The Universal Notebook: Congressional Reform Act of 2013

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Last week I received an email from a well-meaning friend asking me to join a campaign in support of the so-called Congressional Reform Act, a proposal to fix our dysfunctional Congress by, among other things, taking away their pensions, health care and power to raise their own pay.

With approval of Congress bumping along at 11 percent (about the same as for stock brokers, advertising executives and car salesmen), and the government shut down by a pack of House Republican extremists, Americans are predictably frustrated and angry. Maybe that’s why they are engaging in so much wishful thinking these days.

Though the ideas above have merit, there is no Congressional Reform Act of 2013, nor was it proposed, as the chain email maintained, by billionaire businessman Warren Buffet. It’s a bogus Internet confection that has been floating around online since 2009. It’s about as real as the 28th Amendment, a phantom measure that would require all laws to apply equally to members of Congress and U.S. citizens. There is no 28th Amendment, but some magical-thinking conservatives seem to believe there is.

What all this crazy talk says is that the average American is fed up with Congress and just wants it to take care of the public business. The most reasonable proposal I have heard so far for making this happen is that Congress not get paid unless it passes a budget, an idea floated by our own former Sen. Olympia Snowe.

No budget, no pay makes good sense, but there are a lot of other congressional reform measures that would go a long way toward making Congress work for the American people instead of against us.

Tops on my list would be simple majority rule. No more super-majority requirements to end filibusters and override vetoes. In the Orwellian Newspeak of right-wing radicals, “majority rule” has been perverted into “tyranny of the majority,” a brilliant strategy by those holding minority views.

(Note to House Republicans: President Obama won election promising to pass the Affordable Care Act, the act passed, Obama was re-elected, Romney got stomped promising to repeal it, the Supreme Court ruled it constitutional, it’s the law of the land. Stop trying to thwart the will of the majority by underhanded, unethical means.)

If we can’t invoke simple majority rule to end filibusters, we should just end filibusters, period. No one member of an elected body should have the power to keep it from voting on a measure. To that point, there is no good reason why the speaker of the House should be allowed to dictate the congressional agenda. A good government reform would mandate that all bills and all nominations receive a straight up or down vote within 90 days.

And speaking of “straight,” let’s end the devious practice of attaching unrelated amendments to bills and larding them with pork. We need more transparency and less shakin’ and bacon. Putting a poison pill in a bill so your opponents have to vote against something they believe in is disgusting and wrong.

It is also wrong to allow the two political parties to constantly gerrymander congressional districts to their liking. An impartial panel should just draw a grid over a state and make the candidates represent all the people in their districts, not just the dittoheads.

Serious campaign finance reform would also help. Get all corporate, union, PAC, SuperPAC and soft money out of elections. Only individual voters should be allowed to contribute to election campaigns and there should be a strict limit on how much an individual can contribute and how much a candidate can spend. Anyone who says money is speech is a cad and bounder.

And that brings us to term limits, a reform often proposed to get the deadwood out of Washington. But, as we have seen, it didn’t work here in Maine. Terms limits just deprive a legislature of its memory and vest more power in bureaucrats.

Ultimately, no matter what we do to try to fix Congress, we probably won’t be able to keep backwards states from sending wingnuts and screwballs to Washington. Unless, of course, all Americans voted for all members of Congress.

A 29th Amendment, anyone?

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.