More on Rigell and Congressional Reform

Rep. Scott Rigell sent out his ‘Wisdom of the District’ poll about Congressional reform on Jan. 11. (That’s when it popped up in my inbox.) The next day I posted in my blog about it, saying why I did not like the poll and none of the options felt like they would really bring about long-term, successful reform. Jan. 16th, Rigell and Rep. Reid Ribble, representing Wisconsin’s 8th Congressional District, ran an op-ed in Politico titled “How to reform a failing Congress.” Jan. 17th, Rigell sent out an email about the article, ‘In Case You Missed It.’

I had missed it, in fact, so I read it as soon as I had a moment. I was honestly looking forward to hearing his arguments and reasoning. Unfortunately, the article is not as illuminating as I had hoped.

Well, gentle reader, I promised I would keep you informed if I heard anything further from the land of Rigell about the issue of Congressional reform. Now I present it and my thoughts to you.

Despite their admitted lack of Congressional experience, Reid and Rigell claim to have identified structural issues which contribute to Congressional dysfunction. They cite their entrepreneurial, job creation, and problem solving experience as their guiding stars. They also state their intent to create a Congressional caucus to focus on Congressional reform issues.

What will these reforms include? Hardly varying from Rigell’s poll, the reforms are “limiting terms for members of Congress, changing their benefits, reforming the committee structure and repairing the broken budgeting process.

First of all I wonder: why run a poll asking which reform would be the most effective if you plan on promoting all of the answers you provide? Is that really any way to start a meaningful discussion about values and change? Are you really looking for the opinion of your district if you have already chosen too support them all? I mean, there wasn’t exactly an option for “all of the above.”

Secondly, I would like to say thank you so very much for the incredibly useful comment that your reforms will include reforming! Obviously, Rigell goes into greater detail on this issue later, and so will I, but the lack of information provided in that sentence really irked me. I try not to be too nit-picky about things, but if you want to increase access to committees, then say ‘reforms will include increasing access to committees,’ not, ‘reforms will include reforming committee structure.’

But let’s move on to the actual reforms themselves:

Term Limits

By limiting terms, Rigell hopes to give new ideas a chance in Congress and to revive hope that change is possible. He wants to create a sense of urgency that will get things done and focus Congressmen on issues instead of worrying about re-election.

I agree that getting new ideas and alternative solutions into Congress as well as focusing Congressmen on serving their constituents rather than getting re-elected by them are important and noble goals. Unfortunately, I do not agree that limiting terms is a viable route for reaching those goals.

In fact, I think that limiting terms would have the opposite effect, especially in terms of taking the focus away from re-election. Think about it this way: unless the congressman is limited to one term (which would be a disaster in itself), he will have the next election to consider. Now, if his terms are limited, to say two or three, wouldn’t those elections become all the more important? Especially for that final term- that’s his last chance to really accomplish anything! Rather than not worrying about getting re-elected, Congressmen will have to worry about getting re-elected all the more! This worry will only keep them focusing on actually serving their constituents.

Also, I think an increased to constant turn-over would slow down Congressional processes even more. I imagine, as Rigell has probably experienced, it takes a good bit of time to get settled and situated in Washington. Now imagine that everyone is always getting re-settled and re-situated and there is no older generation of guiding hands showing you how to actually get things done.

Finally, just because a person is new does not mean his or her ideas are new. If district members like what is going on in Congress, then they are going to keep electing people with the same values and the same ideas (that apparently don’t work, according to Rigell) over and over and over again. The people may change but the ideas will remain the same, so you end up with the increased turnover and a lowered capacity for moving the same proposed solutions.

So, the question remains, what can we do that will get new ideas into Congress and will keep Congressmen focused on issues rather than getting re-elected? Like I said in my previous post, I believe in increasing voter turnout and community engagement.

Congressional Pensions

Rigell states that “elected office should not be treated as a career path.” Here again I am frustrated by the lack of the explanatory powers of his article. I am trying to figure out exactly why he thinks serving one’s community should not be a career, but I can pinpoint no solid explanation. He seems to associate people who think of being a member of Congress as a career path with people who only think so in order to reap the benefits of what he sees as “special treatment.”

Perhaps for someone who pays more in taxes than I make in a year (see Fortune article about Buffett/Rigell matching to pay down debt), Congressional pensions and other benefits do seem like superfluous spending. But to say that there is “no benefit associated with congressional pensions,” well, those are strong words that I would like to see backed up with facts.

Of course I agree that the career and the benefits should not be taken for granted and taken advantage of, and that politicians should never forget that they are employed by the American people, but I fail to see how that should prevent people from making serving their communities their life’s works. I stand by my previous post promoting the attraction of the best and brightest, even if it means offering what seem to some to be superfluous benefits. I mean really, what percentage of Congressional spending goes to pensions, anyway, and is it something that is really contributing to the national debt? I’d like to keep our issues separated, if you please.

Committee Reform

Here, as in my previous post, I am still looking for further explanation. He states that the hierarchy is inefficient, but his proposed reforms seem to do nothing to restructure the hierarchy itself. Perhaps it makes the hierarchy a bit more flexible, but the overall structure still exists. I guess here I am looking for follow-through. If you are frustrated with the hierarchy, then reform through eliminating the need for committees, not just changing who is on the committees.

This seems to be Rigell’s weakest reform. Clearly he senses that something is wrong with the way the committees work, but he does not seem to have figured out what that may be exactly and how to fix it. To be frank, it sounds like he was not allowed onto the committee he wanted to be on, so he is stamping his feet saying it isn’t fair and it should be different. I cannot even begin to speculate which committee he was not allowed on and whether or not is was justifiably so.

Budget Reform

On this topic, Reid and Rigell say they want to “implement more effective budgetary procedures that will streamline the process, cut excessive spending and weed out unwarranted funding.” What these procedures are, they do not say. They do blame a lack of accountability. If accountability is to blame, then I suggest they work on ways to increase accountability. They seem to have no clue how to do so, and again I point to increasing voter turnout, voter awareness, and community engagement. At this point, I feel a bit like a broken record.

Conclusion

Reid and Rigell do seem to be honestly concerned with making Congress stronger. I respect their desire to make the country stronger and more effective. Unfortunately, I strongly disagree with the plans and proposals which they have fleshed out most clearly. I am also disappointed and frustrated by the plans and proposals which they are intent on promoting before they make any sense or provide an concrete, actionable solutions. I am not hopeful that I will agree with their methods when they are finished.

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