Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Congress is Broken--It's Time for a Fix

Recent polls indicate that only 17 percent of Americans approve of the job the Congress is doing. Surprise? Hardly. Pure and simple, more and more Americans are sick and tired of the gridlock, the finger pointing and over-the-top partisanship. The body is flat out dysfunctional and their record of accomplishment is abysmal. The body routinely passes 1,000-1,500 page bills that the congressmen themselves admit they have not read. For the sake of party and politics, either you have much ballyhooed Rose Garden signings or minority party sound bites sensationalizing perceived legislation flaws. The end result is more often than not bad legislation that then requires more time consuming and equally contentious "fix-up" legislation ad infinitum. I have to believe our Founding Fathers would be absolutely appalled at the current process and how the government's legislative function has evolved. Certainly, the times and the issues are much more complex now than in those early days but the model is now sadly battered beyond recognition.

Modern day examples are too numerous to mention but what about financial regulatory reform legislation as just one. Either you have legislation that is weakened or altered beyond recognition in the translation to regulations or laws and follow-up regulations misinterpreted or not enforced by incompetent and undermanned regulatory bodies. Topping the list is the flood of legislation that emerged after the savings and loan debacle in the 1980s, the repeal of the Glass-Steagall legislation in the Clinton administration originally passed after the Great Depression to separate commercial and investment banking, the Sarbanes-Oxley or SOX legislation post Enron and WorldCom that in the beginning may have been well meaning to make Boards and management teams more financially accountable to investors but has since proved to be an administrative and extremely expensive nightmare for smaller companies, and, now, the latest round of post-Great Recession "reform" legislation that has passed the House and Senate in differing versions and now must be reconciled in what is sure to be a contentious conference committee process. It's legislation that more often than not is conceptualized in a reactive rather than proactive mode and then almost always must navigate a minefield of overly partisan political theatrics, demagoguery, and populism as well as powerful and hugely financed corporate lobbies. Add in archaic congressional procedural rules and inevitable delays on the road to passage or failure due to any number of reasons and you have dysfunction.

Many will argue that our representative Congress is better than any alternative despite its flaws. It's the American and Democratic way. Granted, this assessment has validity but this doesn't mean that there can't be meaningful improvements to what we now have and what it has become. At a minimum, elected representatives should be mandated--no exceptions--to vote in accordance to the wishes of their constituents and their districts and not in lock step to the party hierarchy. More strict limitations on fund-raising and political donations should be established for individuals, corporations and their PACs and loopholes closed for the Move structural hybrids, including an energized objective enforcement, so representatives are less beholden to various interests, especially those with the deepest pockets or the most powerful lobbyists. Media political ads before they are printed or aired should be subjected to a more academic and non-partisan censorship system that is above reproach and there should be equal limits on how much space and/or time can be purchased as well as when and how often all advertisements are run. Ideally, this oversight should include the Internet but I also realize this may not be possible or practical with today's technology. Finally, much stronger rules need to be established for policing the employment of ex-congressmen with businesses and corporations, especially ex-chairmen or committee members under whose jurisdiction relevant legislation falls.

Am I dreaming? Probably. But 83 percent of Americans is a pretty convincing majority that demands something be done with how the Congress now performs. It's easy to say just "throw the bums out" but as a practical matter in today's gerrymandered system of "safe" districts what are the odds for any significant improvement? History has shown over the years that we need to do more than change personalities, much more. Bottom line, today's system is broken and needs to be fixed. It is not a sacred cow. While a 100 percent or even 90 percent approval rating for the Congress may be a real stretch we surely should be able to set our sights on a level significantly higher than today's anemic standards. Let's face it, the future welfare of this country and millions of Americans are at stake and to sit back and do nothing is not and should not be an option.