I taught my first political science class in 1969 at Oklahoma Baptist University. Since that time, quite a bit has changed in American politics. One particular trend is unmistakable: public trust in the United States government has plummeted to historic lows.
I always tell my students that healthy skepticism of our elected officials is important. With an eye toward constant reform and improvement, we should never be satisfied with the status quo. But now, we are experiencing profound cynicism and distrust that threaten our national unity.
The consequences of distrust in our government are devastating, and we see them now on a regular basis. Americans feel that their government does not respond to their needs. They feel left behind by a system that seems rigged against them. They see a Congress that is too often interested in self-preservation over pursuit of the public good.
Congress is broken, but it is not beyond repair. Several commonsense reforms would rehabilitate Congress into the accountable, responsive legislative body our Founders intended. Here are four:
• Two-year budgets: Members of Congress spend an inordinate amount of time each year arguing over the federal budget. Instead of coming together to fund our nation’s important programs and services, politicians have hijacked the budget process to stall legislative progress and score political points. In the last decade, this problem has been exacerbated by parallel fights over the debt ceiling.
There is a better way. Congress should pass two-year budgets, a process that would limit the negotiation period to one session. Our representatives could then focus more of their energy on other policy priorities in the alternate years, including increased oversight of the federal funds being spent.
• Outside ethics committee: We don’t try criminals before a jury of inmates, and we don’t allow students to determine their own peers’ grades. Why, then, should Congress be permitted to internally adjudicate its own ethical issues? An internal ethics committee has obvious conflicts of interest since members don’t want to offend fellow members whose votes they often need. An independent committee should be established to impartially determine whether our elected officials have violated their ethical duties to the American people. Numerous incidents of corruption and misconduct just this year are evidence enough that Congress needs a behavior adjustment.
• Closing the revolving door: Currently, members of the House of Representatives are banned from lobbying for one year after they leave office. In the Senate, the ban lasts two years. However, after their cooling-off period concludes, members of Congress often “cash out” with lucrative Washington jobs lobbying their former colleagues. This is known as the “revolving door.” It’s unseemly because enables politicians to profit from the access they gained as public servants elected by their constituents. The lobbying ban for former members of Congress should be made permanent.
•Campaign finance reform: Of all the long-overdue reforms to Congress, this one is perhaps the most urgent. Especially since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, a tidal wave of money from shadowy sources have been weaponized to alter the outcome of elections. In a democracy, an election should be decided on the merits of candidates — not by a show of force between competing war chests. Furthermore, the uncontrollable flow of money into our politics creates disturbing incentives for members of Congress to serve their donors above the best interests of their constituents.
In recent elections, a majority of those elected to Congress received over half of their campaign contributions from out-of-state special interest groups instead of from grassroots voters in their home states and districts. This threatens the very concept of representative government.
We need serious reform — perhaps a constitutional amendment — to limit corporate and anonymous political spending. The American people deserve a democracy accountable to citizens, not to special interests.
Our current national mood of apathy and frustration with the political system is understandable—but we shouldn’t lose hope. Our Founders designed a dynamic, adaptable system of government whose power ultimately resides in our hands as citizens. When enough of us raise our voices together, real change can occur. Let’s continue to engage our elected officials and one other in order to form a more perfect union.
By David L. Boren | For The Norman Transcript