Congress Can't Be Trusted to Fix Itself

Returning to politics after 11 years, a former senator finds Congress changed -- for the worse. Here's what he'd do about it.

Former Sen. Kerrey at an event in 2007. (Reuters)

Rare is the American who does not look to Washington and feel despair over the failure to accomplish things that not so long ago were considered routine and easy. And rare is the American who does not feel more and more disenfranchised by the size and nature of the money spent to influence federal elections and national laws.

A growing number of wise and influential observers are focusing on the rules of Congress. They are arguing for fundamental changes in the rules that govern debate, nominations, oversight of the executive branch, budgeting, and the way campaigns for office are financed. I support many of these changes.

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However, I do not believe the problem can be solved by urging Congress to change its rules. I believe the source of the problem is the first phrase of the second clause of the fifth section of Article One of our Constitution. It says: "Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings." The 55 men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to write a new Constitution apparently trusted Congress to write its own rules. I no longer do.

In 1787, the primary author of our Constitution, James Madison, wrote that "among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction." The current rules of Congress are not controlling the violence of faction. The current rules are rewarding these factions.

When factions -- partisan interests -- control government, everyone loses, because our common purpose is subordinated. In his farewell address, George Washington warned that service to the "will of a party" would "make the public administration the mirror of ill concerted and incongruous projects of faction rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans."

Before I made the decision to become a candidate to serve again in the U.S. Senate, I consulted with many friends. Almost without exception, their response was: "Are you crazy? It's not the same place as when you last served in the 1990s." The intensity of this sentiment was inversely proportional to the distance from our nation's capitol. Those with the strongest feelings that Congress is broken are those who live and work in Washington, D.C.

"Wholesome plans" are subverted to destructive tendencies. And the problem will not be solved unless our Constitution is amended.

I believe our nation has entered a dangerous period where "wholesome plans" are subverted to the destructive tendencies Washington and Madison warned us about. I believe the rules of Washington, D.C., are to blame. And I do not believe the problem will be solved unless and until the people of America insist that Article One of our Constitution be amended.

Perhaps the best example to make the case that Congress will not reform itself occurred in 2004, when the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States, aka the 9/11 Commission, made a set of recommendations to reform the executive branch and a set of recommendations to reform the legislative branch. Congress quickly and impressively moved to change the executive branch but did nothing to change itself. The House never voted on the recommendations; Sen. McCain could not persuade a majority in the Senate to improve the quality of oversight of executive branch intelligence agencies.

I am campaigning for the U.S. Senate on a promise to propose what I will call the Norris Amendment to Article One. George W. Norris was Nebraska's most important and longest-serving senator. Frustrated with the undemocratic behavior of the Conference Committee and the Caucus, he returned to Nebraska and led an effort to amend our state's constitution to abolish both.

The Norris Amendment to Article One of the U.S. Constitution will not eliminate the Conference Committee. However, it will:

  • Eliminate the partisan caucuses and the four partisan campaign committees that make compromise between the political parties nearly impossible.
  • Prohibit the organization of Congress by political parties and establish a mechanism to reduce the number of committees, improve the quality of executive branch oversight, and increase the quality of congressional budgeting.
  • Establish a reasonable limitation on consecutive years of service. Twelve years seems reasonable to me, though I could also make the case for 18 years.
  • Allow Congress to ban the unlimited independent expenditures by corporations and unions permitted by the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, and impose limitations on campaign spending that have not been allowed since the Buckley v. Valeo decision of 1976.
  • Change the rules of the Senate and House to limit the use of the filibuster, open up the budget process, require that amendments to legislation actually relate to the subject of the bill, and increase transparency so citizens may see how their money is spent.
  • Fixing our political system first requires the will to do so. Will is expressed by voters. Voters expect far more of their elected officials than to merely serve as the tools of special interests. They understand that politicians are failing them and they're looking for solutions. Time will tell if their hope is misplaced or if we merit their confidence.