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November 09, 2006

Speaker Pelosi: Heal the Institution
Posted by Lorelei Kelly

For the last several years, I have been riding my bike home, out of the Rayburn Building, down the Mall and then along the river to Adams Morgan, the neighborhood in DC where I live. Every evening, I'd stop my bike, turn around at the reflecting pool and say to the lit and glowing Capitol building, "Just hold on, it's going to be okay"

My love affair with the US Congress has existed since I was a teenage intern. And halleluja, we now have the chance to make things right again.

I'm sure I speak for many when I say that those of us who have been working on the inside of Congress over the past decade feel a special gratitude for what happened on Tuesday. Our poor beleaguered legislature  has been so tormented, its processes so polluted, that to simply re-establish basic rules of oversight and participation will seem revolutionary.

I watched the returns come in on Tuesday with a statistics scholar who specializes in the US Government. Like two civics-weenies I lamented about the erosion of the legislative branch while he chimed in about the agencies. All of which--after 6 years of the Bush
Administration-- look like the institutional equivalent of swiss cheese.  From intimidated bureaucrats to over-privatized responsibilities, our government is hurting badly. Many election autopsies had two things in common: 1. that this victory is owed to the
conservative swerve by Democrats and 2. that there is no mandate but lots of opportunity.  I think the first is bunk, this was a progressive victory. But I do agree with number two: The situation is rich with opportunity. With or without the White House, Congress can now establish a governing philosophy that carries on the American tradition of progressive leadership.

Opportunities for Congress:

Get busy repairing the Spirit of the Law while working to restore the letter of the Law: The Pelosi principles of integrity, civility and accountability are good starting points. This imperative is the difference between the moral obligations and the legal obligations of elected leadership. As we've learned, Congress doesn't HAVE to be truly representative. (locking your colleagues out of rooms, denying recognition, not allowing dialogue on the House floor).  The first rule of conflict resolution is to be as generous and inclusive

as possible in any situation. Retaliation for the last 11 years will finish off the institution. In contrast, giving the benefit of the doubt will draw a stark contrast between  progressives and the imbalanced breed of conservatism so recently in charge. Take credit for this change in style.

Bring back progressive infrastructure
From the dismantlement of the caucus system to the march to war in Iraq...conservatives in Congress have acted out a misleading good cop-bad cop routine of governing. They've done this with a philosophy of Norquist Bonaparte (must. destroy. government.) but a rhetoric of magical thinking (they will greet us with flowers, tax breaks trickle down etc...). To the opposite, Progressives can best demonstrate their values by acting on them.  How?

Get more "big picture" staff. Progressives must find a way to bring their intellectual firepower-- specifically academics--closer to the process. That great pyromaniac of government Newt Gigrich, dismantled much of Congress' deliberative capacity when he elminated the ability of other Members to hire extra staff, have office space and convene. These "big picture" staff can help open up the institution to non partisan organizers who can help educate the place about long term public interest issues.  Study groups, ad hoc hearings, task forces, sponsorship of caucuses--if organized from the inside--can cut through the noise of narrowly focussed advocacy and lobbying. (The UN Caucus is begging to be revitalized) We helped educate thousands on post-Cold War national security, starting in 1998, through an informal bipartisan study group called "Security for a New Century" . My partner office for this endeavor, Congressman Jim Leach (R,IA), was a casualty of Tuesday's sweep. The Congress will be a lesser place without him.

Let a thousand entrepreneurs bloom:
Along a similar theme, facilitate new infrastructure for learning: The conservatives lost in part because they and the Republican party have become a mind-meld, hostile to new ideas. Closed systems implode. Pry our democracy open so that more people have access. But do it in an organized way, to avoid cacaphony. Informal organizing inside Congress helps all progressives. It gives them a place to "show Up" without risk and explore issues. This type of infrastructure is especially helpful for new members who are shopping for a chance to lead. To make up for the years of commercial monopoloy, you could issue a leadership request for new Democrats to pair up with a Republican to lead informal educational task forces among their colleagues on a big picture issue. Take your pick, national security, energy, environment, economics...None of them fit into any one committee anymore. 

Restore the institutional memory.
Change is coming and whoever can organize knowledge  sharing and oversight that breaks out of the old committee system will own the issues. Congress is an antique, set up to handle a bygone era. The end of the Cold War paired with oppressive leadership has rendered the place dysfunctional. It is now like a data vortex with no search engine. Information is constantly hurled at it, but it has no deliberative ability to handle it.  Convene a best practices workshop to gather individuals who can think creatively about how to manage public policy information for the institution (lots of the old staff of the Office of Technology Assessment are still in town) Not only will this enshrine non commercial public sector issues as pre-eminent, it will require Congress to delve into electronic networks and knowledge sharing outside of traditional turf. Techies and young staff will play an important role.

Carefully watch the conservative's regroup. They are still the master organizers. You can do that here .True conservatives-- Members like Mr. Pence and Mr. Flake-- have been right all along.(My money is on Pence for minority leader)  And their knowledge super structure (Heritage ,CATO , AEI ) is red hot mad right now over the damage their political partners have done in the name of conservatism.  They still have many built-in advantages and will come back better than ever.

And finally, re-claim the language of public interest. We all need to stop saying "special interests".  The conservative discipline on language is now legendary. One of the most crippling outcomes of their rhetorical dominance is the notion that all organizations petitioning Congress are created equal. This is the storyline that equates public interests with commercial interests--all feeding at the trough without any sense that some things deserve to be paid for with taxpayer dollars. Some interests are lots more special than others--children and clean air for example. These are public interests...the things that government is supposed to protect. Going back to basic language--calling it like it is-- will create a comfort zone for a progressive philosophy of government.

Our challenge is to build a set of ideals that will build on our tradition from FDR's New Deal to Johnson's Great Society to Al Gore's Reinvention.  Our government must be about progress, equity and efficiency, but networked, knowledge based and commercial free.  In other words, democracy that delivers for everyone.


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Maybe now we can get the UN millennium Development Goals back on the priority list. A Democractic Congress shows some promie for the global poor majority.

Integrity, civility, and accountability.

Anti-republicans need to maintain their integrity, and also their civility. The big step now is accountability for republican incumbents. Public exposure and lawsuits for all crimes of the last 6 years and before.

Start with a whole lot of publicity about administration stonewalling congressional subpoenas. They want Congress to write a blank check for things they keep secret from our representatives.

Reveal secrets about torture etc from 3+ years ago. Apart from risking sources who're still active, there isn't much there that needs to be secret, whatever leads we haven't tracked down from that stuff by now we won't ever.

And go real heavy on the corruption stuff. Especially the homosexual S&M and the prostitution.

Here's something that I doubt would go over well with any legislators, but I feel compelled to suggest it:

Weekly drug tests for all legislators and cabinet members.

Breathalyzer tests for legislators immediately before every vote. Results to be public.

We don't let airline pilots fly drunk. Who's more important, an airline pilot flying one plane or a senator crafting the laws of the land?

Er, I think J Thomas missed Lorelei's point. We need a politics of optimistic, inclusive deliberation. We DON'T need to rake the country over the coals of the last 6 years. Everyone knows it sucked, that's why the elections went the way they did. What the Dems need to do now to win for the long-haul is, as Lorelei describes, actually to repair all the damage and make us do and be better. Being anti-Republicans won't wear for long. Being an affirmative, progressive, and beneficial-for-Americans party will.

Alice, I agree with your fundamental point. It's important to actually repair the damage, to the extent that's possible.

That might be difficult -- with close to half the votes, a united GOP front only has to lure away a few democrats to get their way, and we're a long way from overriding vetoes. But it's important to do it anyway.

But it's also important to destroy the GOP. These people are as evil and as anti-american as al qaeda. We don't talk about making peace with al qaeda just because they're on the run at the moment, why would americans do less about the GOP? It's vital to find out about the bad stuff and make sure that everybody hears about it. Not least because we're going to be facing a lot of bad times as the GOP chickens come home to roost and destroy the economy. They're going to blame that on democrats. They're going to blame the failing war on democrats. There's likely to be a terrorist incident in the USA that our shoddy DHS will fail to stop, and they're going to blame that on democrats. There isn't going to be any bipartisan effort. The GOP has no concept of bipartisanship, the closest they have is something called hudna, a sort of temporary armed truce.

It makes sense to attempt bipartisan overtures to as many individual republican legislators as look plausible and not too sleazy. The goal would be to get them to become libertarians or independents or democrats, to cut all ties with the GOP.

This is not a time to be nice-nice with the GOP just because they've temporarily hurt themselves enough to lose their majority. If the tables were turned what would they do? Be too naive and they'll manage to turn those tables and you'll find out.

Integrity. Do what's right.

Civility. Be polite.

Accountability. Find as many of the people as possible who're responsible for the last 6 years and put them in prison for their crimes. Publicise those crimes as widely as possible, because the GOP-controlled radio stations are going to be lying just as much as they can about it, and unless they're strongly opposed a lot of voters will believe the lies.

We benefit the USA by cleaning up the mess to the best of our abilities and by doing what we can to keep the GOP from ever doing it again. There is absolutely no reason for the GOP to get more favorable treatment than al qaeda, except for hypothetical innocent staffers.

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