01/03/2013 05:54 pm ET Updated Mar 05, 2013

Congress in Contempt: Part 2

The 112th Congress is not the first that didn't earn its pay. President Truman criticized the 80th Congress as a do-nothing bunch in the 1940s. In December 1881, The New York Times printed this familiar complaint as the 47th Congress was about to begin:

"The manner in which Congress is commencing business fairly suggests the question, Will the session be worth its cost? The average expense of one session exceeds three million dollars...The last session yielded a slender return for this expenditure...What the country desires from Congress this Winter is that it shall act promptly and judiciously on the great public questions which stand open."

Today, the cost of running the Legislative Branch is approaching $5 billion a year. Few of us would disagree that we are getting far too little for our money; that Congress is better at worrying the country than worrying about the country; and that it is now so dysfunctional that it seems unable to face any significant issue without a crisis, and sometimes not even then.

Several readers who responded to Part 1 of this post were skeptical that Congress can be fixed. They pointed out that the gerrymandering of congressional districts has institutionalized polarity by dividing the country into red and blue; that unbridled campaign money and K-Street lobbying deeply corrupt the legislative process; and that members of both parties support customs and rules that deadlock the legislative process.

As I noted in Part 1, Congress's dysfunction causes inefficiencies and waste not only in the Legislative Branch, but also the Executive by delaying passage of budgets and leaving key government jobs unfilled. But the impacts go far beyond the Beltway. Uncertainties about if Congress will act on critical national issues, and when it will act, cause economic instability, keep capital investment on the sidelines, delay infrastructure projects, confuse the stock market, add to the financial insecurity of the poor and elderly, undermine the ability of workers and their families to cope with joblessness, allow environmental degradation, and delay government help for our growing number of disaster victims. We need to take this personally.

The easiest reaction is to argue about who's to blame -- a conversation that dominated the responses to Part 1. Solutions are more difficult. Is the Legislative Branch irretrievably broken, or is there something we citizens can do? Here are some questions I hope will advance a conversation about fixes.

Bright Spots? Are there opportunities for reform? There may be a few bright spots on which we might build. First, if 90-95 percent of Americans disapprove of Congress's performance, are conditions ripe for a voter revolt?

One reader pointed out that voters are most willing to protest when their personal oxen are gored. In December, Congress threatened everyone's ox at a sensitive time and personal level -- higher taxes and fewer benefits in a high-unemployment economy.

Second, whatever we think of the Tea Party, it demonstrated that citizen movements can still have political clout.

Third, despite the Citizens United decision, special interests and billionaire kingmakers were not able to buy last November's presidential election. That offers some hope in a fight against the grip of special interests. Being outspent does not mean being outgunned.

Given all this, one wonders whether it's possible to launch a cross-partisan voter movement that makes the Tea Party look... well, like a tea party. It would not promote any particular public policy; rather it would pressure members of Congress to do the fundamental things they are elected to do.

True, the unhappy 95 percent is not a voting block. It's so large a segment of the electorate that it must include Republicans, Democrats and Independents, plus plenty of folks who believe the nation is safest when Congress does nothing. Still, it's worth exploring whether there is sufficient coherence for revolt among the disgruntled, disenchanted, disenfranchised, disabled and disillusioned.

For example, we might ask all citizens of voting age to sign a pledge that they'll vote against all members of their congressional delegations when Congress has not done the following:

  • Pass the federal budget, including all of its appropriation bills, before the beginning of each new fiscal year.
  • Reauthorize key national legislation such as the agriculture and transportation programs before they expire, rather than passing stop-gap measures.
  • Repeal or reform rules that contribute to deadlock by undermining the principle of majority rule.

These steps alone would help make government more efficient and help stabilize key sectors of the economy.

Most readers who responded to Part 1 disagreed with my opinion that we should hold all members of Congress to account for ineptitude and obstructionism. Republicans deserve most blame now, especially in the House and especially its most rigidly ideological members. But unless the Unhappy 95 percent are willing to relocate into conservative congressional districts to kick out the obstructionists in the next election, I still believe that if all 535 members face public sanctions for dysfunction, Congress will do a far better job fixing its own problems.

A Universal Report Card? Do we have what we need to measure and track how Congress is performing? Should we develop "genuine progress indicators" to give Congress an annual performance review?

Many interest groups publish yearly report cards on how Congress and its individual members vote on their issues. Congress's general performance, however, often is measured by how many bills it passes -- a blunt metric that doesn't tell us anything about the quality of those bills. As Amanda Terkel reports for The Huffington Post, the 112th Congress had passed 239 bills with less than a week to go in its session, making it "the most unproductive session since the 1940s." At least 40 of the bills dealt with commemorative coins and the names of public buildings.

The Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP) has proposed that the White House develop a coherent set of genuine progress indicators for policy-makers and citizens to regularly track such things as public health, life expectancy, income disparity, housing quality, local mobility, graduation rates, civic engagement, environmental quality, and other factors more indicative of qualify-of-life than the GDP. Much of these data already exist across federal agencies and non-government organizations. The White House could collect the most accurate of these indicators and report them to the public each year in conjunction with the State of the Union Address.

The same indicators could be used as a measure of Congress's productivity. In addition, its report card would include factors such as the average time the Senate takes to confirm presidential appointments; Congress's progress on reducing the national budget deficit and balancing the federal budget; and its control of pork-barrel spending.

Support "Make Congress Work" Organizations? There are several national groups whose missions are to improve Congress. Among them are No Labels with its simple 12-point plan to promote interparty collaboration, and Public Citizen, which "advocates for a healthier and more equitable world by making government work for the people and by defending democracy from corporate greed."

I can't think of a better time to support them. Their current opening for influence may be that the makeup and mood in Congress today are out of sync with the mood of the American people. Several polls last year found that the country is not nearly as divided along ideological lines as Congress is. According to election analysts Sam Best and Brian Krueger, for example, exit polls during the November election showed that "voters adopted centrist positions on most policy questions" and the majority of voters agreed on issues such as immigration policy, income tax rates and Obamacare.

Executive Action? How aggressive should President Obama be in using his executive authority and political tools to move the nation forward when Congress fails to act?

In October 2011, Obama launched a "we can't wait" initiative, in which he began using his executive powers to implement his jobs agenda after it stalled on Capitol Hill. In my view, Obama should be even more aggressive with his authorities, particularly on issues in which national security and economic progress are at stake. In my world, those issues include climate change and national energy security. PCAP has published a detailed analysis of presidential authorities and has proposed scores of ideas on how the president can use them to address energy and climate security.

Executive Power? What role should President Obama play in pushing Congress to do its job? As I wrote the day members of Congress left town for Christmas rather than passing a bill to avoid the fiscal cliff, the Constitution gives the president the authority to call the House and/or Senate into special session. He should use that power to prevent Congress from taking breaks or running in place while the rest of the country holds its breath on critical legislative issues.

Special sessions do not guarantee action, but they raise the political stakes for a do-nothing Congress.

A Multi-Party Congress? A year ago, Gallup reported that more Americans identified themselves as political independents (40 percent) than as Democrats (31 percent) or Republicans (27 percent). Although Gallup expected some shifting among those categories during the election cycle, it was the highest percentage of independents the polling firm had ever measured.

Yet, Congress still functions as a two-party institution. Only two of the 535 members of the incoming 113th Congress are officially listed as Independents. Would other members classify themselves as Independents if they were adequately recognized in the business and structure of the House and Senate? Would this make Congress more efficient, or less?

Is it hopeless? I've had the privilege of working with and learning from former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart during the past several years. I've not met anyone with greater insight into responsible government. He has watched with sadness as the comity and quality of Congress have declined. He doubts there are easy fixes. But when I asked him if Congress was irretrievably broken, he responded: "A lifelong study of American history convinces me that nothing in our system is 'irretrievably broken.' As Truman said, the only new thing is the history you don't know. We've been through much worse before."