December 2010

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by Peter Bearse

We’ll soon see whether the Republican dominated Congress really ‘gets it’. They’re likely to confuse “change” with shift in control of Congress from ‘R’ to ‘D‘. Real change, however, is changing the way business is done. Real soon -- next week! -- Republican Members of Congress will meet to choose their leaders and set rules for the operation of the next Congress. If these decisions are made in the same-old/same-old [SO/SO] ways -- hierarchical and undemocratic -- the new Congress swept in on a wave of “change” will be off to very bad start. All bets then will be off whether the performance of the new Congress will be any better than the last.

Members newly elected don’t even need to do any homework to make a good start on the #1 issue-of-issues they face: the crying need to reform the way Congress does “We the People“s business. A recent Heritage Foundation [HF] paper has set both the tone and thrust of an initial reform agenda. Further reform initiatives, to be pursued after Members’ January swearing in, have long since been accessible online via [DDC]. Jim Babka, DDC’s Director, crows that all of three(!) Members have pledged to introduce DDC’s full raft of reform legislation.

The keys to a “good start,” however, lie with the HF. Their “Four Immediate Reforms to Change the Culture of Congress” opens with:

Replacing top-down governance with a process that is both more democratic and more responsive to the will of all Members will, we hope, sever the nexus between the current approach and the record levels of spending and excessive government control of the economy.” 1

One can’t avoid the larger implication of the above quote in light of the election: “We the People” could substitute for “all Members.” But that’s the subject of books.2

Two other quotes set the tone:

We recommend reforms of both parties’ internal caucus rules (to…) enable rank-and-file Members to fulfill the responsibilities our Founders envisioned for them in the Constitution, consistent with the public demand for changing how Congress operates.” (and)

Making Congress more responsive to the American people requires something more than just changing the players. Congress must first agree to change its internal rules of


So, “To balance the power between Congressional leaders and non-leadership (other Members) and encourage better responsiveness to the American people, rank-and-file Representatives should stop surrendering so much power to party leaders.”

In order to accomplish these goals, four “Immediate Reforms” are recommended:

  1. The (party) steering committee, rather than party leaders, should select all committee chairmen and members…

  2. (but) Party leaders should no longer dominate or control the steering committee (and so) …allow rank-and-file Representatives to nominate and elect the controlling votes…”

  3. Term limits should apply to all House and party leaders, including the Speaker, as well as to committee chairmen and ranking members.

  4. A cap should be placed on the overall size of each committee…to avoid scenarios where committees wield a disproportionate amount of influence over the House.”

These initial reforms likely would improve the odds of passage of additional reform measures that the winning DDC-supported candidates are prepared to introduce. These include Acts requiring Congress to: “Read the Bills”; stick to Constitutional “Enumerated Powers”, legislate “One Subject at a Time”, and provide strong Congressional incentives to exercise “Financial Responsibility.”3

Note one implication of the HF paper that its authors neither raise nor discuss: That the changes they recommend may require prior changes in the structure, governance and operations of political parties. How likely is that? HF deserves praise for doing the “homework” on Congress that neither candidates nor Members manage to do -- and for setting forth specific recommendations for reform of Congress as an institution.4 Unfortunately, this work hasn’t been featured in media headlines, even at a time when more and more people see that the survival of the American democratic Republic and the American Dream are at stake.

One can only hope that “We the People,” who have awakened like a sleeping giant in the recent elections, can stay wide awake and politically involved in efforts to “take back” what should be their politics and our government. There’s still a crucial post-election choice: Back… to the Future (honoring our country’s Founders and Constitution) or Forward…perhaps to what one recent author calls (big government/big corporate elite-) “Managed Democracy” or “Inverted Totalitarianism.”5

PETER BEARSE, Ph.D., Nov. 12, 2010, Comments welcomed by:

1 Authors of the paper are Ernest J. Istook, Jr., Michael G. Franc, and Mathew Spalding, Ph.D. Istook is a former member of Congress, now a Distinguished Fellow in Government Relations at Heritage. Franc and Spalding are, respectively, are HF’s V.P. of Government Relations and Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies.

2 See Bearse, Peter (2004), WE THE PEOPLE: A Conservative Populism, and A NEW AMERICAN REVOLUTION: How “We the People” Can Truly “Take Back” Our Government (forthcoming).

3 The author of this piece , himself a candidate for Congress during the GOP primary campaign season, recommended these bills as part of his “Reform Congress and Empower the People” platform. The fact that he lost, and the candidate who did not speak to reform of Congress won, indicates that people were voting for changes in party labels and positions on certain high-profile issues -- for the “SO/SO” approach as they did in ‘06 and ’08, rather than “real change” as defined earlier.

4 Earlier work and recommendations can be found in Felton, Eric (1993), THE RULING CLASS: Inside the Imperial Congress. Lanham, MD: Regnery Gateway.

5 Wolin, Sheldon (2010), “Inverted Totalitarianism: A Preface,” KETTERING REVIEW (Fall).