HOW TO FIX CONGRESSby Marvin L. Covault, Lt Gen US Army, retiredDecember 31, 2020
In the aftermath of the latest Covid-19 relief law, I have been thinking of a proper one-word description for our Congressmen and women. I have been through incompetent, uncaring, disorganized, self-centered, and a few more but not to belabor this thought, I have settled on pathetic.
They are collectively the most pathetic organization I have ever observed in my way-past-middle-age life.
If I was king for a day, I would fire them all, hold a quick special election and find some real leaders who understand the meaning of selflessness, accountability, trust, respect, and know-how to build that brand of culture then live it every day. But that can’t happen.
Politicians say they care, but they don’t. How can I tell? If our elected officials would get off the phone asking for campaign contributions long enough to watch on TV the miles-long lines of cars across the country filled with people waiting for their offering at the local food banks, perhaps they could find a modicum of compassion in their black hearts.
Background: Since 1973 Gallop has published the results of an annual poll which seeks to list, in order, the organizations in which we-the-people have confidence. The results this year: “A Great Deal/Quite a Lot of confidence” in Congress, 13% and 45% “Very Little/None”. How do these numbers stack up against other organizations? By contrast, the military was 72% “Great Deal/ Quite a Lot”, 9% “Very Little/ None”. FYI, over the decades, Congress has always been at or very near the bottom and the military at the top.
In a survey of the most/least respected professions, Congress is dead last. “Low/very low” 58%, “high/very high” 8%.
How did Congress do in a published survey on honesty and ethical standards? You guessed correctly, Congress is again dead last “High/very high” 8%, “low/very low” 63%.
Wouldn’t one think, with an analysis of these survey results year after year, that Congress would, out of sheer embarrassment, at least try to improve?
Nope, not happening.
Instead of looking in the mirror and saying, what can I do right now to help individuals and small businesses survive this pandemic, they concocted a 5,600-page monstrosity and called it Covid-19 relief:$10 million for “gender programs” in Pakistan$300 million for fisheries,$100 million for NASA,$300 million to Endowment for the Arts,$300 million to Endowment for the Humanities,$300 million to Public Broadcasting,$500 million for Museums and Libraries, $720 million to Social Security Administration,$315 million to the State Department,$90 million to the Peace Corp,$492 million to National Railroad Passenger Corp,$526 million grant to Amtrak. $4.7 billion in foreign aid to nine countries.
This is just a sampling of the pork earmarked in the must-pass Covid-19 relief law.
Are these examples Covid-19 related? Should we be borrowing money for these types of expenditures? If viewed separately by the American taxpayers would they pass the smell test? Absolutely not.
Why has Congress become so continuously inept? Simply stated, they do not have a set of established standards, and any operation without standards is a failed operation.
Establish and enforce a set of simple standards and a lot of things in Washington can get fixed, quickly.
However, keep in mind that change is a frightening concept to most organizations. Fixing Congress will take some courage and strong, sensible, insightful leadership. Given those leadership requirements, I have very low expectations for success this year. But, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
I am suggesting institutionalizing a set of seven operational standards. But before we get to that, the members need to think about serving in Congress as a full-time job. From 2001 to 2018, the Senate spent an average of 165 days in session each year, and the House spent an average of 140 days in session; less than three days on average per week.
A small agency will be formed under the Inspector General (free from Congressional influence) inside the General Services Administration (an independent government organization) called The US Congressional Legislation Standards Authority (CLSA). Their sole purpose will be to enforce these seven standards and to administer the life-cycle of a piece of legislation as explained below.
Every bill will first appear on a Congressional web site (operated solely by the CLSA) that is totally dedicated to enforcing the standards for every bill. Every member of Congress will receive an alert each time a new bill is proposed and posted. This web site will be managed solely by the CLSA; The sponsors of the bill may contact the CLSA at any time to update schedules, to notify members of committee hearings, to make changes to the legislation, etc. But the CLSA are the only ones who can access the site to add, delete or change any piece of information.
The CLSA does not have the authority to recommend changes, additions, or deletions to the intent of the legislation. Their function is to determine if the proposed legislation meets the following standards, with particular emphasis on Standard Number Three, Applicability.
STANDARD NUMBER ONE, Outlaw “Earmarking”: An earmark is a provision inserted into a discretionary spending bill that directs funds to a specific recipient while circumventing the merit-based or competitive funds allocation process. Most earmarks are attached to a “must-pass” bill so that it is protected from non-passage or Presidential veto. My definition of an earmark is an idea that would not have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting passed if, standing alone, it was exposed to the light of day.
STANDARD NUMBER TWO, Sunset Legislation: This is a measure within a statute, regulation, or other law that provides that the law shall cease to have effect after a specific date, unless further legislative action is taken to extend the law. Most laws do not have sunset clauses and therefore remain in force indefinitely. Keep in mind that many laws cause some Executive Branch organization to be stood up. Our government is full of agencies, divisions, and branches that require annual funding while having outlived their requirement to exit.
STANDARD NUMBER THREE, Applicability: In the recent 5600-page Covid-19 relief bill there were scores of organizations funded from this bill that had absolutely zero association with the Covid-19 outbreak or relief thereof.
Hereafter all of the provisions of a particular bill must clearly identify with the subject, purpose, and intent of the bill. It will save many tens of billions of needless expenditures per year. It will prevent publishing bills that are too lengthy to read; e.g., not a single Representative or Senator actually read the 5593-page Covid-19 relief bill before they voted on it.
STANDARD NUMBER FOUR, Stand-Alone: Every bill will be a single-issue piece of legislation.
STANDARD NUMBER FIVE, Time Limits: There are two different situations to consider. One is the federal budget process and the other is all bills other than those in the budget process.
FIRST, THE NON-BUDGET PROCESS BILLS will get processed in one continuous 90-day timeframe. The CLSA will grade the scheduling of all activities to insure it is ready to be voted on within the 90-day timeframe. The exception to this is, at any time the bill’s sponsor or committee may pull it from consideration.
STANDARD NUMBER SIX, Leaders cannot hide a pending Bill: The Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader in the Senate continuously practice sitting on bills, not allowing them to be voted on for protracted periods of time. This will not be allowed. Every bill will be voted on or before the end of the 90-day window.
STANDARD NUMBER SEVEN, Standard Website Format: Every piece of legislation will be formatted with four specific sections and pages as follows:
SECTION ONE (page 1) of the CLSA Standard Format is all about accountability and transparency. At the top of this page is will say, PAGE 1, TITLE, OWNERSHIP and SCHEDULE. Current as of: (date). Page 1 will include:-Title of the legislation-Date which starts the 90-day calendar.-Not-later-than date for floor vote on the bill.-The member of Congress who is the principal sponsor plus all co-sponsors.-Author of the proposed bill (a member of Congress, a Congressional committee staff, Executive Branch Department, Non-governmental organization, lobbyist, private citizen, etc.).-Sunset legislation date.-Schedule of committee hearings. -When determined, the actual date to be debated and voted on the floor of the House of Representatives.-When determined, the actual date to be debated and voted on the Senate floor. Comments on drafting of legislation: Lobbyists. There are nearly 12,000 registered lobbyists in the US. They work for businesses, professional associations, cities, states, non-profit organizations, etc. They get paid to make things happen in government, and mostly that is in the form of special interest legislation. Lobbyists are a prime source of today’s legislation and earmarks. It is not a completely negative concept but the downside is that they can too frequently get politicians to earmark appropriations that are self-serving and not in the best interest of the general public.
Congressional committee staffers. Staffers write much of the legislation today and therein lies a big problem. Because most issues rarely fit nicely inside the domain of a single committee, there will ultimately be multiple committee staffers bringing their individual thoughts and prejudices to the effort. Too often you begin in good faith to build a thoroughbred racehorse and end up with a camel.
Under today’s system that “camel” ends up earmarked to some “must-pass” bill and eventually in some Executive Branch, Department, or Agency for execution; this is potentially a complete waste of time, energy, money and is one of the causes of the gross inefficiency of government.
The Executive Branch of government, to include the president, should author a larger portion of the bills. Why? Because they know the who, what, when, where, why, and how details of their projects. Why not let the experts, those who will be responsible for the execution, do the up-front piece? For example, if the Department of Homeland Security needs $400 million for a new section of the border wall, they should write it and seek out some member(s) of Congress to sponsor it.
SECTION TWO (page 2) of the CLSA Standard Format will say, PAGE 2, LEGISLATIVE INTENT. Current as of (date)The narrative for page 2 will be limited to one single page, font 12 and must begin with the words, THE PURPOSE OF THIS LEGISLATION IS TO…….(finish the sentence)……
Intent is one of the least used and most important aspects of any law. Congress and the authors of a bill should not leave it to the applicable governmental departments to infuse their own intent for what the laws should or should not be about.
SECTION THREE (page 3) of the CLSA Standard Format will say, PAGE 3, MAJOR COMPONENT OUTLINE. Current as of (date)For legislation with multiple parts, this section of the Standard Format will provide an outline of the major elements. It is similar to a Table of Contents but with a few sentences explaining each entry.
SECTION FOUR will include the bill’s entire narrative.
There will be some CLSA Standard Format differences on the timing for THE FEDERAL BUDGET PROCESS LEGISLATION, which consists of 12 separate appropriation bills, as follows:
THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH RESPONSIBILITIES: Each October federal agencies begin compiling their budgets for the following fiscal year and submit their proposals to the President via the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OMB edits, calculates, and coordinates the budget for final review and approval by the President. The President then forwards the approved proposal to the House and Senate by the first Monday in February.
CONGRESSIONAL COMMITTEE ACTION: Upon receipt, various Committees begin reviewing their respective sections of the budget; the process is spearheaded by the Budget Committee.
BUDGET RESOLUTION: The Budget Resolution document is then considered on the House Floor and goes through a similar process in the Senate and to be completed not later than April 15th. The CLSA will closely monitor the resolution process looking for violations of the standards on earmarking and applicability.
Comment: Congressional ineptitude begins to impact the Budget Resolution process because they choose to disregard protocols and standards. For example, in six of the seven most recent fiscal years, Congress never adopted a formal budget resolution at all. This lack of discipline represents the beginning of the downfall of the entire annual budget process.
Between April 15th and May 15th, the differences must be reconciled between the House and Senate into the compromise resolution for all 12 separate appropriations bills. May 15 then begins the 90-day CLSA Standard window for passage of the 12 budget appropriations.
Comment: One of the most basic tasks of Congress is to pass a fiscal year budget and do it on time. However, Congressional ineptitude continues to place the day-to-day functioning of the federal government in jeopardy and thereby negatively affecting tens of millions of Americans.
Failure to pass the appropriation bills on time results in either passing continuing resolutions (CRs) or shutting down the government.
Congress has used CRs in 40 of the last 44 fiscal years. In FY 2013 a full-year CR covered 7 of the 12 appropriations. It has been 23 years since all of the appropriations bills were passed prior to the beginning of the fiscal year. In the past 43 years, there has been an average of 4.6 CRs per fiscal year. This is what one would call unacceptable institutionalized ineptitude.
The above serves to illustrate the level of dysfunction in today’s Congress, the extreme effects of a deep-seated culture of blame, abrogation of constitutional responsibilities, and its inability to clean its own dirty laundry. The Speaker of the House and Majority Leader of the Senate hold the keys to the success or failure of the federal budget process legislation. Failure to keep the budget process on a successful timeline leading to a completed budget prior to the beginning of the fiscal year is a failure of leadership. Leadership failure should have visible consequences, one of which would be for the House and/or Senate members to pass a resolution seeking the resignations of their respective leader.
Conclusions:$10 million for gender programs in Pakistan.
After the fact. That’s when we found out about this and dozens more ridiculous “Covid-19 relief” packages. Who knew about them before they became law? None of us. Why? Because Congress can waste our tax dollars almost at will while hiding behind a wall of anonymity. What happened to accountability? Without standards, there is no accountability.
Under the above program, The US Congressional Legislation Standards Authority (CLSA), we would have known on day-one who sponsored this insane earmark. We would have known when a committee was going to discuss it. We would have known weeks in advance when it was going to be voted on. We would have known all this because it would have been a stand-alone bill, not hidden inside a 5593-page unread bill. Accountability and transparency would have been front and center. The fact is, it would never have made it to the floor for a vote because visibility to the press, and we-the-people would have caused it to go away.
Furthermore, one of the great advantages of a standards-based legislative process is that in all likelihood, the bill would never have been written because anonymity is non-existent.
Journalists will use the CLSA website as a source for up-to-the-minute reporting on pending legislation. Citizens can read it, learn what the legislation is all about, understand the positives and negatives of the intent and weigh in with their elected legislators before, not after, it becomes the law of the land.
After about a year, this simple process will guide all activities in Congress and will be accepted as the new normal. This will save untold tens of billions a dollars per year. It will have the effect of spending our tax dollars first in support of we-the-people vs attempting to buy our way into changing overseas cultures.
Additionally, and, perhaps most importantly, this more disciplined approach to legislation could have the long-term impact of moving toward greater fiscal responsibility building towards a balanced budget.
Successful, admired organizations operate this way every day. It is as simple as one-two-three.
- One, thoroughly define the TASK at hand.
- Two, define the CONDITIONS, in this case stand-alone bills vs appropriations bills.
- Three, set and enforce the operating STANDARDS without exceptions.
Task-conditions-standards; it is within the art of the possible. But as noted earlier it will take great leadership to put it in place and make it operational. That cannot happen with the current Congressional leadership. Representative Kevin McCarthy, might be the right person but that will have to wait until January 2023. If you agree with this program, I would encourage you to send him a copy and let him get his ideas in place before he becomes the Speaker of the House in 2023.
Marvin L. Covault, Lt Gen US Army, retired, is the author of VISION TO EXECUTION, a book for leaders, a columnist for THE PILOT, a national award-winning local newspaper in Southern Pines, NC and the author of a blog, WeThePeopleSpeakirng.com