Action plan needed to make Congress work

By Mike Michaud,
Posted Dec. 23, 2011, at 4:11 p.m.

The recent irresponsible political maneuvering over a bill to extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits is just the latest example of how broken Washington is these days. Mainers are rightly asking themselves if it’s possible for Congress to work together and get things done.

But we’re not alone in our concerns. A national grass-roots organization called No Labels, which was formed by a group of Republicans, Democrats and independents, is pushing for changes they see as necessary to make Congress work again. They, like many of us, have had enough of the same old Washington ways that have made Congress so dysfunctional.

No Labels recently paid a visit to Capitol Hill to lobby for changes that they’ve included in an action plan to “Make Congress Work.” I support the goals of what they are doing, and I hope more of my colleagues do as well.

In fact, I’m a co-sponsor of a bill that implements part of their action plan. The bill is called the “No Budget, No Pay Act,” which would make sure members of Congress don’t get paid unless they pass an annual budget and all of the appropriations bills on time.

It’s sad, but this bill is actually needed — over the past 36 years, Congress has passed its appropriations bills on time only four times. The American people work hard for their paychecks and members of Congress should have to do the same. This bill would help pressure Congress to at least accomplish their most basic responsibilities.

But it’s going to take more than threatening paychecks to get Congress to shape up. Despite recent wave elections where majorities switch and a lot of new faces show up in Washington, we still haven’t seen the “change” many of us are looking for in the way government works. Thankfully, it won’t require changes to the law to make some progress.

No Labels correctly points out that much of this lack of change is due to outdated traditions and procedures that govern the House and Senate. It’s these institutional obstacles that have morphed over the years to protect party rule instead of the best interests of the country.

For example, far too often initiatives that have strong bipartisan support are held back by congressional leaders for political reasons. No Labels is calling on Congress to “democratize decision making,” and I agree with them. If a bipartisan majority wants to get something done, they shouldn’t be held back by party leaders.

No Labels has a way to address this in their action plan: the House of Representatives could update rules to allow Members of Congress to anonymously sign discharge petitions, which could allow a bipartisan majority to override a leader or committee chair’s refusal to bring a bill up for a vote. Currently, the names of all that sign such petitions are public from the outset, which risks political retaliation from party bosses.

Changing the discharge petition process is a simple reform, but it could make a very real difference in how the House operates.

But the need for reform is not limited to the House. No Labels is also calling on the Senate to reform filibuster rules and allow up or down votes on presidential appointments. And there are changes that can be made in both chambers to help promote more work together and less politics as usual. For example, initiating regular bipartisan gatherings, ensuring Congress puts in a five-day work week like most Americans do, and coordinating the House and Senate schedules so that each chamber works together more often would be welcomed changes.

Again, these are all simple steps, but ones that could go a long way toward breaking the current gridlock that has ground business in Washington to a halt.

All we seem to hear out of Washington lately is blame being placed on one side of the aisle or the other. But we have more important things than politics to worry about. We have an economy that needs attention and a national debt that needs to be reduced.

I’m concerned that the status quo isn’t going to deliver the results we need. The action plan put forward by No Labels proposes some good ideas that I hope more of my colleagues embrace. Doing so could begin to restore Americans’ confidence in government again and start to bridge the divides that have grown so seemingly impassable in Washington these days.

Mike Michaud is a Democratic member of Congress representing Maine’s 2nd Congressional District.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/12/23/opinion/contributors/action-plan-needed-to-make-congress-work/ printed on August 29, 2014