The Foolproof Way To Get Congress To Do Its Job
As we saw again Monday night, when the candidates are not busily attacking one another they make bold promises for reforming everything from education and health care to taxes and the economy. What they neglect to mention is that in almost every case delivering on those promises would require Congress to pass new laws. And that is a huge problem, because without reforming Congress itself few if any of the candidate’s myriad promises will ever be implemented.
Congress has become the center of a massive, self-serving lobbying and influence-peddling industry more invested in serving the status quo than the national interest. Indeed, the intense frustration so evident across the country during this campaign, on both the left and the right, derives largely from a valid perception that our government has been hijacked and the interests of the establishment prevail over those of the average citizen.
This is a harsh judgment but the data are clear: legislative output has declined by two-thirds since the 1970s; more than ever votes in Congress fall along strict party lines; and the perverse necessity of massive fund-raising ensures constant violation of state and federal laws prohibiting members of Congress from exchanging legislative favors for campaign contributions. Small wonder a mere 20 percent of the public approve of how Congress is doing its job, a nearly 50 percent decline over the last 10 years.
Forget about the pressing need for America to enact immigration, tax, Medicare, health care or social security reform reforms, or for that matter, even legislation enjoying strong bipartisan support to eliminate costly and excessive mandatory jail sentences for first-time non-violent offenders. Our debilitated Congress is stretched to its limit merely trying to pass emergency funding to combat the rapid spread of the Zika virus and a budget to keep the government open beyond September 30.
Fortunately, the situation is not hopeless. Unbeknownst to most Americans, and perhaps even the presidential candidates themselves, there is a rare but viable constitutional process that could surmount partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill and revitalize the nation. In fact, a profound new era of American growth and prosperity is available within 24 months if the candidates can be persuaded to recognize and seize the opportunity.
The process I am referring to was first proposed by Congressman Richard Armey (R-Texas) in 1987 to facilitate the closing of excess military facilities, a topic that had become a source of considerable friction between Congress and the Reagan administration. Many members of Congress opposed base closures, fearing the loss of jobs in their districts. Additionally, many felt that national security was taking a back seat as the White House used the threat of base closures to strong-arm individual members on votes it sought.
For its part, the executive branch believed Congressional restrictions on base closures infringed on the president’s right to control the movement of military forces. It was an ugly impasse and the waste of billions of dollars annually appalled Representative Armey, a former economics professor with a passion for reducing government spending and promoting government efficiency.
The ingenious solution Armey proposed required both Congress and the president to swallow a bit of pride on behalf of the nation. While the initial bill was modified through negotiation, it ultimately resulted in a unique process whereby a bipartisan commission of Senate-confirmed members would extensively review and, if necessary, modify a list of bases the Defense Department proposed to close.
The first BRAC commission, true to its bipartisan mandate, was co-chaired by two highly regarded former legislators, Senator Abraham Ribicoff (D-Connecticut) and Congressman Jack Edwards (R-Alabama). The remaining 10 members of the commission included retired admirals and generals with logistics and transportation expertise, former secretaries of the Army and Navy, a former EPA administrator and and a handful of attorneys and businessmen.
This group had a diversity of expertise going for them, but they also knew that their work would count. The crucial and unique characteristic of BRAC is that it’s recommendations automatically go into effect unless vetoed by the President or rejected by the passage of a Joint Resolution of Congress on straight up or down vote within 45 days. Congress cannot amend the commission recommendations in any way, providing a crucial barrier to the delays, partisanship and parochialism that almost always prevent the passage of vital legislation in Congress today.
The initial BRAC round worked splendidly, overcoming a decade of paralysis during which the Department of Defense was prevented from closing any redundant or excess military facilities despite the enormous potential cost-savings. After eight months of work, the commission released its final report on December 29, 1988, recommending the closure of 86 military installations and the realignment (a change in the size or mission) of 59 other facilities., The Pentagon reviewed and quickly lent its endorsement to the Commission’s recommendations, which, in 1988 dollars, amounted to an estimated savings of $700 million a year. With only 45 days to act before the BRAC recommendations would automatically become law, the House of Representatives exercised its prerogative to vote on a resolution of disapproval but the resolution was soundly defeated by a 381 to 43 margin.
The process worked so well in fact that after a bit of wrangling Congress, recognizing the political cover it gave them, approved additional base closing commissions in 1991, 1993, 1995 and 2005. These commissions, acting in a fair and transparent manner, have cumulatively eliminated over 350 Department of Defense facilities—vital changes that have enabled the department to realign its forces against new threats while saving the taxpayer tens of billions of dollars annually. It is also worth noting that many of the old facilities have been converted to civilian uses that actually provide more local employment and a stronger tax base than their military predecessors.
The BRAC process works for the simple reason that it counteracts every one of Congress’ vulnerabilities.
Is Congress obsessed with re-election fundraising? Yes, but none of the commission members are running for office, so they are not soliciting campaign donations and aren’t beholden to special-interest groups.
Is Congress overwhelmed by the complexity of many issues? Undoubtedly, but commission members are subject-matter experts, focused on a single issue, unlike the average senator or member of Congress.
Stymied by eccentric or extreme just-say-no backbenchers? This is clearly a problem in Congress as any Senator can place a hold on any legislation or threaten to filibuster it. By contrast, the BRAC process is inherently moderate and bipartisan as the president must select nominees for the commission based on prior consultation with the leaders of both parties in the House and Senate. Senate confirmation ensures balance and appropriate qualifications among the nominees and the commission’s procedures do not permit filibusters.
Credibility undermined by backroom deal making? The process is fully transparent, as all commission meetings (unless there is a classified session) are open to the press and public.
Legislation mired in procedural ruts? Timelines for completion of the commission’s recommendations are mandated.
In short, the BRAC commission works the way Congress should but doesn’t. The question is how can President Trump or President Clinton convince Congress to adopt this process in order to resolve perennially neglected issues such as immigration, tax, social security or health care reform?
The best approach would simply be for the president to submit his or her major legislative initiatives in two forms: a conventional bill and a companion measure establishing a BRAC-style citizens’ commission. The President could pointedly use the bully pulpit to pressure Congress by explaining: “These commissions are simply a failsafe measure in the event you don’t do your jobs and fail to put clean tax reform, immigration reform and social security bills on my desk over the next 18 months. The American people have lost patience and will no longer tolerate business as usual.”
I believe most Americans would rally to the president’s side and demand that their representatives comply with such an eminently reasonable proposition. My guess is that this would also burnish the new president’s anti-establishment credentials and impress the electorate with their determination to implement real and badly needed reforms.
It is critical to note that both presidential candidates have expressed support for campaign finance reform. Hillary Clinton has promised to introduce a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United case and Donald Trump has declared, “I love the idea of campaign finance reform.” If they are sincere, both should embrace this proposal with open arms since it is the only constitutionally means currently available for placing legislative authority in the hands of patriots who are not dependent upon massive campaign contributions from special interest groups.
In all likelihood, many members of Congress would actually welcome the opportunity to see such rapid progress on vital issues while avoiding tough votes. The BRAC experience has shown that members of Congress who lose bases due to BRAC are rarely punished by their constituents as long as they are seen to be fighting for their interests.
Our Founding Fathers were brilliant and inspired, but they could not possibly have foreseen the global dangers America faces today or the accelerating rate of technological and economic change that clearly surpasses our Congress’ sclerotic and antique decision-making processes. They would be appalled to see the gears of government so badly mangled by money and special interest groups.
BRAC-style commissions are by no means suitable for all legislative issues and there will always be plenty for Congress to do by conventional means. However, there is no reason why America cannot make great strides in short order by utilizing a constitutional and proven mechanism. At a time of rising challenges at home and abroad, it is essential to recognize that the ultimate foundation of U.S. national security is a strong economy and an optimistic and united nation.
Immigration reform would enable American corporations to hire the best and brightest scientists and engineers from around the world instead of merely educating them here then sending them abroad to work for our competitors. Tax reform would bring hundreds of billions in offshore corporate profits home for investment in America. Social Security reform would help stabilize and reassure financial markets. Rapid progress on these and other vital issues would restore a sense of confidence in our government and our prospects for the future while enhancing our influence abroad. If the pressure generated by establishing such Commissions actually shamed Congress into action through conventional means, so much the better, the president or Congress can always disestablish a commission or veto its recommendations in such circumstances.
Clearly neither candidate, no matter how large a popular mandate they might enjoy, is going to be able to govern effectively without reforming the process of reform itself. The question now is whether Trump or Clinton are willing to advocate such an eminently fair, transparent and risk-free process to usher in a new era of growth and prosperity.
Read the original article on Politico.