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CONGRESSIONAL STRATEGY for a PEOPLES CONGRESS
Collective Wisdom Facilitated
Peter Bearse, Ph.D.,
International Consulting Economist and 3-time Candidate for the U.S. Congress (once as a Democrat, once as a Republican and once as an Independent)
CONGRESSIONAL STRATEGY for the PEOPLES CONGRESS
Now, even a majority of the American people have come to realize that their government is broke and politics-as-usual is not working for them. One indicator of this is that Congress' approval rating is at its lowest level on record. So, the old saying "If it's not broke, don't fix it" no longer applies.
The reference to Congress' performance is most telling because that is key. Why? Because under the Constitution, Congress is the only leg of the 3-legged stool that makes up our federal government that is commissioned to represent "We the People." This makes Congress the first among equals insofar as a democratic republic is concerned. This implies that any attempts to fix the system that is broken must focus on Congress, not just in terms of electoral reforms but by way of institutional innovation and transformation. To the extent that we let this focus be diluted by attention paid to the executive branch or the judicial branch, we are wasting time. For example, the distraction of mainstream media (MSM) hype promoting the race for president as the grand spectacle of our time should be ignored.
Enter a Peoples Congress.1 How would it differ from the Congress in Washington? To begin to answer this key question, first focus on the major symptoms of what is wrong -- lack of both representation and leadership. These are just "symptoms", however. What's the root cause? As one of the leaders in the (failed) efforts to reform campaign finance (CFR) has said, over and over: "Follow the money trail." The most important root cause is corruption of the Congress by big money. As an infamous S. Philadelphia Congressman once stated: "Money talks and bullshit walks." Big money skews both representation and leadership toward monied interests.
The implication is clear: If we are ever to have a true "Peoples" Congress, big money has to be gotten out of politics. Reformist efforts to accomplish this have failed because they focus only on money. They fail to recognize the value of people's participation -- the value of people's time. There are only two things that count in business and politics, time and money. To the extent that people are not involved in what should be THEIR politics, money, increasingly big money, necessarily takes over. There is an approach to CFR that puts people's political participation (3P) first and foremost and which, I believe, would survive Supreme Court review. It is set forth in my previous book, WE THE PEOPLE (Lafayette, LA: Alpha Publishing, 2004).
The highlights of this people-focused approach are:
Strict limits on campaign expenditures for political pro’s and advertising; no limits on expenditures to pay for materials and supplies necessary to “get the word out” through grassroots, person-to-person canvassing by political volunteers.
Unlimited contributions of people’s time volunteered to political campaigns (either for office or for issue-advocacy).
Contributions of political volunteers’ time, valued at the minimum wage, counted towards total campaign expenditures.
Tax credits for the value of peoples’ time devoted to political activities.
approach may pass muster with our Supreme Court because there is no
limit to total campaign expenditures and “money is speech.”
Minimum reliance is placed on media and the pro’s; a maximum on
Even if we push big money out and bring people back in, however, there are still misconceptions of the meanings of representation and leadership to resolve. Confusion here is another reason why Congress is dysfunctional.
Representation: Members of Congress (MoCs) are elected at the state level to represent the voters in their districts (Congressional Districts for U.S. Representatives; entire states for U.S. Senators). Instant polling now enables MoCs to know the opinion of majorities of voters on virtually any issue. Thus, MoCs no longer have any excuses if they fail to vote to represent those majorities. Nor can we legitimately criticize them if they do vote majority views.
Thus, the PC MoC should vote following the wishes of the majority even when s/he is convinced that negative effects will ensue. The latter eventuality should be neither underestimated nor squandered. It represents a teachable moment – a learning experience, and also a moment for true leadership. For the PC MoC can stand up and say: “Here is the factual basis for my opinion on the matter. You, my constituents, have a right to your opinion but no write to bend facts to suit your opinion. Here are the consequences…”
Many activists might be tempted to oppose such a pledge -- that representatives truly represent their constituents. But do they not thereby assume elitist positions -- presuming to know better what is better for the people than the people themselves? On some issues, they may, but how is such a stance democratic? How does it differ from the attitudes of those Bolsheviks who disembarked at the Finland Station in 1917 to start the Russian Revolution?
MoCs fail to lead on controversial issues because they are afraid of
not being reelected. If, however, their votes are consistent with the
opinions of the majority of voters, this constraint gives them a new
freedom to speak out on controversial issues -- to exercise true
leadership and to manage Congressional offices so that they work to
Recruitment and Selection: The third major
factor to work on is how MoCs are recruited and selected. There needs
to be a substantially new approach. The increasing influence of big
money is seen, among other ways, in the increasing number of wealthy
candidates. The major parties have made ownership of and/or ability
to raise big money the major criterion for party recruitment and
backing of candidates.
There are three major ways to improve candidate selection:
1. Devise a new and better set of criteria by which to evaluate potential candidates for Peoples Congress’ support. Some suggestions follow. We should support only those with:
Significant, proven political experience at the grassroots, demonstrated especially by winning local and/or state seats through grassroots politics.
What is such politics? -- fundamentally, people rather than money-based -- candidates and their volunteer supporters going door-to-door, standing out on street corners, meeting groups of voters wherever and whenever they can be found. Of course, money is needed to print brochures, signs and badges, set up and manage websites, and mail information to voters, but such money is far less than the big money that has come to replace people’s political participation.
Proven leadership and courage with respect to controversial issues.
Persistent attention to the problems of underprivileged Americans, plus unremitting efforts to help them help themselves.
Innovative, constant and widespread use of social media for crowdsourcing to identify and tap collective intelligence among constituents and put it to use in the halls of power.
Support for activists' efforts and mobilization of people to support real change in institutions, laws, budgets and regulations -- to raise peoples' hopes, provide equal opportunity; generate a broad-based, high energy democracy, protect people's rights and otherwise honor the American Dream [e.g., strategic use of street politics to support transformative legislative initiatives].
campaign platform that recognizes that Congress has become a major
part of the problem, contributing little or nothing to a solution,
and that therefore prescribes changes in the rules by which Congress
does (or does not do) the peoples' business.
2. Replace primary elections with Instant Runoff Voting (IRV, now used in San Francisco, Oakland, Portland (Maine), Minneapolis and St. Paul.
3. Mobilize activists to support candidates that the PC has identified as worthy of support. If we can’t put any people-power oomph behind the selection process, our selection criteria will amount to nothing more than statements of good intentions (i.e., paving stones on the road to hell).
have been many books written on the corruption and dysfunction of
Congress, so we have lots to go on, including many suggestions for
change. Toffler, for example, in his book THE
THIRD WAVE, proposes that votes in
Congress count only towards 50% of votes required to pass a bill into
law; the other 50% would come from the people.
Given the terribly undemocratic nature of the U.S. Senate, some may find the idea of a unicameral legislature attractive. The state of Nebraska has such a legislature. For a variety of reasons that are open for discussion and debate, however, trying to annul the Senate is a bad idea that would be a waste of time. The Senate exists for two reasons: (1) To provide representation for states in a federal republic comprised of states as sovereign units; and (2) to enable more deliberation and a longer-term perspective than one can obtain in a House that faces reelection every two years. The Senate needs to be transformed and its influence lessened, not eliminated. Only the House should initiate legislation. So, let us not waste precious time; let us focus on the House of Representatives as the core of…
THE PEOPLES CONGRESS as a Shadow Branch of Government
The Peoples Congress will need to demonstrate that it is clearly better than the official Congress. It can do so by operating as a shadow branch of government. This is both a great challenge and a great opportunity. Perhaps we can borrow some insights from countries with parliamentary systems, e.g., the U.K., where the concept of shadow government has been employed for some time. The challenge also can be made manageable by setting up demonstration programs in 6-10 Congressional Districts (CDs) and then building out from success, district by district. The opportunity is that, in select CDs, the Peoples Congress (PC) shadow model may well prove to be the best way to build PC membership. Outreach and membership building are key. They go hand-in-hand with efforts to increase peoples’ participation in their politics and their government at all levels. These efforts will generate virtuous circles that create, and are created by, a “high energy democracy” [as per Unger (2008].2
What are the main tasks of a shadow Peoples Congress? – To:
Track MoCs and evaluate their performance.
Periodically reach out to all voters in each CD to alert them to the existence of a shadow Congress, invite their participation, and indicate how this can help them “make a difference” on the issues of their most heartfelt concern.
Twice a year, mount a voter registration (VR) campaign in each CD in cooperation with other organizations who typically get involved in VR; e.g., the League of Women Voters. The major political parties have largely punted any responsibility for this important activity.
Establish a Congressional website and newsletter for each CD that is both attractive and informative in ways that the self-serving sites and letters provided by your typical MoC are not. Make sure that the website includes blogging and file sharing capabilities for constituents to facilitate interactivity with and among them.
Use the website and social media (Facebook, MoveOn, Twitter, et al.) to enable crowd-sourcing that, in turn, builds collective wisdom and intelligence in a CD.
Recruit citizens for independent committees in each CD that would inform and advise both the shadow MoC and CD voters on major issues before the Congress.
Bring together actual and potential members of the independent issues committees to undertake strategic assumptions’ testing and planning with respect to their major issues of interest and concern. Implicit assumptions are dangerous, and if we don’t know where we’re going on an issue, any direction will take us there.
Convene frequent events to enable direct communication with and among constituents. These include Town Hall meetings, issue forums, rallies and demonstrations that are clearly different from the way such events are organized and carried out by conventional MoCs. How so? -- Insofar as they provide briefings or videos to those that cannot attend, reach out to invite non-activists and others who are not the “usual suspects“, bring in experts as resource people, etc.
Establish several shadow Congress local offices throughout any CD to help constituents with problems, enable them to organize and otherwise empower them [See the next section for more on this].
Interact with organized groups throughout any CD to determine how the shadow MoC can make common cause with them on critical issues.
Demonstrate and publicize PC MoC leadership on key issues and how it represents a major contrast with the official MoCs tepid, or lack of, leadership.
Publicize what the shadow PC MoC and offices are doing and how what they are doing represents a substantial improvement over existing representation.
The early focal points of these activities will be a limited number of select, targeted CDs. If we work together on this agenda, we’ll succeed in having influence far beyond a few targeted CDs. We might even find some MoCs “stealing” our ideas, adopting our model and seeking our support for their reelection. We’ll also find that candidate recruitment will become easier as potential candidates find that there’s real oomph behind our words.
FOCAL POINTS of the PEOPLES CONGRESS -- SHADOW CONGRESSIONAL OFFICES
One of the later among the bulleted specifications in the last section is actually first in importance -- “Establish several shadow Congress local offices throughout any CD…” The conventional congressional office established by a typical MoC is passive relative to the activist stance, functions and activities of a Peoples Congress congressional office. For it is crucial that we do far more than just help constituents seeking help with conventional problems. We must:
Reach out to them, seeking problems to solve and issues to address;
Help them to organize around issues;
Train those inclined to activism how to become effective activists, and how to recruit others;
Establish congressional offices that serve as resource centers for citizen leaders -- providing sources of information and advice; and temporary office space, equipment and services to activists planning actions, rallies, demonstrations, events and publicity; and
Otherwise empower citizens to exercise a new model of citizenship, one in which for every right there is a corresponding responsibility. So, for example, every citizen has not only a right but a responsibility to vote.
We can’t let “empower” slip off our tongues as a blithe, rhetorical term. Let’s give it real meaning-in-action. First, every one of us needs to realize that we are falling into the old, elitist, self-serving political traps to the extent that we do not devote ourselves to empowering others. What does this mean? -- We empower others to the extent we:
Welcome them into our midst and keep an open mind towards those with whom we are interacting. Remember Karl Popper’s admonition: “The greatest threat to an open society is a closed mind.” [Karl is one of George Soros’ mentors.] We’ll not succeed in building our base if we cannot talk to others without picking a fight with them. We can learn from others as well as others from us. One’s basic attitude? -- We are all Americans, all concerned about the future of the oldest, constitutional, democratic republic in the world.
Are not involved (nor should we be) in an IQ or other competitive game. Everyone we meet, bar none, has something to offer that we must seek to discover, enable and engage. [I swear by Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences”] Consider my 3Cs approach to politics: Communicate, Cooperate and Collaborate.
Seek to provide them with better information that they are receiving from the usual MSM and other sources.
Show them ways that they can be involved and truly “make a difference” along with others -- ways that help them address their most heartfelt concerns (not just ours), ways that are also well-matched to their resources of time, money and information. [This is a major challenge, one that requires experienced or trained volunteer management, a skill that is sorely lacking in politics].
Give them confidence that their individual efforts, politically, in concert with others, can indeed “make a difference.” The electronic media have bred generations of couch potatoes and fed them with all sorts of negative images of politics and politicians. Most people are skeptical and many, fearful, of “getting involved”.
Help them connect with others with whom they can “3C” over shared concerns.
My ideal model of a congressional office is that of a business incubator or accelerator adapted to political purposes. In addition to helping people, it should be a hub for the incubation of new ideas and a beehive of activity to engage others and invest in their implementation – not, as now, an office that mainly serves to support the reelection of a MoC.
How can we finance our Peoples Congress initiatives to start, in even a few CDs? Consider five (5) ways:
1. First, by bootstrapping and donations of time from activists;
2. Second, through PC membership dues. There should be a graduated dues structure to maximize revenue, starting at $10/year. The latter should be required for membership, either in money or in contributions of time valued at the minimum wage.
3. Third, by crowd-sourcing dollars from many people in districts and cyberspace who could be induced to invest in our initiatives.
4. Fourth, by way of matching grants from the relatively few foundations who seek to encourage popular mobilization to solve problems.
5. Fifth, by establishing a PIC n’ PAC – a national PAC for politically independent candidates that the PC decides are worthy of its support, with corresponding CD PACs in each CD of interest. “Politically independent” should be interpreted and applied broadly so as not to exclude those who are registered with a party but who demonstrate that they are open and independent-minded, as those devoted to a transformative vocation must be. Go-along/get-along (GA/GA) types need not apply.
Also, please note that, once one of us gets elected to a congressional seat, the federal government provides funding for congressional offices.
Emergent: Recap of Highlights
A New Service Model for Members of Congress –
Servant Leadership + Representation to Empower People
Constituent Service: A New Frame and Higher Level, featuring –
Instant polling to take constituents’ pulse on how they would like their representative to vote on bills.
Issues’ surveys to obtain constituents’ views on various aspects of issues.
Informational bulletins on issues (separate from a monthly newsletter).
Issue identification and resolution, including problem definition – Issue forums and workgroups to help constituents take these critical steps.
Outreach to constituents’ to assess their service wants and needs.
Cooperative arrangements with non-political organizations to provide better or additional access to services.
More, and more interactive meetings with constituents on issues – not just conventional “town hall” meetings.
Forums on issues, how things are done in D.C., what changes have to be made so that the people’s business is conducted better, and what citizens can do to help effect such changes.
Organizing help – to constituents who want to organize demonstrations, rallies or other efforts to “make a difference” in their most heartfelt areas of concern.
Follow-up assessments to evaluate constituent services and enable services’ improvements.
Leadership & Representation: A Better Way – Outspoken leadership on issues in light of scientific evidence; voting in Congress as a majority of voters in the District would prefer. Organization of independent citizen’s committee’s to provide input on issues and avoid reliance upon lobbyists.
A New Kind of Congressional Office
Mission: Empowering People as indicated earlier, plus other ways that constituents may suggest.
Staffing: Older, wiser, life-experienced people, including some who have experience, or who have been trained, in volunteer management. [Note the major change here in contrast to current congressional practice -- hiring people who exemplify political careerism at young ages].
Advisory Committees: Groups of citizens knowledgeable and concerned in each major issue/area of citizens’ concern in the District. Recruited and appointed regardless of party so that the MoC can get independent input, advice and recommendations.
District Office Locations: More than two. Some parts of large congressional districts are underserved.
Voting in Congress – as noted earlier.
Outreach & Polling – as noted earlier
The approach that has been presented herein would serve altogether to lend real substantive meat and credibility to the Peoples Congress concept and to help build the Occupy Movement. It would also indicate to the great American majority that there are real, workable alternatives to politics- and Congress-as-usual and, indeed, that there are genuine opportunities for “We the People” to take back both politics and government. A better politics comes first. Without it, there’s little hope of a better government except for the temptation of one presented by charlatans, specious charismatic speakers, psychopaths, others guided by an assumption that “the end justifies the means,” and other lovers of power for its and their own sake. Only we can save ourselves and our republic, and only if the “we” is broadened and deepened.
A shadow House peopled by MoCs and congressional offices dedicated to empowering “We the People” can be the single strongest instrument to effect the transformative change our republic requires. Let’s proceed to give it a try, else all bets are off for the future of the great American experiment. All together!, now!
With faith and hope to work with a fine community of souls, I await your critical input so that authorship of the final edition of this piece will be attributed to “we” -- us’ns who have worked together to produce it for the benefit of “We the People.”
PETER BEARSE, 5/19/20012, Author of A NEW AMERICAN REVOLUTION: How “We the People” can truly “take back” our government (Amazon e-book, February, 2012).
Feedback welcomed via: firstname.lastname@example.org, Tel.no. 603-819-1408 (cell).
2 See Unger, Robert Mangabeira (2007), THE SELF AWAKENED: Pragmatism Unbound. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. This is a must read for activists!