honored.

* Forbid anyone who has held any position in the federal government to be a paid lobbyist for any domestic interest for five years after leaving government. Slam the revolving door shut.

* Draft a tough ethics code for private citizens who serve as consultants and advisers to the federal government. The federal government contracts with these private citizens, most of whom used to work for the government, to do the work that federal employees could do. These people usually get paid much more than workers on the federal payroll. Establish stiff criminal penalties for any abuse or fraud.

* Forbid anybody on the payroll of a foreign government or foreign interest from serving in any capacity, volunteer or paid, in a presidential or congressional campaign. Right now, foreign lobbyists play key roles in both the Democratic and Republican campaigns. That is inexcusable.

CLEAN UP THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH

At a time when we're asking the American people to make sacrifices for their country, why do we allow our political elites to live like pampered royalty? No wonder the American people have grown disgusted with their government; we need to take severe steps to restore that sacred trust.

* Move immediately to sell off the 111 civilian aircraft maintained for discretionary use by federal government executives. Conduct a case by case review of the remaining 1,100 civilian planes owned by the federal government that are allotted to different legislative and executive agencies. Keep the few that are essential.

* Eliminate the 89th wing of the air force. It exists solely to transport top officials around the country. The Cold War is over. The Vice President doesn't need an air force jet to go play golf. I don't understand how a chief of staff to the President could even consider using a government jet to take him to the dentist. People might say, "Aren't you being a little hard? These people have giant responsibilities while running huge departments of government. Most corporate executives never run anything so large and complex, and they all have corporate jets." These people work for us. They are our employees. Unless we take steps like this, they will continue to believe we work for them. We need to capture their hearts and minds. No matter how high their office or how lofty their titles, members of the next administration should fly commercially. They should go out to the airport, get in line, lose their baggage, eat a bad meal, and stay in touch with how normal people live. Then, if there's a recession in this country, it won't take three months for them to figure it out. The person in the seat next to them will let them know in no uncertain terms.

* Have the cabinet members spend most of their time outside Washington answering tough questions and solving real problems. What good can the Secretary of Education do behind a desk while our schools are falling apart? How can the Secretary of Health and Human Services tackle the massive bureaucratic problems of this system without really understanding the people who encounter them?

* Encourage federal employees to treat citizens as owners. When any owner of this country walks into a federal office, that person should be treated with the courtesy and respect that an owner should receive. We need to restore pride in the federal service so that our employees will smile every day at the office and be polite.

* Reduce civil service restrictions and allow more discretion so that federal employees can be more responsive. The word 'bureaucrat" conjures up some bloodless, uncaring robot with a rubber stamp. In truth, I've found almost every federal employee I've encountered to be a dedicated, intelligent professional. We need to lift restrictions that keep our employees from doing their best jobs. We need fewer employees and more rewards. We need to give our officers the tools to do the job. Right now, for example, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development presides over a department of 13,000 people. By legislative statute he can only hire or fire 105 of them. It's not surprising that public housing is a mess.

* Drastically cut the White House and executive branch staffs. John F. Kennedy had a White House staff of 600. George Bush has 1,850. In 1960, Congress had a total staff of 5,610. Today it has a staff of over 20,000. What do all these people do? From my experience, their main mission is to insulate executive officials and members of Congress from you, the owners. Their secondary mission is to make sure their boss gets reelected. Congress and the executive branch have grown fat, complacent, unwieldy, and unresponsive. The White House and Congress could easily reduce their staffs by 30 percent.

Never forget that staffs accomplish very little. All of the action is in the field.

Look at the Agriculture Department to see how much the bureaucracy in the executive branch has grown. In 1948, farms employed 20 percent of our population, and the Agriculture Department had 67,000 employees It was considered a huge bureaucracy. Today only 2 percent of our people work on farms, but the Agriculture Department has swollen to 118,000 employees. Instead of creating a new cabinet office every time a special interest group wants more attention, we should overhaul and permanently reduce departments of government so that we can apply our resources where they will do more good for our people. We don't need staffers in Washington to hold a cabinet officer's briefcase. We need hands-on problem solvers out in the field where they will do some good.

RESTORE CONFIDENCE IN CONGRESS

Congress needs to take a good, hard look at itself as an institution. It has been through trying times. It has in large measure lost the respect and confidence of the American people. We cannot afford to let this go on. A representative democracy depends on the essential trust the people place in their institutions. We should urge Congress to regain that trust by taking four measures immediately:

* Slash the current $2.8 billion budget that supports Congress, its agencies, gymnasiums, staffs, barber shops, free mail, and all the other perks that have been built up over the years. Cut congressional staffs by 30 percent and other perks by 40 percent. Congress could apply nearly $1 billion toward cutting the deficit. Suddenly the people, the financial markets, our allies, and our competitors would realize that the United States is serious about facing its problems. Congress would rise to new heights of respect in everyone's eyes by becoming more productive.

* Reform the retirement system. Up to 93 members of Congress are eligible for lifetime pension benefits exceeding $2 million apiece. This is much higher than their constituents' pensions! The people consider such excesses a breach of trust.

* Reorganize the legislative system. As many as fifteen committees and subcommittees must be involved for any significant piece of legislation to pass the House. Negotiations among all these committees and subcommittees become so complex that loopholes and special favors get enacted with only a handful of people knowing about it. Congress needs to streamline this process so that they and the people can follow the progress, or lack of it, on bills before the House and Senate. Members of Congress should be acutely aware that the people run this country, not the lobbyists in the hallways and offices.

* Turn in excess campaign funds to the Treasury. Some congressmen have racked up campaign war chests which hold many millions of dollars. Every two years, the PACs pour more money in just to stay in their good graces. Clean it up. The owners want that money back.

RESTORE A SENSE OF OWNERSHIP TO OUR PEOPLE

Owners have responsibilities, too. If you have guests in your house, and you allow them to pocket the loose change on the dresser, you have nobody to blame but yourself when you discover they've stolen your television set. The most honest people in the world will be corrupted by a pattern of winking at minor misdemeanors. By the time they get to the television set they've lost all sense of proportion. They've begun to believe that they deserve it and that nobody will mind. If that's the psychology at work with people in your own home, magnify it a million times to understand the problem that festers in Washington.

Again, if you want to know who's to blame for our political system that encourages and rewards people who cash in on public service, look in the mirror.

We have abdicated our responsibilities as owners. Our political system can only be repaired if we take charge of it.

* First, all of us must vote. We need legislation to make voter registration more accessible. How can anyone disagree? We should change the voting time from Tuesday to both Saturday and Sunday.

* Second, we must stay informed. I've suggested we have an interactive "Electronic Town Hall" so that as a nation we can lay out the issues, review the choices, argue over the merits and demerits, and reach a consensus. This has aroused a lot of controversy, but why? Most of us carry on a quiet debate with our leaders every morning while we're reading the newspapers. I remember that FDR's "Fireside Chats" united us as a country and set a national direction. President Reagan used the same medium to explain his ideas. The only difference between the Fireside Chat and the Electronic Town Hall is that the first was one-way, the only radio technology available at the time, and the second is two-way, which we can do today. Instead of passively listening to the radio or watching members of the political elite debate on television, our citizens will be able to engage their representatives and appointed officials in a direct conversation. This may be a conversation our political elites would like to avoid, and I can understand why. That doesn't mean they should be able to avoid it. For our system to work, our elected officials must listen to the owners (us) we, the people.

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and citizen participation is the price of responsible representative democracy. This is what our Founders intended and what we must restore.

FIX THE SYSTEM FIRST

We must repair the political system. If we don't, the actions we take to repair our economic engine will be just another series of temporary fixes. We have to change the incentives if we expect our political leaders to hold the course in setting this country right. Let's tackle this like our grandparents would have. Let's fix it. Then let's keep it fixed. Do it as an act of love for our grandparents and parents who gave us this country, and also for our children and grandchildren. They deserve the very best government we can give them.