Is there anybody left who does not believe that Congress, as an institution, is broken? A recent Gallup poll showed the approval rating for Congress was only 16 percent.
Of course, there are individual members we respect and even admire. But does anyone think the members of Congress, collectively, are doing what we sent them to Washington, D.C., to do?
The Democrats will be quick to blame the Republicans. They will point to blind Republican obstruction of everything that President Obama tried to do. They have a point. But the reverse could easily be said by Republicans of Democrats today.
So how do you fix something that is not working?
Many of the reforms I list here are not new or something that I have thought up on my own. And space limits my ability to list all of the reforms I think are needed. But here are a few of the more obvious things that need to be done.
Every citizen needs to vote – and pay attention
The most important reform we can make starts not with the members of Congress or the rules that govern their elections, but with all of us. In many elections, more people stay home than actually go to the polls and vote. If Congress is broken, the problem starts with all of us.
Since 1972, during a year when a presidential election was held, when you consider all citizens who are of voting age, just more than half of our citizens take the time to vote. In non-presidential election years, slightly more than one-in-three citizens exercises their right to vote.
Imagine the changes that would be made if every citizen, even if most citizens, took the time to learn what the candidates stood for and then voted. The only reason that special interests carry so much weight is that average citizens let them by staying home on Election Day.
Many people support the idea of term limits. I understand their frustration. But, to be candid, I believe that is the lazy way out. If we all vote, we get the representation we want. When you think about it, we can remove any elected official on Election Day – all we need to do is take the time to actually vote.
If you are one of those people who wants to “drain the swamp,” then roll up your sleeves and become an informed voter.
Reform campaign-finance laws
Our current campaign-finance laws are a disgrace. We should dramatically reduce the amount of money that anyone can contribute to a campaign. More importantly, we should eliminate candidate PACs [political action committees] and insist on full transparency. Additionally, leadership PACs, which allow congressional leaders to raise money for members, should be eliminated.
The elimination or strict regulation of so-called super PACs, which can raise unrestricted amounts from individuals, corporations and unions is an absolute necessity. In 2016, the nearly 2,400 super PACs on file with the Federal Election Commission raised $1.8 billion and spent $1.1 billion. That is an obscene amount that can only have a corrosive effect on our democracy.
Further, if you contribute to any organization that is involved in a campaign, we need to know who you are and how much you gave.
Unfortunately, House Republicans have proposed measures, which they included in their current budget proposal, that would further weaken existing rules. If approved, these proposals would allow more big money into our elections by reducing oversight, allowing corporations to solicit their employees and other repugnant measures.
In the 2016 elections, total campaign spending approached $7 billion. Those contributing the most expect the most in return. The more money we take out of the system, the better off we all are.
Members of Congress should be required to participate in any law that they pass
What would happen to our healthcare system if members of Congress were required to participate?
Over the years, Congress has passed a number of laws that it then exempted members of Congress from. That should never happen. Whenever it passes a law applicable to the general public, that law should apply to members of Congress and their families without exception.
Institute a lifetime ban on all lobbying for members of Congress
Thirty or 40 years ago, less than 5 percent of retired members of Congress became lobbyists. Today, about half of all senators and more than 40 percent of all representatives become lobbyists. This fact alone has an enormous impact on what happens, and does not happen, in Congress.
I believe that a complete and total lifetime ban from all federal lobbying activities should be a requirement for all members retiring from Congress.
Establish a 5-day work week
While in session, senators and congressmen should be required to work five days each week. To facilitate our representatives having time to spend in their districts, the first three weeks of each month should be spent in Washington, with the remaining time available for work in their districts.
Of the first 38 weeks in 2017, members of the House have only worked a full five-day week on 12 occasions – less than one of every three weeks. They have worked two or fewer days in a week on 11 occasions. The Senate is even worse, with members working a full five-day week only six times during that period.
Vacations and holiday breaks should be dramatically reduced. It is time for the members of Congress to get to work.
Limit the number of positions requiring congressional approval and the time for review
Presently, congressional approval is required of certain individuals nominated by the president before they can begin serving. That number should be reduced by about half, to no more than 400. Additionally, strict time limits should be placed on the number of days that a nominee’s candidacy can be reviewed. Presently, a nomination can be delayed indefinitely and without any reason given. Except in extraordinary circumstances, I recommend that 90 days after a nominee has been submitted, Congress must conduct an up-or-down vote.
Eliminate partisan gerrymandering
Presently, congressional district boundaries are redrawn, every 10 years, without regard for the best interests of the American people. A process known as gerrymandering allows political insiders and party leaders to redraw congressional district lines to favor whichever party is in power at the time the districts are redrawn.
Related commentary: Sinacola on keeping gerrymandering out of the courts
The result is the extreme partisan makeup of most of our congressional districts. That means that incumbents are most likely to face their most serious political challenge from within their own party. That forces Republicans to be more conservative and Democrats to be more liberal. In most districts, centrist candidates or candidates willing to work in a bipartisan fashion do not stand much of a chance.
According to The Cook Political Report’s partisan voter index, since 1997 there has been a 56 percent decline in districts considered “swing seats.” Put another way, only one in six House seats are considered naturally competitive, in that a candidate of either party stands a reasonable chance of being successful.
Gerrymandering also allows those resetting district lines to include and exclude populations based on race and other factors. A recent landmark Supreme Court decision found that two congressional districts in North Carolina were drawn in bizarre shapes along racial lines, violating equal protection laws.
Congress should remove partisan politics by requiring independent nonpartisan commissions to be charged with redrawing district lines. As an alternative or in addition, Congress should pass a law that requires compactness of congressional boundaries.
Reform the way members of Congress receive pensions
There are those who believe members of Congress should not be allowed to receive a pension at all. I am not among that group. However, I believe the rules that apply to congressional pensions should be identical to those of all other rank-and-file federal employees.
Currently, that is not the case. As the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania noted, “Members of Congress get more pension credit for each year of service” than regular federal workers. Congressional pensions should be the same as all other federal workers.
Unfortunately, the members of Congress cannot be relied on to reform themselves. If you are tired of a Congress that does not work, there are two simple things that you can do to fix it.
First, make sure you vote.
And second, only vote for candidates who agree to support the types of reforms outlined here. Certainly, other reforms would help. But, unless a candidate is committed to these types of reforms, we can expect Congress to continue to disappoint most of us.
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Raymond V. Mariano is a Worcester Sun columnist. He comments on his hometown and global issues that impact it every Sunday in Worcester Sun.