Turning public anger into political reform


Political rage is a terrible thing to waste. And after forcing through a government takeover of the healthcare industry that most people passionately oppose, Congress seems to be a worthy target for public wrath. Of course, death threats and vandalism are not only counterproductive, they're also uncivilized and evil. There is a more politic way, a more American way.

It was the securely rooted, career politicians---the old "liberal bulls" of Congress---who commanded this assault on the collective judgment of the American people. Consider how long the most prominent champions of Obamacare have been sitting in the House. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been in office for almost 23 years. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), 29 years. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and George Miller (D-Calif.), 35 years. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), 39 years. In a fantastically talented nation of 300 million people, why should the same 535 people govern us from the two houses of Congress decade after decade? Once you are elected to Congress, you have a greater chance of dying in office than of being voted out. The Gerrymander has produced a Leviathan.

Consider a proposal that has been circulating on the internet for a Congressional Reform Act of 2010. Think of it as healthcare for our politics. Clearly, that's where we are most in need of reform. Here it is (edited for clarity and grammar):

  1. Term limits: 12 years only, with one of the possible options below:

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    A. Two six-year Senate terms.

    B. Six two-year House terms.

    C. One six-year Senate term and three two-year House terms.

  2. No tenure and no pension:

    A member of Congress collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when he or she is out of office.

  3. Members of Congress (past, present, and future) participate in Social Security:

    All funds in the congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system; members of Congress participate with the American people.

  4. Members of Congress can purchase their own retirement plans just like all other Americans.
  5. Members of Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay will rise by the lower of the Consumer Price Index or 3 percent.
  6. Members of Congress lose their current healthcare system and participate in the same healthcare system as the American people.
  7. Members of Congress must equally abide in all laws they impose on the American people.
  8. All contracts with past and present members of Congress are void effective one year after passage of the bill. The American people did not make contracts with congressmen, congressmen made all these contracts for themselves.

I don't know where this originated or who authored it. A quick Google search turns up postings as early as November 19, 2009. It has a Facebook page. And you can sign it as an online petition.

As to its substance, one point or another is debatable, but I will comment on two points.

First, term limits (which, by the way, would require a constitutional amendment) are undemocratic, yes, but they're republican like our Constitution. That is, like so many provisions in the Constitution, they are a correction to our democracy designed to bring out the people's better judgment, and to guard them against manipulation by political gamers. Gerrymandering has, to a large extent, made a farce out of popular election. This is a method of redrawing the boundaries of a congressional district in a way that maximizes the likelihood that an incumbent or his or her party will remain in power. In essence, the people get to choose the politicians only after the politicians have first chosen the people who will choose them. Do you see a problem?

Second, it is a gross conflict of interest for Members of congress to have the liberty of voting themselves a pay increase. Only business owners should be able to serve themselves in that way. But too many congressmen see themselves as business owners, or perhaps as cattlemen. They are certainly not good shepherds.

Given how self-serving most people are who get themselves elected to office, or perhaps how self-serving they become, it would seem unlikely that any of these provisions would make its way into law, especially the term limits. But perhaps it all depends on how angry the people become over congressional corruption, how focused that anger is, and how sustained it is from one election to the next.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.


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