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Disrupting Congress

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If "pro" is the opposite of "con," then what is the opposite of "progress"? Perhaps this is an old joke -- but I only heard it recently, and it strikes me as still timely.

When he ran for president some years ago, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander proposed that members of Congress meet each year for not more than six months, get their work done, and then go home. There was simply no need to hang around, waste time, or spend more money. The senator's proposal was never taken seriously, but at its heart lies a suggestion that the American people take a hard look at their elected representatives in Congress and how they conduct the people's business.

The prevailing view in Washington today -- and for much of the last six months -- has been that little will be accomplished during this election year. The partisan gridlock will block results. The Senate, for example, has been unable to pass a budget for more than a thousand days. This perspective cavalierly lets Congress off the hook when it comes to addressing entitlement reform, tax reform, energy policy, infrastructure investments, and the many other critical, structural reforms that many Americans agree need attention sooner, not later.

What is especially troubling is that there is no guarantee that serious reforms will occur even after this year's presidential election. If President Obama should be re-elected, there will be a new conventional wisdom that he will have only the first 100 days of his second term to accomplish his agenda. After that, he's a lame duck: the political and fundraising worlds will immediately focus on the 2014 mid-term congressional elections plus preliminary jockeying for the 2016 presidential campaign.

If Governor Romney is elected, then he, too, will face intense pressure and scrutiny over his first 100 days agenda, followed by the inevitable concern over House and Senate majorities in the 2014 midterms.

We have now reached a situation where an eight-year presidency has a mere 200 days for serious policy and legislative proposals. Everything else is focused on future Congressional or presidential elections. Additionally, this dynamic is reinforced by the non-stop money chase that our elected representatives pursue. Members of Congress state publicly and repeatedly that they really dislike spending so much time on fundraising that takes them away from their legislative duties. But, if they were really sincere, they could easily take steps to reform our disastrous campaign finance system that is making the 2012 presidential campaign an international embarrassment.

In recent Congressional testimony, Harvard economics professor Niall Ferguson addressed whether the U.S. is losing its competitiveness (yes) and referred to the "structural crisis" at the heart of his concerns. He noted a matrix of some 17 different macroeconomic and microeconomic variables that determine a nation's competitiveness. A survey of nearly 10,000 Harvard Business School graduates indentified six key items from among these variables as reasons for U.S. decline.

Topping the list was the effectiveness of our political system, followed by:

  • our K-12 education system,
  • our tax code's complexity,
  • overall macroeconomic policy (i.e., our growing national debt and fiscal imbalance),
  • excessive regulation, and
  • the efficiency of our legal framework.

Each one of these issues merits Congressional action now, in 2012. Professor Ferguson concludes with an eye-popping assertion that we are becoming, in fact, "Soviet America": rigid, overly bureaucratic, and corrupt.

Other nations -- China, Brazil, India, and Germany, for example -- have national plans for infrastructure, investment, and real education reform that they take seriously. We lack plans, but we do have endless political campaigns enabled by the constant, frantic search for more cash.

Today's Congress is a paragon of inefficiency, rent-seeking, crony capitalism, wasted time, and public embarrassment. Coherent and timely legislating focused on the nation's top priorities seems to be an afterthought, at best. One thoughtful U.S. Senator -- a Democrat -- recently shared with me his disgust with our money-in-politics system and specifically deplored those occasions when legislation is introduced solely for purposes of raising campaign contributions by working both sides of an issue. There is no real desire actually to pass legislation -- just milk the issue for campaign contributions. The more than 20 years devoted to the Kabuki game of tort reform is perhaps one example of this phenomenon.

Other areas of American life have benefited from what Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen calls "disruptive innovation." When institutions reach the point where they are incapable of reforming themselves internally, then some outside force is needed to drive the necessary change. Might such a force be the American people once they have had enough? Or the bond markets?

In the meantime, here are seven concrete suggestions for Congressional reform:

  1. Work schedule: Work five full days, Monday through Friday.
  2. Do your work: There are very few items that Congress must do each year. Passing budget resolutions and appropriations bills on time would be good places to start.
  3. Committee hearings I: Do we really need so many? If so, require that each hearing always has a majority of members in attendance for the hearing to continue.
  4. Committee hearings II: Congressional committees inundate the Executive Branch with requests that include massive amounts of compliance time. Have the Government Accountability Office or McKinsey & Company review whether these data requests have any value.
  5. Reduce Congressional staff: The U.S. Congress has the largest staff of any comparable legislature in the world. Everyone else has had to downsize, rightsize, and reinvent. Why can't the Congress?
  6. Modify the Senate filibuster rule: If majority rule is good enough for the House, why not the Senate?
  7. Certify you've read and understand what you're voting on: Under the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, CEOs and CFOs must certify that they have read their companies' quarterly earnings reports or face severe penalties. Members of Congress should certify before voting that they have read and understand the legislation on which they are about to vote. Bills might actually be shorter and written more clearly.

It's time for Americans to demand better from our Congress and for Congress to do its job. If not, then perhaps a strange bedfellows coalition of Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street/Washington activists -- armed with the strategies of "disruptive innovation" -- can help change our national direction.


Charles Kolb is the President of the Committee for Economic Development in Washington, D.C. He served in the first Bush White House from 1990-1992 as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy. In August 2012 he will become President of the New York City-based French-American Foundation. The views in this article are solely the author's.