Additional Support for Reform of U.S. Congress

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Some members of Congress, governors, mayors and over 1,000 political activists have created a group called “No Labels” to mobilize support for efforts to reduce or eliminate the dysfuntionality of the federal government.

Led by former Republican Governor Jon Huntsman of Utah and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, it is working to bring our political leaders and parties together to forge solutions to our nation’s problems.  No Labels promotes its politics of problem solving in three ways: by organizing citizens across America, providing a space for legislators who want to solve problems to convene and by pushing for common-sense reforms to make our government work.

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One of the action plans of No Labels is called Make Congress Work with the following 12 proposals:

  1. No Budget, No Pay. If Congress does not timely pass a budget and annual spending bills, then they should not get paid.
  2. Up or Down Votes on Presidential Appointments. All presidential nominations should be confirmed or rejected within 90 days of submission to the Senate.
  3. Fix the Filibuster. Change the Senate rules to require real filibusters and eliminate them on motions to proceed to consider proposed legislation and other matters.
  4. Empower the Sensible Majority. Allow a bipartisan majority to override a leader or committee chair’s refusal to bring a bill to the floor.
  5. Make Members Come to Work. Make members work three five-day weeks in Washington per month with one week in their home districts.
  6. Question Time for the President. Provide for the President monthly to provide members an opportunity to question the President and to debate their ideas.
  7. Fiscal Report to Congress. A non-partisan leader should deliver an annual in-person televised fiscal report to a joint session of Congress to provide one set of facts relevant to fiscal policy.
  8. No Outside Pledges. Members of Congress should only take the Oath of Allegiance and the Oath of Office.
  9. Monthly Bipartisan Gatherings. Each house should have monthly, off-the-record bipartisan gatherings to discuss current issues.
  10. Bipartisan Seating. At all joint sessions or meetings of Congress, every member should sit beside at least one person from the opposing party.
  11. Bipartisan Leadership Committee. Congressional party leaders should have a bipartisan committee to meet and discuss legislative agendas and solutions.
  12. No Negative Campaigns Against Incumbents. Incumbents should not conduct negative campaigns against other incumbents.[1]

The group’s website provides interactive petitions to support these measures. I have signed them and urge you to do the same.

Points 2 and 3 of this action plan relate to reforming the Senate’s filibuster rule, which has been discussed in prior posts.

On January 22nd the Senate will turn to the filibuster issue.

This week three of the Senators pushing for such reform are reiterating their campaign for signing a petition supporting their efforts.

In addition, one of groups working for such reform, the Communications Workers of America labor union, is launching a cable television advertising campaign calling on the Senate to eliminate the silent filibuster and implement “common sense” rules reforms. The union also will have interactive  online advertising to highlight how the silent filibuster may block issues such as immigration reform, climate change and job creation. These ads will culminate in an online petition for such reform.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Bernstein, a political commentator, agrees with me that requiring a talking filibuster will not really solve much. Such a reform, he says, is addressed at improving the transparency and accountability for filibusters. The real problem is that filibusters or the threats of same are used at every possible opportunity, so that 60 votes are needed to do anything, and the talking filibuster proposal does not address that problem. Instead, supermajority voting is the problem that needs to be addressed by reform.

Skepticism about the merits of the current proposed reforms of the filibuster rule is also voiced by two former secretaries of the Senate. They argue that the real problem is the increasing inability of the minority party in the body to offer amendments to bills under consideration and their resulting use of the filibuster to protest such exclusion and to prevent consideration of the measures. Instead the former secretaries of the Senate suggest that it adopt a standing order for only this session of the Congress allowing the minority party the opportunity to offer one to three relevant amendments to a bill or other measure. This right would be controlled by the minority leader or his or her designee, with the subject matter of these proposed amendments be disclosed, in writing, as soon as the bill becomes the pending business. After the session is concluded the efficacy of this change could be evaluated before adopting it or something else as a standing rule of the Senate.

On Friday, January 11th, Majority Leader Harry Reid reportedly told a Nevada television station that the Senate was unlikely to pass a radical revision of its filibuster rule.


[1] Another action plan of No Labels is called Make the Presidency Work that will be the subject of a future post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The U.S. Congress Continues To Demonstrate Its Dysfunctionality

Both houses of Congress continue to demonstrate their disgusting dysfunctionality in failing to agree on measures to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” at midnight on December 31, 2012.

The U.S. Senate

Already I have commented extensively on what I believe is the absurd Senate’s filibuster rule. Once again it is affecting how the Senate can take action before the end of the year on extending the current federal income tax rates on those earning less than $250,000 per year.

Actually the obstacles presented by the Senate’s filibuster and other rules to the chamber’s actually accomplishing something are worse than what I previously have described.

The  New York Times’ Jonathan Weissman starts his illustration of the current situation with the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Harry Reid’s, hypothetically moving this afternoon (December 27th) “to bring up legislation that would extend expiring Bush-era tax cuts on incomes under $250,000, set dividends and capital gains tax rates at 20 percent, ensure the alternative minimum tax does not expand dramatically to hit more of the middle class, extend expiring unemployment insurance and temporarily stop across-the-board cuts to military and domestic programs.”

If only one of the 100 Senators “objects to a request to move straight to voting [on the merits of  the bill] by unanimous consent, the Senate would then vote [on Saturday morning] at 9 a.m. to cut off debate on that motion to proceed to the bill.”

Weissman continues, “If that [cloture] motion got 60 votes Saturday morning [to end debate], there would then have to be 30 hours of ‘post-cloture ripening’ before the Senate actually votes on the motion to proceed to the bill. That would take the Senate to 1 p.m. Sunday. If again that procedural motion received 60 votes, the Senate would be on the “fiscal cliff” bill itself. Mr. Reid would then immediately file to cut off debate on the bill itself.”

“At that point, under Senate rules, the earliest possible vote on final passage would be Tuesday, Jan. 1. By then, the 112th Congress would have disbanded and efforts to pass the bill would have to start all over again — this time on the other side of the ‘fiscal cliff.'”

The U.S. House of Representatives

The recent inability of John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, to obtain sufficient Republican votes to support his so-called “Plan B” for resolving the “fiscal cliff” problems is only the latest example of his ineffectiveness as the Speaker. This is due, in my opinion, to the inflexibility of Republican Representatives who are supported by the right-wing “Tea Party.”

The resulting inability of the House to participate in governing our country is yet another example of the dysfunctionality of the U.S. government.

One way out of this impasse would be for the House to elect a Speaker who has the support of the centrists in both political parties. Based upon his public appearances, John Boehner, in my opinion, does not have the intelligence or gravitas to be such a Speaker. Because the Republicans have a majority in the House, presumably someone else from that party would have to step forward or be called forward to take on the responsibilities of such a coalition-backed Speaker. I do not know who that could be.

There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that prevents such a Speakership. Its Article I, § 2(5) merely says, “The House of Representatives shall chuse [sic] their Speaker and other Officers . . . .”

Norman Ornstein, a noted Washington political commentator who has written about many of the current woes of our government, agrees that John Boehner is not able to wield the typical power of the Speakership.

Ornstein also notes that the just-quoted constitutional provision “does not say that the speaker of the House has to be a member of the House. In fact, the House can choose anybody a majority wants to fill the post.” Ornstein then goes on to suggest two centrist Republican who are not members of the House for this important position: Jon Huntsman, Jr., the former Governor of the State of Utah, U.S. Ambassador to Singapore and China and unsuccessful candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, and Mitch Daniels, the Governor of the State of Indiana.

This is an intriguing idea, but it would be difficult enough to elect someone from the House itself to be a centrist Speaker. To go outside the House membership for a Speaker in any circumstance, in my opinion, would make the task that much more difficult.

I invite suggestions for Republican Representatives to take on the role and responsibilities of a centrist Speakership. Also please add comments with any historical examples of Speakers who have had de facto coalition-backing.