Three Congressional Reforms For 2011

Our country’s Congress--especially the Senate--is incredibly broken. The disproportionate power of the minority in the Senate, the amount of money it takes to run for office, the overwhelming power of lobbyists, and just good, old-fashioned corruption have been slowly ruining our country. Good policy reform in this country has been made impossible because of how terrible our political system has become. What this country needs is government reform before we can ever truly get good policy solutions to problems like health care, immigration, global warming, or financial regulation.

There are many sweeping governmental reforms I would like to see. Ending the “plurality (instead of majority) wins” rule in electoral races, campaign finance reform, repealing the electoral college for presidential race, etc. . . . Achieving these reforms will be a long term multi-front effort. There are several smaller reforms that would dramatically improve our government that I think are much more achievable in the short term. They are listed with the easiest ideas first:

1. All bills must also be written in plain English.

The Senate Finance Committee has a tradition of writing every bill in understandable, plain English, then converting it to legislative language right before the committee vote. Every committee in Congress should copy this tradition by having every bill published in a plain language and legislative language version without in discrepancy in meaning. (Full disclosure: I believe Ezra Klein was the first person I heard suggest this idea, and I think it is fabulous.)

Democrats have made a point of publishing bills 72 hours before the vote, but what good is there in making a bill public if only one in every hundred thousand Americans can understand it. Having a plain language version of the bill would help greatly expand the pool of people who understand pending legislation. It would benefit congressional members not on the specific committee, journalists, and regular Americans who might care passionately about a subject. It could also help quickly stop nonsense rumors like “death panels.”

Big companies with high paid lobbyists already understand complex legislative language in a bill, having a copy of the bill written in plain English would put journalists and grassroots activists on a slightly more even footing. No law is needed to make this reform. Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid could effectively implement it tomorrow, and I would like to see it made part of a promise for even greater transparency in the 112th Congress. (Maybe a consolation prize from Obama for breaking his promise on transparency in the health care negotiations.)

2. Expand the size of congressional staffs and increase their pay.

If you are concerned that lobbyists run Washington, part of the problem is that there is almost no one else in the city capable of doing the job. Congressional offices are woefully understaffed, and most of that staff is woefully underpaid. Congressional staffer make very little money and work very long hours. The result is a huge turnover, with many of the most skilled and knowledgeable leaving to become lobbyists.

While most people who work in Congressional offices are very intelligent, dedicated, young individuals, that is the part of the problem. They are young individuals. If we want Congressional staffers, instead of professional lobbyists, writing bills to help the public, we need a large group of well-paid, seasoned staffers capable of doing the job. You will only get that by paying staffers a much better wage and reducing their overall workload by increasing the number of congressional aides. If larger, better-paid congressional staffs were able to stop a single boondoggle like the F-22 from happening, it would be a massive return on investment.

3. Ending the filibuster and restoring Constitutional order to the Senate.

The Filibuster is a terrible, undemocratic, and anti-Constitutional idea. The Senate should pass laws with a simple majority vote like the Constitution clearly states. The filibuster was not originally part of the Senate, and the rules governing cloture have changed repeatedly over the years. Given the incredible level of abuse recently, it is not a question of if, but when it will be reformed. It has already brought the Senate to a complete crawl, and after the 2010 election, it will potentially completely shut down legislating in this country. Many people probably think the Senate rules simply can't be changed, but after a few years of true and complete shutdown, I can easily picture the tide turning against the filibuster.

I would prefer to see the filibuster completely eliminated, but a reform where the number of votes needed for cloture went down by one vote every day would also work. If that system of reform is adopted, you also need to eliminate the ability to filibuster procedural motions. Three cloture votes and roughly a week spent getting a bill passed that had a final vote of 97-0 is the definition of broken government.

These three changes alone would go a long way toward fixing what is wrong with our government, and pave the way for true progressive policy reform. Ideally, a real effort will be made to try to get these three reforms adopted before or soon after the 2010 election.

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