A Proposal for Meaningful Change in Washington. (Really)

Published on Monday, June 20, 02011  •  5 years, 7 months ago
Written by Danny Hillis for Huffington Post

Today, the most powerful tool of special interests in Washington is the amendment process that allows provisions that are contrary to general public interests to be tacked on to essential legislation. These amendments are the currency of political deal making, and ironically, they work in a way that shields politicians from accountability for their votes. Important bills that come before Congress for a vote are generally a hodgepodge of good and bad provisions, so legislators rarely get a chance to vote for legislation that they completely support. About all they can brag about are amendments of their own that appeal to the special interests of their constituents. The best they can deliver is some pork. Moreover, our legislators are often so embarrassed by their own laws that they enact them by an anonymous voice vote, making it impossible to pin down who is to blame.

To fix this problem, Congress should change its internal rules so that all votes on amendments and procedure are done by secret ballot, and all votes on passing laws are public and recorded. This would make our lawmakers less accountable to special interests, who would be unable to verify the effectiveness of their large campaign contributions. It would also make our lawmakers more accountable to us. Because anonymous voting on amendments would make political deal making more difficult, bills would have fewer unrelated amendments. This would allow us to see more clearly what our representatives actually support.

It may seem counterintuitive that we can increase accountability by instituting a secret ballot, but it would be difficult to argue that the current system is giving us effective accountability. Only the special interests have the resources and focus to track the process of legislative drafting. What we, the citizens, really need to track are the results. We need to hold our politicians accountable for the laws that get enacted, not for the drafting process. Our democracy already gives individual voters the right to a secret ballot. We do this so that we are free to vote our convictions, protected from the fear of retribution and from the possibility of our votes being bought. We should offer this same protection to our legislators during the process of formulating a bill, and we should demand more transparency into which provisions they support by making more of the legislation stand on its own.

Of course, any meaningful change in the workings of Congress will be opposed by those who stand to lose power. Special interests, their lobbyists, and the politicians who are beholden to them will all hate this proposal. It will also be opposed by the power brokers in both parties, who depend on backroom voting deals for their partisan control. With such enemies, how could such a proposal ever be accepted? The answer will have to be leadership. Any leader who really pushes for meaningful change will need to propose an idea of how to accomplish it. If someone steps forward with the courage to push for a real change like this, then we the people will need to support them. They will face powerful enemies. Yet this should be one issue the voters of the Left and Right can agree upon: that our elected representatives should be accountable, and accountable only to us.