Rants & Raves

(Don Chance)


Fixing our Broken Political System

Part II:  Passing Legislation


 One of the terms often used to describe the ineffectiveness of our political system is gridlock.  It’s a powerful word, conjuring up images of snarling traffic jams with nobody getting anywhere but frustrated.  Results are measured in inches and tempers flare.  Legislators have even passed laws dealing with such situations that lead to so-called road rage. 

What about political rage?  Americans are about as angry as it gets at our legislators.  We’d love to throw the bums out, but as I explained in Part I, it’s not your representative that you want out:  it’s mine.  You can’t afford to throw yours out because that leaves mine with more power.

One of the unfortunate responses we get to this gridlock is the sorry state of the legislative process.  Now, if you’re not an expert on the legislative process, you just have to remember a little from high school civics.  In a bicameral legislature, a member or group of members of one house proposes a bill.  That house debates the bill, sometimes in committees and sub-committees, and then unless it is killed, the bill moves on to the other house where a similar process occurs.  A successful bill may ultimately come to a vote in both houses and if supported, it goes on to the President for signing or vetoing.  If vetoed, the bill comes back to the house for additional work or a veto-override vote.

Getting a bill passed is a long arduous process filled with negotiation and compromise.  Here is where I think most Americans fail to understand the legislative process.  They have the notion that passing bills is important and Congress is not doing its job if it fails to pass legislation.  This is the epitome of the misguided notion that bills that are enacted into laws make our lives better.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Most bills that are enacted into laws simply take away our rights, complicating and restricting our lives in ways we cannot even imagine.

In fact, new laws contain provisions even Congress and the President who signs it are unaware of.  Von Bismarck once said “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”  Actually, watching sausage being made would be far more interesting because the end result is clear.  We may not know all the ingredients, and we may not want to know them all, but the end result is a product we can take or leave.  Not so for laws.  They apply to all of us, unless of course, you or your organization has sufficient political clout to forge an exemption.

This frustration over the slow pace and inactivity of Congress is, however, in my mind wrong.  I firmly believe the founding fathers designed it that way.  They were familiar with argument and compromise.  Not everyone agreed on the Constitution, nor the Bill of Rights.  They believed that a long, difficult, and arduous legislative process was an important feature of a democratic society.  Thomas Jefferson was particularly distrustful of federal government.  He, and many others of his time, believed that bills should be difficult to pass, because they invariably restricted the rights of the people.  Open and intensive debate was necessary to get all of the elements of the bill scrutinized, publicized, and analyzed.  If this is the definition of gridlock, we should all support it.  Who wants a bill in which no one really knows what’s in it?

Well, folks, that is exactly what we have, in particular with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly known as ObamaCare, and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, both passed in 2010.  Both pieces of legislation are over 2,000 pages.  Two years we still do not know what is in both acts and the constitutionality of at least some elements is being challenged.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) admitted to her own ignorance and those of the entire Congress, when she said about the health care bill, “But we have to pass the bill so that you can, uh, find out what is in it.” (March 2010, Legislative Conference for the National Association of Counties). 

Of course, President Obama signed both bills without having a clue of the details, but then, so did 219 members of the House and 60 members of the Senate for the health care bill and 237 members of the House and 60 members of the Senate for the financial services bill, all of whom voted for the bill. 

You want to fix Washington?  After my term limits, discussed in Part I, are enacted, here’s what I would do next.

Pass another bill (Ok, I know this would be a long arduous process).  This bill requiring that all members of the House and Senate as well as the President pass an exam on the bill before voting or signing the bill.  This exam could be administered by some independent organization such as Educational Testing Service, a public accounting firm, or the Gallup Poll.  The test need not be long, excruciating and difficult to pass.  A 2,000 page bill would probably require no more than 25 questions.  A score of at least 70% would be required and one re-take would be permitted.  Failure to pass after two tries would exclude the person from voting or signing.  If it were the President, that would place some extra pressure and cause a possible conflict of interest.  If the President opposed the legislation, he could simply intentionally fail the test, but I believe that would stigmatize the President as a dummy.  Congressmen can hide behind their dumminess, but it would be harder for a President to do so.  If the President could not pass the test after two tries, he would be considered as vetoing the bill.  If a President were willing to veto a bill by displaying his ignorance and inability to pass a simple test, then so be it.  Congress can then try to override the veto.

As noted this test should not be all that difficult but then it should not be easy.  Passing the test should show general knowledge of the bill and its provisions.  Members of Congress could be given preparation courses and summary sheets of the key provisions. 

On top of this requirement, the new law should force Congress to place all legislation online for two weeks before the voting period.  This online copy of the bill would also be required to contain a detailed summary, kind of a Cliff Notes of “The *** Bill for Dummies.”  A link would be available to send an email to your Congressman or the President.  This period would allow citizens to review the bill and provide input.  Upon taking office, President Obama said he would do something like this, but then he quickly figured out that he would not get his preferred legislation passed if he did.

What could be fairer than requiring that those who vote on legislation to actually know what they are voting on?  And what is wrong with informing the public about legislation that is coming up for a vote?  Why would anyone oppose this in principal?  Well, every member of Congress would oppose this.  It would constrain their ability to railroad laws through the process.  It would limit their power to control our lives in ways we cannot imagine.

You want to fix Washington?  Tell your representatives and the President that we expect them to know what they are voting on.  And then, watch them send you a thank you note and an appeal for money to defeat the opposition forces. 

And nothing will really happen.


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Last updated: May 27, 2012