Unlock Congress: Reform the Rules - Restore the System

Unlock Congress: Reform the Rules - Restore the System

by Michael Golden


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The American people are disgusted with the U.S. Congress. In 2014, public approval of the "first branch" of government reached a forty-year low, its popularity ranking well below Nixon during the Watergate years and BP during the oil spill. Congress is producing legislation at a historically anemic rate, while many of the nation's most immediate problems fester. Those are the facts. The fiction? The notion that we can't do anything about it. Two-and-a-quarter centuries ago, the U.S. Constitution assigned various powers and obligations to our legislative branch — a written warranty calling on our elected representatives to "promote the general welfare." But failures in recent years reveal a profound truth: Congress is in breach of contract. More than ineffective, the legislative process has become defective. And to a great degree, it is the congressional system that is driving the problem, not just the people and parties who are stymied by it. It is time to stop labeling them all "fools." Instead, we the people must push to reform the rules. In Unlock Congress, veteran journalist and former political strategist Michael Golden examines the ways in which congressional failure generates a harmful PRODUCT. Rather than narrowly affixing blame to individual politicians or even to the partisan divide, Golden methodically diagnoses underlying causes behind the breakdown. He identifies the PROBLEM obsolete rules that lead to major defects within the system. Finally, Unlock Congress lays out a PLATFORM of solutions designed to reinvigorate both the process and its players.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780984991983
Publisher: Why Not Books
Publication date: 04/15/2015
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Michael Golden is a journalist, social entrepreneur and public speaker who serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Michael is a former reporter who worked at NBC and CBS television affiliates in Illinois, Iowa, and California. His investigative and public affairs reporting earned him honors from the Associated Press, the Edward R. Murrow Awards and the Society of Professional Journalists. Between 2000-2006, Michael worked as a campaign manager and communications strategist on political races for the White House, U.S. Senate, and U.S. House of Representatives. In late 2006 he co-founded One Million Degrees, a non-profit scholarship program that has empowered hundreds of low-income community college students to graduate and embark upon careers. 

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Unlock Congress

By Michael Golden

Why Not Books

Copyright © 2015 Michael Golden
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-9849919-8-3


The Passion

Passion rebuilds the world for the youth. It makes all things alive and significant.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

David Hume

Through the votes we cast and the tax dollars we pay, we elect and compensate members of the U.S. Congress. Because the law actually requires the majority of us to pay for our government, what Congress delivers in return is akin to a product. And Americans can't stand that product.

The poor quality of the performance we see in Congress is not for lack of time spent trying. In 2011-2012, the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-controlled Senate were in session for more days than they had been in any congressional session over the previous thirty years. Yet, that 112th Congress enacted 283 public laws, the fewest passed since the birth of the statistic back in 1947. In 2013-14, the 113th Congress managed to nudge that figure up to 296 — the second lowest total. By comparison, the "Do-Nothing Congress" of 1948, infamously nicknamed by President Harry Truman, passed 906 bills into law.

Of course, the total number of laws enacted is hardly the only measure of legislative effectiveness. In fact, many Americans actually prefer that even fewer laws be passed. But either way, we are collectively disgusted with the work of our representatives. Recent polls have revealed the lowest levels of public confidence in Congress in four decades. And in 2014, 74 percent of Americans believed that Congress was "unproductive" — with 50 percent labeling its work as "very unproductive."

So the broad answer to our first important question — "Why should we still care about the state of the U.S. Congress?" — is that we should because it is not delivering the kind of quality product we are paying for. Rather, it is providing a product that is defective and harmful.

It is true that our founding fathers did not set up our system of government, and especially Congress, to run efficiently and arrive at big decisions quickly. On the contrary, they purposely created a system that would foster measured deliberation and steer clear of any sudden, dangerous moves. In this way, the founders sought a legislative branch that would operate in a manner rational and responsible enough to serve the people well. In making the case for creating Congress, and advocating for passage of the Constitution, James Madison wrote in 1788, "No government, any more than an individual, will long be respected without being truly respectable; nor be truly respectable, without possessing a certain portion of order and stability."

Today, though, we see a childish Congress bickering on a daily basis, governing by crisis, and holding very little "respectability" at all in the eyes of Americans — including many of our very own incumbent representatives. The epic level of failure in the House and the Senate is not just about conservatism or liberalism — it is about a lack of pragmatism. Concepts like negotiation and compromise, upon which our legislative process has historically been based, now seem nearly extinct.

It is often observed that our country is politically divided. We will investigate this fact as we move deeper into our analysis. But the problem we are facing stretches beyond the battle between red states and blue states. Structural defects within the system play a major role in the constipation of our Congress. Thankfully, we have political and constitutional avenues available to us through which we can repair these breaches, if we care enough to do so. We should care, as the stakes could not be much higher. It will take time, effort, and education. It will also take passion.


In 1976, the searing satire Network hit American movie screens, and it would go on to win four Academy Awards. One went to screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky — his third Oscar in the category. Another was awarded to Peter Finch for his best actor portrayal of a fictional network television anchor named Howard Beale.

Beale is fed up with the news business and even more irritated by the problems gripping the country. He is so outraged that he no longer cares about network protocol. The anchorman lets loose in a series of improvised on-air rants — first putting him in a vice with his corporate bosses, then, ironically, turning him into a national sensation. In the movie's classic scene, Beale scowls from behind his anchor desk, lamenting the sorry state of the nation — the busted banks, the gun-toting shopkeepers, the violent crime, the recession, the inflation, the Russians. And then his voice rises menacingly as he stalks toward the newsroom camera:

All I know is that first you've got to get mad. You've got to say, "I'm a human being, God damn it! My life has value!" So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this any more!" I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them, and stick your head out and yell — "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more!" Things have got to change. But first, you've gotta get mad!

As soon as Beale is done, we see people opening up their windows across American cities and yelling out the complaint exactly as he instruct- ed them to. Chayefsky's words touched something deep in popular culture in that moment, and four decades later we can still hear the catchphrase being recited from time to time by pols, protesters, and people who are just plain exasperated. After all, each of us knows what it feels like to be at our wit's end watching what seems like a world spinning out of control.

Of course, we can all agree that screaming our anger aimlessly in public is not a very effective way of dealing with life's daily frustrations. But when a great number of voices come together to express collective anguish, the sound becomes powerful. Throughout American history, many of our most consequential political movements for justice and change have been born out of a deeply felt sense of righteous indignation.

Organized, passionate outrage is how our country was founded in the first place. Were it not for the bravery and sacrifice of the Revolutionary War generation, discussions about our rights and the government's responsibility to its citizens might never have been possible. That same passion, balanced by a great deal of reason and collaboration, led to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Great intellectual debates continued in the years following ratification, but modern historians now take note of the fervently held beliefs that powered political life in the 1790s. In one of his many books and articles about the American Revolution, historian Marshall Smelser dubbed this decade "The Age of Passion."

From that starting point, we can clearly look back at the battles that Americans waged and won by pressuring the government to act during the most turbulent times in our country's history. Some of these victories took far too long in hindsight, but still the United States achieved the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, civil rights, workers' rights, and other milestones that promoted enormous civic advances. They all began with groups of individuals feeling collectively ignored, abused, oppressed — often all of the above. Pain has the power to generate passion, and passion becomes high-octane fuel for action.

Decades later, many of the observations in Howard Beale's rant still ring true. When we remove a couple of historical references, many of the same challenges still resonate today — and some seem even more formidable.

During that same year, 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected to his only term as president. In 1979 Carter delivered his "Crisis of Confidence" speech. The national television address also came to be known as the "malaise" speech, although that word was never actually spoken. In it, among other things, Carter bemoaned inflation, recession, the decline of American workers' productivity, and the urgent crisis of that time: the energy shortage. Speaking directly to the issue, the president criticized Washington and specifically the Democratic-controlled Congress:

Looking for a way out of this crisis, our people have turned to the federal government and found it isolated from the mainstream of our nation's life. Washington, D.C., has become an island. The gap between our citizens and our government has never been so wide. The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual ... What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests ... You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another.

Throughout his presidency, Carter's party controlled Congress with strong majorities in both the House and Senate. The year he gave this speech, Gallup tracked public confidence in Congress at 34 percent. Surely this was an awful number, but it was still almost five times higher than the 2014 rating of 7 percent. We have traveled a humiliating distance downward. Some may point to leadership in the executive branch or the controlling political party of the moment as the culprit, but as the voice of the people will demonstrate in the next chapter, Congress gets a failing grade regardless.

In late 2012, during one of the recent doomsday debates in D.C. over our nation's debt limit, New York Times columnist David Brooks summed up the state of affairs:

What's happening in Washington right now is pathetic. When you think about what the Revolutionary generation did, what the Civil War generation did, what the World War generation did — we're asking not to bankrupt our children and we've got a shambolic, dysfunctional process.

So if this "dysfunctional process" is at an all-time low, why doesn't our dissatisfaction drive the same kind of passionately focused movement for change as the ones described above? If our own Congress fills us with distrust and disgust, why don't we care enough to band together and do something about it?

It may very well be because the kind of fights Brooks cites are far more personal and straightforward in nature. Movements to defend a nation, or to struggle for fair treatment and equal rights, are directly related to definitive parts of a person's life or a community's identity. These missions are often based on an easily understood sense of personal injustice. The stakeholders have a common stake. Civil rights and suffrage are among the most high-profile examples of this point. When persecution or undue hardship is experienced personally, it can be a rallying cry that activates great collective strength.

Hilbert Bradley was someone who knew this kind of persecution. As a young African-American growing up in the 1920s in the tiny town of Repton, Alabama, Bradley saw it all around him: "It was very segregated during those times and I would go to the movies and watched those court-room lawyers. Watching them in the movies sparked a fire."

During World War II, Bradley put his college studies on hold to enlist in the Army. But following the war, he kept after his dream and in 1950 broke a barrier by becoming the first African-American law school graduate at Valparaiso University. Then he put his degree to work.

Bradley served as counsel in landmark civil rights cases, and in 1957 he lobbied Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act. In 1963, Hilbert Bradley led a delegation from his adopted home city of Gary, Indiana, to join Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and more than 200,000 other Americans in the March on Washington.

But Bradley didn't slow down after civil rights legislation was passed. He kept fighting, and in 1987 he founded the Indiana Coalition for Black Judicial Officials. The coalition achieved its first victory three years later, with the election of Bernard Carter to the Superior Court bench. Later, Bradley himself became a judge.

Hilbert Bradley never stopped standing up for what he believed in and stayed active until the day of his passing on October 13, 2013. He was 93 years old. The next day a Chicago Sun-Times headline proclaimed: "Civil Rights Advocate Bradley Had Passion For Justice." Although not a famous or hallowed name like others we recognize from the civil rights era, Bradley's story reinforces the age-old lesson that one person truly can make a difference. And when a very large number of people get on board — all rowing in the same direction — there is virtually no limit to how far the movement can travel.

At the same time, issue-specific personal passion for change is different from mustering up the motivation to push for broad reforms in a system of government. American disappointment with Congress is far more sprawling and impersonal in nature compared with a scenario in which a great number of us are feeling aggrieved about a single, high-profile problem.

Congress itself is a large and complicated entity that has the responsibility of overseeing even larger bureaucracies. Our complaints about it are varied and vast. We dislike so much about the institution that it can be overwhelming. Without a common and focused passion, it is hard to reform any established organization, and particularly one as entrenched as our nation's legislative branch.

But this is precisely the point. Because in this case we are not relying on the power of a single-issue grievance to bind us together, we must arrive at a common understanding of just how profoundly Congress is failing us across the board — and how much it hurts. Later, in Part II of this book, we will be investigating the problems that directly contribute to the congressional mess, followed by recommendations on how to fix it. But our first big goal in this process is to establish a shared and definitive understanding that the product we are paying for is substandard — and harmful. We need to know just what we are entitled to expect from Congress, and just what we are receiving.

The next three chapters will define and explain the two major ways that the U.S. Congress is failing the American people:

1. Americans have an overwhelming lack of confidence in Congress, which erodes our civic participation and, in turn, our ability to repair the problem.

2. The defective product that Congress delivers is damaging the quality of life for the American people.

We all have ample reason to feel a real sense of Howard Beale's outrage. This is our country. And the colossal failings of the Congress should make us mad as hell and unwilling to take it any more. If we can take that disappointment and more specifically define it, we will then be equipped to passionately coalesce around it. We will have the power to speak with one voice about why and how we are going to resuscitate the system.

Finally, it bears pointing out that our founding fathers warned us of the dangers that passion can lead to when not balanced by thoughtfulness and common sense. It is a wise observation, and it is exactly why we must have a solid understanding of the situation. When a protest is backed up by a factual, reasoned narrative about the problem, as well as proposed solutions, a mass complaint can morph into a potent movement.


Excerpted from Unlock Congress by Michael Golden. Copyright © 2015 Michael Golden. Excerpted by permission of Why Not Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preamble 1

Part 1

1 The Passion 19

2 The Public Opinion 27

3 The Promises and the Powers 39

4 The Product 61

Part 2

5 The Problem 119

6 The Policymaking 165

7 The Platform 203

8 The Possibility 249

Postscript 261

Acknowledgments 265

Appendix: Priorities Polling 269

Notes 275

Index 305

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