Public Sees Congress As Fools or Knaves
By Edward I. Koch
Congress is a joke. Today there is absolutely no respect for those who were elected to represent us in the House and Senate. The reasons for this lack of respect are many. Overwhelmingly, the public sees Congress as fools because, while they were elected to address and solve the problems besetting our nation, including a nine percent unemployment rate, members of Congress appear far more interested in party politics and reelection. There appears to be no major effort to rise above party affiliation and responsibly address the nation’s problems and save the Republic.
In a way, this is the behavior pattern adopted by the 1920s German parliamentarians during the Weimar Republic, which led to the public’s turning to dictatorship and ultimately to Adolf Hitler for leadership. We are lucky that in our democracy, the extremist radicals on the right and left have had no significant electorate appeal. Nevertheless, the fact that our democracy is not beset by radicals should not cloud our reasoning. There is always the danger of a charismatic fanatic rising up, manipulating the fears and frustrations of those who believe our system of government has failed them seizing absolute power with popular consent. There will always be those who say it can’t happen here.
I say, yes it can.
I don’t know of a single figure in government, from the President on down, who is overwhelmingly respected. Congress is now viewed favorably by only 9 percent of the public according to a New York Times/CBS News poll of last month. No one expects universal respect, but that is a dangerously low number. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a significant number of critics throughout his career, but overwhelmingly he was loved or at least respected. I don’t believe that is true of the way the public views President Obama. He has a current favorable rating of 45 percent.
What has happened to us that we no longer seem to elect leaders at all levels of government who create confidence? Regrettably, in many situations, the very best people, the ablest people, will not consider running for elective office. They simply do not want to subject themselves and their families to the slings, stones and arrows that are hurled at candidates every day of the year.
Many voters also see members of Congress as knaves. Witness the recent piece on “60 Minutes” on CBS-TV about two weeks ago reporting on members of Congress who, while enacting laws bearing upon the stock market, used inside information — not available to the public — to purchase or sell stocks, making profits in the millions in some cases. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi was alleged to be one such member. Apparently, members of Congress are not subject to insider information restrictions that apply to everyone else. It seems to me there is an easy way to prevent that abuse. Congress should require its members to place their stock portfolios in blind trusts, so members cannot use their insider information for themselves or others. Also passing whatever laws are needed to apply existing insider information rules to Congress, as well as the public.
The bi-partisan supercommittee of six Senators and six members of the House, which was given the authority to come up with a plan to reduce the country’s $14 trillion national debt by $1.2 trillion over 10 years, reported last week its total failure to reach an agreement. The committee failed in its mission despite the fact that it had a template on which to build — the Simpson-Bowles plan — that involves debt reduction of $4 trillion through a combination of expense reductions and revenue increases. The Republicans on the supercommittee refused to accept any revenue increases, and the Democrats and President Obama were unable to change the mind of a single Republican on the supercommittee.
The committee members should be shunned by their congressional colleagues for that failure and rejected by their constituents in the coming election of 2012.
Let me suggest the measures that the supercommittee could have adopted which would have yielded close to $4 trillion in new revenues:
1. Allow Medicare to provide drugs to Medicare beneficiaries using volume discounts — now prohibited by law — in purchasing, saving a trillion dollars over ten years.
2. Create a national stock transfer tax covering everyone, no matter where the stock is purchased or sold, raising at least a trillion dollars over 10 years.
3. Require all corporations retaining profits overseas to repatriate those monies within one year or be subject to a 15 percent annual surcharge, providing billions of dollars over the next 10 years.
4. Reduce the value of all loopholes in the tax code by 50 percent until the tax code is revised. I believe that would raise another trillion over 10 years.
To the above revenue increases, I would add expense reductions three times as large. That would be the grandest of bargains.
One of the reasons our Congress is so ineffective is because of the enormous power of private special interest money to sway elections. Raising money for those not wishing to sell their souls in exchange for financial support is becoming very difficult. It is obvious that Congress is captive to Wall Street as a key source of campaign contributions. It would be wonderful if those contributions were made in support of good government. But we know that isn’t true.
The United States was created by a revolution, a rebellion. A Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson said, “God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion.”
The time for that rebellion is now. Fortunately, it can take the form of a constitutional amendment. The amendment, introduced by Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO), Tom Harkin (D-IA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Mark Begich (D-AK) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), would allow the federal and state governments to limit campaign contributions and campaign spending, not now limitable by law as a result of several U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
I believe this effort to limit the power of special interests at the federal and state levels is the most important issue before the American people today. All of us should volunteer when the campaign begins to pass the Udall amendment in Congress where a two-thirds vote in favor is required in both Houses and in the state legislatures where three-fourths of the states must ratify.
God Bless our Republic and its people.
Mayor Koch was a member of Congress from New York State from 1969 through 1977.
Fair Lines Mean Fair Votes
By HENRY STERN
For the past year, we have been watching closely the redistricting process in New York State. As you know, the U.S. Constitution requires the states to redraw legislative and congressional districts every 10 years, on the basis of the Census.
The Constitution does not, however, specify how the states should do this, except to require that the populations of the various districts should be approximately equal. Recent court decisions require the protection of racial minorities. Beyond that, almost anything goes.
The historic practice of tailoring districts for partisan advantage is called gerrymandering, after Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814), whose surname was incidentally pronounced with a hard “G.” It describes a scheme involving convoluted district boundaries, structured to concentrate voters of one political party in a district where they could prevail, and to divide districts in which the opposition party might have a majority.
These techniques have been rudely but rhythmically described as “stacking, cracking, hacking and packing.” They are intended to frustrate the will of the voters by creating safe seats for incumbents, which would minimize the effect of the voters’ choice between candidates in competitive elections. When public officials are frequently chosen in party primaries, rather than general elections, political bosses and party contributors generally have more influence. In cases where the general elections are decisive, the people, including those who choose not to join political parties, have a greater voice.
The blight of the gerrymander extends beyond unfairly drawing lines which favor one group over another. It influences the choice of candidates by each party, the tenor of public debate, and the issues that will be raised in campaigns. In general, incumbents draw lines to favor other incumbents, so that the public seeking change is frustrated at how few opportunities there are to have a realistic chance to elect new candidates to open seats. Although the trappings of democracy are maintained, legislative power is held by a self-perpetuating oligarchy. This hypocrisy lessens people’s confidence in government for good reason: it is not their government but an array of cliques and regimes which remain in power through adroit use of incumbency, patronage and gerrymandering; the legislators who draw the playing field have little inclination to keep it level.
This year there has been substantial public interest in districting reform, particularly in the demand for professional, nonpolitical panels to draw lines according to objective standards. Mayor Koch, Citizens Union and good government groups across the state, including NYPIRG, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, have called for a nonpartisan commission; no one publicly opposes the idea. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has promised to veto any redistricting plan he deems unfair. It is however not easy to decide, precisely what is fair and, moreover, just how fair a plan must be.