Among the questions that pollsters are wont to ask, there is one on which Americans have reached a stunning election-year consensus. Occupiers, Tea Partiers, fundamentalists, heathens, Republicans, Democrats, postpartisans—prick us all, and we bleed pretty much the same crimson contempt for Congress.
Our national legislature, coming off a breathtaking season of obstruction, extortion, gamesmanship and blather, is viewed positively by just 9 percent of the people it claims to represent, according to a recent New York Times survey. Even at the Washington Post’s slightly higher tally of 13 percent, we’re talking about an approval rating below those Gallup has given for banks (23 percent), oil and gas companies (20 percent) and lawyers (29 percent), and just above polygamy (11 percent).
Here is a polling trend for progressives to reflect on. And do something with. Something more than root for Barack Obama to barnstorm his way to a Truman-style victory over the do-nothings on Capitol Hill. Suppose he does. Suppose he carries his populist passion back from the campaign trail into a second term. Now try to imagine significant legislative progress on climate change, tax justice, regulation, workers’ rights—or public investment in infrastructure and job creation. That’s where the daydream ends.
Congress, as the founders intended (and recent events have painfully reaffirmed), is the uppermost branch of our government, wartime aside. In recent decades, it has turned itself into the dead limb of American democracy. Healthcare reform, the exception that proves the rule, emerged with all its self-destructive compromises from a tortured process that depended on a brief moment when the Democrats had exactly the sixty votes required to get anything done in the modern Senate. The current margin (counting two Democratic-leaning independents) is fifty-three to forty-seven, and appears destined to narrow or disappear after an election in which Democrats will have twice as many seats in play as Republicans.
In the coming months, the party of Jefferson and FDR will keep us posted on the (large) danger of losing the Senate and the (small) hope of recapturing the House. But even if things turn out better than we have any reason to expect, progressives would do well to rein in hopes for positive action on real issues. Congress has gone out of that business.
It is time to make an issue, and not just a punching bag, out of this dysfunctional and deformed institution—time to mobilize some of the Congress-disapproving 84 percent of Americans behind a high-profile effort to ultimately address (and in the meantime highlight) the root cause of Congress’s dysfunction: its built-in subservience to the corporate and financial powers that, more than any other force in today’s America, and regardless of the party balance, determine who wins, who loses and who is considered a “serious candidate” for election to the House or Senate.
The kernel of such an effort can be found in the Fair Elections Now Act, a proposal to provide matching funds (drawn, in the Senate’s case, from a fee on major government contractors; in the House’s, from the sale of unused broadcast spectrum) to candidates who otherwise agree to rely on small contributions from within their states and districts. Based on public financing systems road-tested in Arizona, Maine and Connecticut, Fair Elections Now polls favorably across the political spectrum and counts two brave Republican House members—Walter Jones of North Carolina and Todd Platts of Pennsylvania—among its ninety-five co-sponsors.
Fair Elections Now allows citizens of modest wealth to wage credible campaigns without kowtowing to lobbyists, bundlers, and corporate and financial insiders. It should be Item One in an agenda of reforms designed to clean up Congressional elections.
Item Two, whose urgency is becoming more apparent by the hour, is to confront the monster unleashed by the Citizens United decision: the pseudo-independent money machines known as Super PACs, which have lately been set loose by and against Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, but which can be counted on to work much of their mayhem against progressives.
The eventual answer, unless the federal courts change their tune, will have to be a constitutional amendment curtailing the political rights of corporations. In the meantime, though, the damage could be contained through measures to bar political spending by government contractors and to compel large donors to identify themselves in political commercials (two provisions of a bill backed by New York Senator Charles Schumer and Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen); and to guarantee director and shareholder review of all corporate spending decisions (the thrust of a bill backed by Michael Capuano of Massachusetts in the House along with New Jersey’s Robert Menendez and Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal in the Senate).
Congress could also go a long way toward cleaning up its act by setting a three-year minimum hiatus between legislative service and anything that smacks of lobbying; putting an end to the holds, filibusters and other practices that allow small minorities or even lone wing nuts to keep measures of wide interest from being debated or voted on; and adopting serious conflict-of-interest rules, so that legislators would no longer be allowed to vote on measures or serve on committees affecting industries or entities from which they have received significant financial or political benefits.
These ideas already command the support of a long list of unions and civil rights, environmental and democracy reform groups. It is time for them to sit down and agree on a Congressional reform agenda and then work hard to convince candidates not only to sign on but to advocate for such a program relentlessly, passionately and memorably, first as they campaign and later (for those who win) as they serve.
Such an appeal could find quite a few takers this year among incumbents as well as challengers struggling to find a way to run, with heads held high, for an institution held in near-universal scorn. The point, of course, is not to get such a package adopted in the next, or any immediately foreseeable, Congress but to gradually establish it as the test of a serious commitment to institutional reform.
Eventually, we can hope to build the kind of pressure that led to the direct election of senators a century ago, or to the McCain-Feingold campaign reform law (a worthy model strategically if not substantively) in 2002. Like the champions of those measures, we will need to be patient. The long-term goal is to change the system. In the here and now, a Fix Congress campaign is about changing the national discourse and psychology by redirecting Americans’ anger away from cynicism and disdain for government and feelings of futility about the whole idea of collective action for the common good.
If, amid all the real and illusory stakes of an election campaign, we can muster some energy and attention for the task of getting Americans to start thinking about what ails Congress, and what must eventually be done to get it to work for regular people, that could turn out to be as big as anything else within our power to accomplish this year.