The Public Check On Congress
A non-partisan proposal for a constitutional amendment to hold the members of Congress collectively accountable for serving America’s national interests.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
If the Public Check on Congress is such a good idea, why didn’t the original framers of the Constitution put it in?
In 1787, the Constitution was a huge leap forward from the then operative Articles of Confederation. It substantially strengthened the national government at the expense of the individual states. There was no way that, in addition to the many powers that the states were giving up, that they would also subject their representatives to be held accountable by the nation-wide electorate. Nowadays, polls show most people would be willing to sacrifice their representatives in Washington if others did the same in return for a significantly improved Congress. Of course, the point of PCC is not to sacrifice anyone. The significant improvement will be reflected in the behavior of the Representatives and Senators we already have, as they consider the alternative of being ignominiously thrown out, ineligible to run again for ten years, and branded forever with a scarlet “PCC” by which all will know that they were the members of a disgraced Congress.
Further, back in 1787-88, there was the hope – so naïve it seems now in retrospect – that political parties and factions would be a minor factor in the functioning of the Congress. Thomas Jefferson is famously quoted as saying around this time, “If I could not go to Heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.” Alas, just a few years later, Tom was the leader of one of the parties in the first great bitter factional struggle within our new government. As for Heaven, there is every reason to believe that, when the time came, he was able to see his way clear to accept his invitation.
Finally, the federal government is far larger and more dominant in its impact on us than any Founding Father could have imagined. When Congress gets things wrong – or when it doesn’t get things at all – the consequences on the country are simply too huge for us, the people, to continue to indulge puerile behavior, and worse, among our public servants.
All of these factors have contributed to the fact that the members of Congress now must be held collectively accountable for their actions. It isn’t enough to ask each constituency back home to judge their individual members of Congress on the basis of Congress’s overall behavior. Over the years, the members of Congress have gamed the system through its rules and procedures, tribal party discipline, campaign financing shenanigans, gerrymandered districts, the benefits to the district of incumbents’ increasing seniority, etc. This reality requires a new check to establish a broader, national accountability. It can be said, with no fear of being proven wrong, that if we were to summon Washington, Franklin, Madison, and the others to return today to update the Constitution, their first order of business would be to insert something like the Public Check on Congress.
Under PCC, how will Congress know what the national interest is so it can legislate accordingly?
The fact is that, in a great many instances, the members of Congress already know the right answer to national problems. They are, after all, American citizens. Most have been serving on committees long enough to hear all sides to many issues. What they are missing, all too often, is the incentive to implement those solutions given the compromises that must be struck to satisfy party and special interest considerations. PCC will be most helpful in strengthening their resolve to do what they already know is the right thing to do.
In situations where special expertise is needed and complex balancing of public interests is required, Congress will have the option of setting up special commissions to propose solutions to Congress. This has been done for closing military facilities and Social Security reform. It has also been tried for deficit reduction, but there wasn’t enough political will to see it through. The result was the multi-year “sequester,” a mindless abdication of congressional responsibility. PCC will add a very significant measure of political will: when the national interest hangs in the balance the careers of the leaders of Congress will also hang in the balance.
How can PCC help America become more economically competitive in the world?
If we have strategic policies and legislation coming out of Washington to improve our educational system, encourage entrepreneurship, protect individual freedoms, and strike a sensible balance between economic growth, regulatory oversight, and security for our citizens, we will repair an enormous amount of damage which has been done to our competitive position in the world over the past decades. Further, we will avoid yet more damage that would come with a continuation of our ad hoc knee-jerk special interest-driven reactions to the challenges of the moment. We may even get our government strategically engaged to the point where they can prevent or soften the impact of clearly discernible approaching crises, rather than the current modus operandi of trying to clean up the mess after the fact.
Would the members of Congress see any benefits to the PCC proposal for themselves?
It may take a while, but, clear-eyed members of Congress will ultimately see very significant benefits for themselves with PCC, in addition to the benefits any fair-minded member of Congress will see immediately for the country. Congress is now one of the most untrusted and unloved institutions we have in America. This is despite the fact that most members of Congress are hard working and have made significant family sacrifices to serve his or her constituents and campaign supporters. Alas, serving one’s constituents and campaign supporters is not the same thing as serving one’s country. PCC will help them bridge that gap.
We could expect national approval ratings to dramatically improve under PCC. Congress’s individual and collective self-esteem will also improve. When they fix campaign financing and the rules of lobbyist engagement we can expect that they will no longer have to spend a large fraction of every week raising money.. As a result, the quality of both their political and home lives will be much enriched. Codes of ethics will be overhauled and rigorously enforced so that the bad eggs in Congress that have been tolerated and often protected will be hung out to dry. And, of course, Congress will have a new national mandate under PCC to give it stronger footing vis-à-vis the executive branch and the judiciary, allowing it to more fully perform the role originally intended for it in the Constitution.
Wouldn’t term limits for members of Congress be a solution for our problems?
Term limits would not do what PCC would do. The solution is not to terminate the members of Congress who have been around a long time. The solution is to change the behavior of all members of Congress. Some of the newer ones are every bit as problematic as the older ones. We need a new sense of collective responsibility among all 535 members to bring forward policies upon which our country can make progress. That is the essence of the PCC amendment.
In addition, reports from those who have seen term limits in action in state legislatures have been mixed at best. Some of our best legislators are the ones who have been around long enough to have a mature understanding of the issues and have the “gravitas” to make the right things happen. When these people leave, the vacuum tends to be filled by bureaucrats and lobbyists, who have no term limits. We need to carefully look at past experience and think through future implications before becoming enamored of simple term limits for members of Congress.
What are the criteria for deciding whether the Constitution should be amended for something like PCC?
Constitutional amendments do not come easily. This is by design as the framers looked for a way to avoid both total inflexibility and capricious change. The Articles of Confederation erred on the side of inflexibility, requiring unanimous agreement among all thirteen states to approve an amendment. The Constitution backed off unanimity, but still requires double supermajorities of both Congress and state legislatures. James Madison, who was to write the first ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights, believed that amendments should only be associated with “Great and Extraordinary Occasions.” That was over 200 years ago.
For more recent thinking on this subject, I would refer you to: “Great and Extraordinary Occasions; Developing Guidelines for Constitutional Change” (add link) by the Century Foundation Press and The Constitution Project. This paper lists several guidelines for determining whether a given improvement in our political system should be implemented as an amendment to the Constitution or by some other mechanism. (It does not provide guidelines for determining whether a given idea is good or bad, but fortunately we already know the answer to that with respect to PCC.) According to the guidelines PCC is a highly appropriate candidate for a Constitutional amendment, and it cannot be accomplished by any other means.
Many other questions about PCC are answered by clicking here (link) to purchase Restoring the Consent of the Governed: The Public Check on Congress Would Hold It More Accountable for Serving the National interest. This $2.99 downloadable e-booklet presents the full case for PCC and offers a specific formulation for a constitutional amendment.