Why Congress Doesn't Work, Part II; Promoting Accountability and Direction


Why Congress Doesn't Work, Part II; Promoting Accountability and Direction

September 28, 1992 20 min read Download Report
Representative Jim
Distinguished Fellow

(Archived document, may contain errors)

Why Congress Doesn't Work Part 11: Promoting Accountability and Direction

By Representative Jim Nussle

arn here to speak to you today about a issue, or more specifically, a movement which is sweeping our country. It's been spotted on Capitol Hill, in the White House, and around the gov- ernment agencies, and it's-quickly--gaining -speed ag it travets-coast to-coast- north to south, and east to west. It's called "Reform," and I would like to begin our discussion;ith the words of Thomas Jefferson by saying :

I arn not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and Constitutions. But laws and institutions go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.

If our government is to meet the demands of the changing times, it must first face the reality and necessity of reform. If our gover nment is to answer the calls for reform, it must devise a strategy for our future to provide for economic growth, a balanced budget, quality health care, ed- ucation, and family preservation. If our government is to succeed in this challenge, it must rest o re the American people's faith in an institution which seems to have lost its direction. I believe a major factor in the people's disillusionment with our government stems from Congress's inability, and apparent unwillingness, to provide any plan for our f uture. This failure to address our national crisis is caused by a lack of people in Congress with the common sense to sit down together, roll up their sleeves, and develop a plan. Instead, what we have is a lot of parti- san politicking and no-win solutio n s. What we desperately need are citizen representatives to take back our government from professional politicians who go-along-to-get-along with the busi- ness-as-usual that got us to this point in the first place. Citizen Representative. When I first ran for Congress, I pledged to be a citizen representa- tive, and in my travels each weekend throughout my district, I have learned of the seriousness of the problems that plague our country. My home state of Iowa is known for good government and generally ha s been isolated from many of those problems. But recently, I think some of the same problems that plague the rest of the country have been plaguing Iowa.. And it has angered voters. Much of that anger, I think, is being expressed in some public opinion pol l s. As an example, the Des Moines Register, which is the state's largest newspaper, recently conducted what they call the "Iowa Poll." Basically, the headline of the article that followed read, "Poll: Iowans Disillu- sioned by Politicians." That probably d oes not surprise any of you, but it shows this is happening everywhere, even in the Heartland.

Representative Nussle, a Republican, represents the 2nd District of Iowa in the U.S. House of Representatives. He spoke at The Heritage Foundation on July 7, 1992 . Part 1, by Representative Christopher Cox, was published as Heritage Lecture No. 406. Both lectures were sponsored by Heritage's U.S. Congress Assessinent Project. ISSN 0272-1155. 01992 by The Heritage Foundation.

I wanted to go through some of the it ems of that poll, because for Iowans, obviously, this attitude is a change. We have trusted our government officials. We like to believe in our Repre- sentatives. And so for this change to occur, it means that something is desperately wrong. Let me give y o u some examples from the poll: 1) Do you favor term limits? 75 percent said, "Yes." 2) Do you approve of the way Congress is performing? 67 percent answered, "No." 3) With this statement, "It really doesn't matter who is in office, nothing really changes, " 35 percent agreed. 4) That "Most politicians are crooks," 36 percent agreed. 5) And to the big question, at least the question that I think was most important, "Government seems unable;to fix the really big prob- lems," 83 percent of Iowans agreed that g o vernment seems unequipped to fix the really big probltm&-So-low,ans-arejust-as-4i,sil-lusioned as-the-rest-of-America.- When I was running for Congress the first time, I was on the campaign trail in Dubuque, which is one of the bigger cities in my congres s ional district, and I was giving the best possible stamp speech I could. A woman came up to me afterward, and she shook her finger at me, and said, "You know, I agree with all the principles that you are espousing and I believe in the things that you want to fight for, but you know, you are going to change. You am going to become just like the rest of them." And I have been fighting, I think, maybe personally ever since, to prove that woman wrong - that you do not have to come to Washington and change, tha t her attitude of disillusion with politics and politicians can be changed overnight@ or at least with a little bit of tender loving care. Crisis Management. I also have the feeling that we have seen in the last 25 years the same is- sues come up, the same concerns, and yet, very little progress. Put yourself in a town meeting 25 years ago. What were some of the issues: the budget deficit, health care, education, generational welfare, lack of jobs, the economy. These are all issues that have plagued us for t he last 25 years. And we have continually sent new Representatives to Washington, D.C., to deal with these prob- lems - people who had all the right tools, who were sincere, who believed in what they wanted to do, who were principled, who wanted to bring a bout change, and yet, what do we have7 We still have nearing $400 billion a year in budget deficits, a growing national debt closing in on $4 trillion, a legacy of generational welfare that we seem unable to break; an unstable economy as witnessed from th i s last week's jobless figures, inadequate health care that is too costly for most Americans, pork barrel politics where politicians basically buy your vote with your money, an entrenched and unresponsive bureaucracy that seems unable to deal with the prob l ems that bu- reaucracy was initially created to solve, and crisis management. I would say, in my opinion, that the modus operandi in addressing all of the complicated concerns and -issues that plague the country, is crisis management. This means that Cong r ess and the President manage this country by ft seat of their pants. And the seat of their pants ends up being the seat of the taxpayers' pants. Is it any wonder that 83 percent of Iowans, and probably a similar amount of other Ameri- cans, am disillusion e d and believe that government really cannot fix the problems, that we have lost our direction? With those kinds of figures, and with that kind of track record, I am not sur- prised. Why have we been unable to deal with these problems? There may be many po s sible reasons. I have written down a few ideas of where we may have lost our way: 1) Divided government. The fact that we had one party in the White House and a different party in the Congress may be one reason. 2) Lack of leadership. And when I say that, I don't mean people who are just willing to throw out an idea, but those who really will work the idea, really lead the country, setting forth what they believe is important. 3) Politicians more worried about their re-election than the good of the country . 4) There is no long-range plan for the country. 5) We have lack of commu- nication among members of Congress. 6) Politicians appear to be out of touch with their constituents. 7) The influence of special interests. 8) Too many committees and subcommittee s. 9) No time to concentrate on the issues, because of many other time-consuming concerns that


plague us around here, like the mating habits of Erogs and whether or not to have a commemora- tive coin. 10) A belief that government basically can solve many of these problems, when maybe it cannot; or maybe it has to have a private, non-government solution or component to the solu- tion. Anger and Disillusion. I think the people's disillusion is real. I feel it every weekend when I am home - this last we e kend was no different. People are concerned about their future, about their kids' futures, and I think that they look at Washington and see us not resolving these issues. I think this anger and disillusion can manifest itself in many different ways; for i n stance, H. Ross Perot, I think, is the result of much of the disillusion in this country. I also believe that the vio- lence in Los Afigelds'and-N& York'% pottibly1i'tesult of Wit "disillugidii or the1blief of the rioters that they do not have to conform t o authority. How do we stop this anger and disillusion? How do we prevent it from happening again? How do we change? Most authors say that there is a three-step process for any change. First, you must believe that something must change. Second, you must b e lieve that you have to get involved in that change. And third, you have to believe that change can happen. So, number one, you have to believe something must change. Number two, you have to believe you must work to change it. And number three, you must be l ieve that you can, and eventually will, change it. I believe Con- gress must change. I believe that I can work to change Congress. And I believe, eventually, I can change Congress. What is the goal of congressional reform? I believe congressional reform e n compasses a wide variety of issues and proposals for changing the way Congress operates. All of them have one common aim, however: restoring the American people's faith in an institution that basically seems to have lost its way. I believe that until the A merican people regain confidence in Congress's ability to address the pressing issues facing the country, Congress will continue to be ineffective in dealing with the important issues, like health care, education, the economy and the huge budget deficit. A ccountability and Planning. There are some elements, I believe, that congressional reform should entail, and I have tried to break them down into two that are easy to remember. First, Con- gress must enact reforms that make them truly accountable to the A m erican people. Second, Congress must demonstrate that it has a clear direction or a plan for the future of the country. So, accountability and planning. And I think if we accomplish those two goals, we will be well on our way to regaining the faith of the American people. Let us look at each of these elements of reform. Number one, accountability. I would say that accountability is a two-way street: It is a shared responsibility between the people and their repre- sentatives. By that I mean that Representa t ives and Senators should be accountable to their constituents, and their constituents should hold their Representatives and Senators accountable for their actions or inactions. The need has never been greater to enact-reforms that bring ac- countability b a ck to the institution that has failed to act in response to the urgent needs of the American people. 1) What should the people do at home to improve the communications be- tween them and their Representatives, and to hold their Representatives accountable for their actions and inactions? 2) What should Representatives and Senators do in Washington to better communicate and be more accountable to the people they represent? There are five, categories that we need to focus on in order to answer those two ques t ions and to achieve those goals. You must, first of all, reform and encourage constituent participation. This may be the most important, and yet the hardest part of congressional reform,-because of the catch-22. I have heard this manifest itself in many c onversations that I have had with Iowans. Someone will say, "Well, you are not listening; therefore, I am not going to get involved." And


the less people get involved, the less we listen; and so, the less they get involved. And it contin- ues to spir al. But we have to break that somehow to get people involved again. Improvement of communications comes in various forms; but I think one of the best is for Representatives to be home and available - available to listen to their constituents and interact w ith them. Simplifying the government process may be another way to allow people not only to get involved, but also to understand that their involvement counts. And finally, we have to figure out a way to turn their anger into positive action and change. S o , number one is reform to encourage constituent participation. Number two is reform of the administration-of the-Congress.-With-regard to reforming the administration of Congress, I think we need to address a number of concerns - the management and accoun t ability of our money in Congress; the applicability of laws to the Congress, the fact that we can exempt ourselves from these laws; office space and facilities, which may not seem very important, but yet technology and building space must be used to the b e st of our ability so that we can have an efficiently run Congress; disposal of unexpended funds, not having a Speaker's slush fund through which the Speaker may have control over vast amounts of money that are unspent at the end of the year; and an annual accounting of Congress which, I think, also is necessary. Reforms of management and administration are very important. We are on the road to such reform with what has occurred thus far in the year, but much more has to occur. Budget Reforms. Number three i s reform of the congressional budget process and procedure. This addresses a number of different issues - budget process reform, balanced budget amend- ment, emergency supplementals, continuing resolutions, the congressional budget act itself, the budget e nforcement act, merit pay (which is one of my proposals) to tie Representatives' salaries to their effectiveness in balancing the budget, the expanded rescission that the President at- tempted this year, the line-item veto, performance-based budgeting as w ell as zero-based budgeting, where every year you zero out and justify the existence of every committee, agency, department, and so forth. I think these are ways that we can at least bring the debate on the bud- get process to a head and get some better a c countability in that area. Fourth would be the legislative operations of Congress. And this is where we interact, where among themselves, members of Congress communicate - I think there are a number of areas here to be worked on. As rules are reformed, we must also reform the calendar and schedules. We are able to squeeze our time into about Tuesday through Thursday, and Mondays and Fri- days are wasted. And it is amazing how much work goes on from 4:00 p.m. until 7:00 p.m., yet very little goes on the res t of the day. Furthermore, work is needed on motions to re-commit, sus- pension of the rules, discharge procedures, recorded votes, accountability, commemoratives (we mentioned that once), the coverage of the House proceedings by C-SPAN, authorizing commit - tee reporting deadlines. That may be a good way to do it - if you give a bill or an idea to a committee, you give them a deadline to bring it back. We are talking also about jurisdiction, pocket vetoes, veto overrides, the length of the session. These ar e all ways, I think, that we can talk about the ebb and flow of information, the ebb and flow of the issues, in the legislative oper- ations of Congress. Finally, number five is a total overhaul of congressional campaigns. This would address fi- nancing, c ontributions - including such matters as PACs, special interests, and soft money - the length of the campaign and the way we report contributions. I think for too long we have bur- ied our heads in the sand about this particular issue.


I have introduced a couple pieces of legislation to deal with some of the accountability issues. I call it the Citizen Representative Reform Act. It has been in the pipeline for a while now, and it is receiving a little bit of support, but not quite enoug h to be any kind of major movement. I want to go over the five parts of my Citizen Representative Reform Act. 1) Merit pay. Tying our salaries, as members of Congress, to our ability to balance the bud- get. I recommend that every time the budget deficit g o es up, our pay gets cut by 5 percent until we wipe out the deficit. I think we would wipe it out tomorrow. 2) A provision called Go Home. And I love this provision, because it basically says we have to finish our legislative.business-during -the -fiscal-y e ar.-Andif-wr-cannotget it done, we are docked one day's pay for every day we stay in past the end of the fiscal year. 3) A bill that I call "Live Like We Do." What that means is that we have to have the same kinds of perks and privileges that our constitu e nts have, which are few and far between; as well as, we cannot exempt ourselves from the laws that we pass. 4) Use a Stamp. It eliminates the franking privilege. 5) New Blood. Term limitation. You might wonder where I get the tides for some of these? I ge t the titles from town meetings, from constituents to whom I have talked ahd who said, "You know what we need out in Wash- ington? We need some new blood. You know what? You guys shouldn't spend so much time in Washington - you ought to go home. You ought t o use a stamp; you -shouldn't be able to sign your name at the top comer of an envelope. And why don't you live like we do? Walk a day in our shoes." Those am some of the issues that I hear back in Iowa; and I have appropriately named those provisions aft e r those comments. So first is accountability. It encompasses a wide variety of issues, some that we may not be able to deal with in the short run, but we need definitely to discuss them. The second part of reform is providing a clear direction for this co u ntry and for our future. What this entails is called long-term, strategic planning. This is part of the process that I think is missing the most from our current legislative procedure. In the year and a half that I have been there, I have been amazed that never, never during my period of time here in Washington, have I sat down with other members of Congress, or even for that matter, with the other members of my delegation from Iowa, and determined or decided what was important for our state and country. I think it is atrocious that that kind of leadership has not been available.'And yet, what am I told as a freshman member of Congress? Sit in the back row and keep your mouth shut. Don't say any- thing. You are not supposed to rock the boat. Wait until you a re here ten years. Wait until you are here twenty years, then maybe you can provide some planning, some leadership, some goal setting. I don't think so. I think it is about time that we start to wrestle this away. I think one of the ways to do it is to pr o vide a long-term plan. I think Congress has to provide this leadership, setting priorities and goals as the first step. I think one of the major factors that causes people's disillusion is that they don't see us working on the goals that really seem to ma t ter to the country. My outline for a strategic plan begins with four components. 1) Communication among the members of Congress. We have to assess our current situa- tion and begin to stimulate communication between our elected Representatives. What do I m ean by that? Have you ever watched C-SPAN and wondered why it takes so long for the Speaker of the House to gavel us to be quiet in between votes? Do you ever wonder why that happens? I'll tell you why. Because after we have been apart from all of those f olks for so long, both during the day and over weekends and recesses, you have to find out what has been happening. And so we spend most of that time almost like the huddle on the mound during a baseball game in which


they are not necessarily talking about the next pitch. The Congressmen are saying, "Well, how are the kids? What is happening in your district? What is important to the folks back home? How did your town meeting go?" It is not necessarily on the next issue facing the Congress. But we nee d that time to interact and to become human beings again and talk about the real issues. 2) We have to sit down and set goals and priorities. You might think that this has already been done, but ask yourself, what are the goals and priorities for this coun t ry? Some might say, "Edu- cation is important." Yes, but have we really determined that it is a goal? Is health care a goal? If they were goals, why haven't they been dealt with yet? And why donit we have a plan of action, together with deadlines, to addr e ss those problems? 3) After you set the goals, you have to have an action plan. You have to determine, "How are you going to get this done? Are you going to solve health care?" You may not necessarily have to address the specific proposals, but you can sa y , "By the end of the year, we are going to have dim ready for debate and discussion." 4) You have to have a review mechanism. You have to be able to provide oversight and re- view, for not only your goals, because your goals may change - hopefully they wi l l as you continue to achieve your goals - but also you have to have a way to monitor the action plan that you have put together. In summary, it is basically very simple. Where are we? Where have we been? Where are we going? How are we going to get there? T hose are the questions that Congress has to ask itself. It is not that complicated. People like Senator Byrd may think it is complicated. I think he called it "twaddle" in the 20120 interview about pork barrel spending and how -some of us who have been ad d ressing these issues maybe do not have our eyes on the ball, but I think it is that simple. I have had more stimulating debates in cafes in Iowa and at annual meetings of church coun- cils than I have had on the floor of the House of Representatives. And I think in order to bring that debate here, we have to start talking about the goals, priorities, and action plans for this country. What are Jim Nussle's goals? I think they may apply to the country, but let me throw them out for discussion. 1) Stability a nd eventual growth for the economy. Sounds like a lofty goal, but how do you ap- proach it? I think there are a number of ways - health care, education, infrastructure, marketing, trade - those are ways that you can address the long-term economic needs. T h ose are economic development goals that my city of Manchester, Iowa, put down. They are the same ones. How do you address education, health care, infrastructure, marketing, people, money? Those are all is- sues that Manchester, Iowa, set out as their econ o mic goals. The country's are not much different than that, they are just much bigger. 2) Re-shaping and re-deflning our nation's defense. As we all know, the Cold War is over; and yet the debate last week on the defense budget was over money, not necessar i ly over priori- ties of new systems or new strategies for the future. 3) Institutional governmental reform. This is the bureaucracy. I can't tell you how many complaints I have had from people back home who say, "The government is supposed to be woricing for me, but it is almost like a gestapo." I am amazed at the End of words I hear from them. They say, "Instead of teaching and leading and guiding and educating us, they come in and they hit us over the head with a hammer."


4) Congressional reforn4 bec ause this is the way we deal with the new issues of the day. 5) Re-definition of our nation's leadership role in the world. These are Jim Nussle's goals. These are the goals that I would put forth if someone said, "Nussle, what are your goals?" I think we need an action plan for each one. What happens when you change a system? What happens when maybe you change the way we deal with things? Folks buck at that. They don't like change. We are creatures of repetition. We like things the way they are. Let me re ad you a quotation from a person you probably would not have thought believed in much change. It goes like this:

The country needs, and unless I mistake its temper, demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.

You know who said that? Franklin D. Roosevelt, the architect of not only the New Deal, but our current welfare state (with a little bit of tinkering from the Johnson Administratio n and the Great Society). But by and large, what he was saying is that what worked back in the 1940s may not work in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, or in the next century, and it is time to change - above all, try something. If you believe your ta x dollars are being put to the best possible use, then you don't believe in change. If you believe that you are tired of business as usual, like so many other people are, then it is time to put together a new vision and a new plan - to try something. Evide n ce of Reform. How do we know whether Congress is going-to change? There are some signals that Congress is already beginning to change - much, I think, because of the actions of a few freshmen, coupled with some other reformers who have been here since I w a s a junior in high school, who have been here to reform Congress for all that time - and the spark has not died. But some of the things have already occurred, from the bank scandal to the post office scan- dal, to the balanced budget amendment vote this y e ar (which was predicted not even to occur before the next election). I think the vote was forced because of reform. The Madison Amend- ment on pay raises is a result of reform. Other evidences of reform are the reduction of many of the unnecessary perks a n d privileges, done unilaterally by the Speaker without any kind of legis- lation; the passage of the Hamilton/Gradison Committee, the Joint Committee on tfie Reorganization of Congress. I serve on the Republican Task Force for the Organization of Con- gre s s, a task force that has just been set up by the Republican side as a way of funneling through ideas. Other evidence includes what you have seen in retirements and defeats in primaries. I think we are going to continue to see that trend when it comes to t u rnover in the House and Sen- ate after November. How do we provide a forum for change? This is one way to start, and Heritage has been excel- lent at that, and I think will continue to be. Heritage already is putting -together an orientation for the new f r eshmen to talk about a number of these issues - an orientation that will take the place of the typical trip that is taken every year up to Harvard University. I think this is a great coup that has been pulled off, and one that I hope to participate in. Th e re are also monthly meetings that occur all over the District of Columbia - one that the Free Congress Foundation and Heri- tage have put together that I have chaired since January. Also, we now have a committee in Congress to start to begin to study re-o rganization of Congress. We hope that the Senate will fol- low suit.


Ut me finish with a couple of thoughts from the past. Benjamin Franklin said once that "the preservation of our form of government depends on our constant vigilance." 11at is very tru e. We are seeing this idea again manifest itself by the changes that are occurring over in Eastern Eu- rope in the emerging democracies. They now have constant vigilance, more constant vigilance, I think, then we have ever had. Somewhere along the way, we have been negligent, in my estima- tion, and we have not kept that watchful eye on the institution of Congress. And now the people want their Congress back, and they are going to take it back. If you are like me, you want to head in the direction of a cit i zen legislature, as opposed to one that is made up of professional politicians and career politicians. But either way, we need leaders. We need Representatives who can lead-us andguide-us-andprepare..usia=-over.-to oily children and-our. grandchildren a b et- ter future - one in which they can live, learn, raise a family, build a business, leaving their mark. Let us begin today by dedicating ourselves to that goal.




Representative Jim

Distinguished Fellow