First there was the push for campaign finance reform. Senators McCain and Feingold patched together some legislation that would “clean up” the effects of corporate and special interest donors and eliminate their effect on politicians being bought into office. Not surprisingly, the spirit of the law was sidestepped by the proliferation of PAC’s and 527 organizations that still managed to funnel money to campaigns, either directly or through issue advertising. What was supposed to level the playing field for all candidates and theoretically open the door for more political competition became little more than a toothless tiger. It may look good on paper, but the practical effects have been negligible at best.

Now, in the wake of the Abramoff scandal, we are seeing both parties scramble to out-do each other and reform ethics rules in the House and Senate. The biggest problem is the access of lobbyists to lawmakers, and the perks they toss around for getting favorable legislation passed. Early indications show that this will have little or no effect as the proposals don’t really cut off access, they merely attach new rules, like the Republicans demanding campaign contributions in addition to the other perks they already receive and the Democrats saying that they have the ability to “just say no.” Make no mistake, both parties are skirting the real issues and simply trying to look good in the eyes of voters in an election year. Reform measures are pointless so long as those entrusted to follow them are only concerned about getting and keeping their seats of power.

Still, reforms are vital to the future health of our nation and efforts to make needed reforms should not be taken so lightly. Instead of vilifying each other in the press while quietly seeking ways to make the fewest changes necessary, politicians need to step up and show some real integrity. Among the most vital areas ripe for reform are the rules that govern how business is done in the halls of government.

Specifically at issue are the matters of adding amendments to bills and the fact that most lawmakers don’t even know what it is they are actually voting on.

First things first. If you’ve ever read an actual bill that is headed to the floor for a vote, the first thing to stand out is the extraordinary length and legalese that makes legislation nearly impossible to digest. A primary reason for this is the policy that allows legislators to delegate the actual writing of bill language to their staff, which in turn team up with whomever is advocating for the bill in the first place. Believe it or not, the act of crafting actual legislation is the prime reason we have representatives. This task, above all else, is their primary job. But in our world of influence buying and constant campaigning, our elected officials turn over the task of writing legislation to their unelected aids, many of whom are more than happy to add a little here and add a little there depending on what their own goals and interests may be. Sometimes this is a conscious effort to subvert the original intentions of a bills sponsor (supposedly the legislator themselves, but often a corporate or special interest hack). Other times it is not. In either case, what comes out is something far more complex than is needed and often too long and confusing for the legislator to understand, even though they may think the bill is what they originally asked for. What could easily be a couple of paragraphs turns into a 40-page document, leaving elected lawmakers to shake their heads and hope for the best. This problem is especially rampant in appropriations bills and a major reason why so much pork is thrown into our budgets.

To rectify this problem, and to ensure that bills that make it to the committee’s or to the floor are what they were intended to be, we must pressure the Congress to adopt rules banning this practice. Any legislation to come up for consideration should be written by an elected official, and be limited in scope to address a specific, concise issue. It’s fine to use staff members to conduct research and flesh out grammatical errors, but actual legislation should come from the hands of the elected people and not their staffs.

Secondly, due to the nature of bills being so incredibly complex, most lawmakers do not actually take the time to read the bills they are offering before they submit them for consideration. This has the unfortunate consequence of lawmakers voting for something without really knowing what they are voting for. For this reason, we need to insist that Congress adopt rules that make it mandatory for all legislators to read and understand the contents of any bill they present or intend to vote on. An immediate effect of such a rule would be that bills would be much less complicated and even ordinary people would be able to understand what laws are being made. It would mean an end to the nuanced interpretations of specious segments of legislation, especially if lawmakers were held accountable for their votes by a public who could understand what the verbiage of the bill was. It would make eliminate the whole “flip-flopping” issue as an excuse for voting for bad legislation.

Another much needed reform is the process that allows for unrelated amendments to be added to bills in the effort to gain passage. Too often, laws are made not because they can stand the test of necessity or common sense, but because legislators engage in a kind of back scratching affair. Politicians who are trying to get less than necessary legislation on the books are able to trade votes by tacking on things they want to another piece of legislation. Such actions do not serve the best interest of the tax paying public in any way. If indeed a bill is valuable enough and necessary enough to be passed into federal law, it should have the ability to stand on its own merit. If it can’t do that, the chances are that it is not a good bill for the country, even thought it may be good for a particular district, or more likely, for a particular political benefactor. Congress must be pressured to end the act of allowing unrelated amendments to bills in exchange for support during the vote.

Of course, opponents of these ideas will say that I am naive. They will say that the only way to get things done in Washington is through the very kind of horse-trading schemes that have been going on for decades. I reject that line of argument though as little more than an admission that most of what they do is not really necessary for the average American citizen or is so convoluted that any one with common sense would reject it outright. We do not elect politicians to play games with our money and our lives, yet the current way of doing things does just that. Real leadership is about identifying real problems and solving those problems in the most efficient, most fair, and most reasonable way possible without complicating the matter so much that the solution can never be realized in the real world.

Reforming congressional ethics is important, but we already have a lot of good rules for that on the books. Rather, it is the class of politicians we need to change to restore ethical behavior to the halls of government. Reforming campaign financing is valuable too, and the people of this great country can manage a large bulk of that themselves by giving their political donations not to the party coffers or special interest groups, but directly to the candidates committees themselves. The laws forbidding corporate donations are there, they just need to be policed and enforced. (See also some suggestions for campaign reform in Fixing the Vote I & II) But the way that Congress does its business is where real reform is needed if we are ever to break out of the corrupt system we are locked into today. The imbalance of the two party
system can be reduced by reforming the very way that laws are written, read, and passed and that is where real leaders should be forcing changes. Until we get Congress to change the rules of engagement, all other reforms will have little effect on the actual business taking place in the name of American citizens and we will continue to languish under bad law, wasteful spending, and legislative abuse of power.