A "Window of Opportunity"
for Political Reform
Changing the political system and reforming Congressional practices is never more possible than in the first hour of the opening session of the new House of Representatives every two years. While this “odd January” time slot usually goes by unnoticed, it is in fact a period when a small group of determined people could bring about substantial, if not drastic, transformations in the way our government conducts its business.
Only at this time does each Member of Congress have the same degree of power (with no Speaker, no chairmen, no leaders, and no member having special authority over anyone else). Such a group of determined Members has its best chance of success when the partisan division of the House is near equal and where their number largely exceeds their difference. In this situation, that smaller group could deny the majority needed for either partisan faction the election of their choice for Speaker.
By “tradition,” two major decisions are made. First, the Speaker, chosen by the majority caucus/conference is elected. Second, the Rules of the previous House (usually with deference to changes suggested by the new Speaker) are adopted. For significant reform, two substantial changes would be paramount. First, a less partisan (ideally nonpartisan) Speaker would have to be elected. (There is no Constitutional requirement that the Speaker be a Member of the House.) Second, the new Rules should be adopted only as Members of the House find them necessary and desirable.
The major impediment to this opportunity would be the comfort of the status quo, where not only those closely involved with Congressional procedures and activities, but also most critics and the public at large, would probably have difficulty in grasping its implications. Moreover, the conduct of House Member caucuses/conferences (with indoctrination and commitments made according to “tradition”) before Members have chance to consider these alternatives would usually tend to block any such attack on the status quo. Obviously, senior Members, and staff as well, would find this prospect quite threatening to their interests.
While clearly possible, these changes will have no chance of occurrence unless a major effort is undertaken to provide for a major dialogue among elected Members in the time just before, and immediately following the election of November 6th, 2012.
Timing of any effort to take advantage of this “window of opportunity” would be critical. Intervention, in the form of an organized informational program for elected Members, would best take place prior to any partisan caucus/conference. Success of such an endeavor would probably require the leadership of sponsors with sufficient status to command attention. Additionally, it would be helpful to find sponsors who might provide the resources to make such an informational meeting attractive to new Members with excessive demands on their time during this brief period.
Media interest in this effort would be extremely important. By and large the usual partisan activity of recently elected Members of Congress remains “under the radar” between the election and the opening of Congress. Given the potential revolution of such activity, political analysts would have a field day.
In light of the current reputation of Congress, there is little doubt that the public would be ready to support major changes in the Legislative Branch of our government. On the other hand, it is important to keep in mind that any serious reform of Congress will require a vote of its Members, regardless of the great ideas that may be suggested, or the number of people signing petitions.
Summary of Objectives:
To enable a fundamental change in the culture of the House of Representatives;
To restrain the unbridled partisanship that has developed in the “People’s House”;
To elect a less partisan (if not nonpartisan) Speaker;
To rewrite the Rules of the House;
To revise the committee structure;
To assess and reconsider staff assignments and responsibilities.
Why Congressional Reform?
A few links:
Charles Johnson, former parliamentarian, on Congressional dysfunction:
From bad to worse:
But the most devastating indictment of the system comes from Lesley Stahl’s “60 Minutes” interview with Jack Abramoff on lobbying practices: