For the last several years, I have been riding my bike home, out of the Rayburn Building, down the Mall and then along the river to Adams Morgan, the neighborhood in DC where I live. Every evening, I'd stop my bike, turn around at the reflecting pool and say to the lit and glowing Capitol building, "Just hold on, it's going to be okay"
I'm sure I speak for many when I say that those of us who have been working on the inside of Congress over the past decade feel a special gratitude for what happened on Tuesday. Our poor beleaguered legislature has been so tormented, its processes so polluted, that to simply re-establish basic rules of oversight and participation will seem revolutionary.
I watched the returns come in on Tuesday with a statistics scholar who specializes in the US Government. Like two civics-weenies I lamented about the erosion of the legislative branch while he chimed in about the agencies. All of which--after 6 years of the Bush Administration-- look like the institutional equivalent of swiss cheese. From intimidated bureaucrats to over-privatized responsibilities, our government is hurting badly. Many election autopsies had two things in common: 1. that this victory is owed to the conservative swerve by Democrats and 2. that there is no mandate but lots of opportunity. I think the first is bunk, this was a progressive victory. But I do agree with number two: The situation is rich with opportunity. With or without the White House, Congress can now establish a governing philosophy that carries on the American tradition of progressive leadership.
Opportunities for Congress:
Get busy repairing the Spirit of the Law while working to restore the letter of the Law: The Pelosi principles of integrity, civility and accountability are good starting points. This imperative is the difference between the moral obligations and the legal obligations of elected leadership. As we've learned, Congress doesn't HAVE to be truly representative. (locking your colleagues out of rooms, denying recognition, not allowing dialogue on the House floor). The first rule of conflict resolution is to be as generous and inclusive as possible in any situation. Retaliation for the last 11 years will finish off the institution. In contrast, giving the benefit of the doubt will draw a stark contrast between progressives and the imbalanced breed of conservatism so recently in charge. Take credit for this change in style.
Bring back progressive infrastructure
From the dismantlement of the caucus system to the march to war in Iraq...conservatives in Congress have acted out a misleading good cop-bad cop routine of governing. They've done this with a philosophy of Norquist Bonaparte (must. destroy. government.) but a rhetoric of magical thinking (they will greet us with flowers!, tax breaks trickle down etc...). To the opposite, Progressives can best demonstrate their values by acting on them. How?
Get more "big picture" staff. Progressives must find a way to bring their intellectual firepower-- specifically academics--closer to the process. That great pyromaniac of government Newt Gigrich, dismantled much of Congress' deliberative capacity when he elminated the ability of other Members to hire extra staff, have office space and convene. Staff dedicated to thinking long term will help open the institution to non partisan organizers who can help educate the place about public interest issues. Study groups, ad hoc hearings, task forces, sponsorship of caucuses--if organized from the inside--can cut through the noise of narrowly focussed advocacy and lobbying. (btw The UN Caucus is begging to be revitalized) We helped educate thousands on post-Cold War national security, starting in 1998, through an informal bipartisan study group called "Security for a New Century" . My partner office for this endeavor, Congressman Jim Leach (R,IA), was a casualty of Tuesday's sweep. The Congress will be a lesser place without him.
Let a thousand entrepreneurs bloom:
Along a similar theme, facilitate new infrastructure for learning: The conservatives lost in part because they and the Republican party have become trapped in a mind-meld, hostile to new ideas. Closed systems implode. Pry our democracy open so that more people have access. But do it in an organized way, to avoid cacaphony. Informal organizing inside Congress helps all progressives. It gives them a place to "show Up" without risk and explore issues. This type of infrastructure is especially helpful for new members who are shopping for a chance to lead. To make up for the years of commercial monopoloy, you could issue a leadership request for new Democrats to pair up with a Republican to lead informal educational task forces among their colleagues on a global issue. Take your pick, national security, energy, health, environment, economics...None of them fit into any one committee anymore.
Restore the institutional memory.
Change is coming and whoever can organize knowledge sharing and oversight that breaks out of the old committee system will own the issues. Congress is an antique, set up to handle a bygone era. The end of the Cold War paired with oppressive leadership has rendered the place dysfunctional. It is now like a data vortex with no search engine. Information is constantly hurled at it, but it has no deliberative ability to handle it. Convene a best practices workshop to gather individuals who can think creatively about how to manage public policy information for the institution (lots of the old staff of the Office of Technology Assessment are still in town) Not only will this enshrine non commercial public sector issues as pre-eminent, it will require Congress to delve into electronic social networks and knowledge sharing outside of traditional turf. Any twenty-something staffer can help with this.
Carefully watch the conservatives regroup. They are still the master organizers. You can do that here .True conservatives-- Members like Mr. Pence and Mr. Flake-- have been right all along.(My money is on Pence for minority leader) And their knowledge support system (Heritage ,CATO , AEI ) is red hot mad right now over the damage their political partners have done in the name of conservatism. They still have many built-in advantages and will come back better than ever.
And finally, re-claim the language of public interest. We all need to stop saying "special interests". The conservative discipline on language is now legendary. One of the most crippling outcomes of their rhetorical dominance is the notion that all organizations petitioning Congress are created equal. This is the storyline that equates public interests with commercial interests--all feeding at the trough without any sense that some things deserve to be paid for with taxpayer dollars. Some interests are lots more special than others--children and clean air for example. These are public interests...the things that government is supposed to protect. Going back to basic language--calling it like it is-- will create a comfort zone for a progressive philosophy of government.
Our challenge is to build a set of ideals that will build on our tradition from FDR's New Deal to Johnson's Great Society to Al Gore's Reinvention. Our government must be about progress, equity and efficiency, but networked, knowledge based and commercial free. In other words, democracy that delivers for everyone.