New leaders assume their posts this month in the Senate and House of Representatives — Robert Byrd (D-WV), the Senate Majority helmsman, and Jim Wright (D-TX) as the Speaker of the House. What difference will these men make? Will they be caretakers or leaders? Will they break new ground or plow old paths?
I would hope that Americans with an interest in their Congress send them their proposals and ideas. As an organization that appropriates nearly 25% of family income and has vast authority under the Constitution, Congress should be more than preoccupied with busily unresolving budget problems. It is time for substantive legislation and more democracy.
Here are some suggestions: First, campaign finance reform composed of public financing of Congressional campaigns under prudent limits plus an allotment of free time on television and radio for candidates who qualify for the ballot. Any candidate for Congress who chooses to take private money could not take public monies or free electronic media time. Most Congressional candidates, as has been true for Presidential candidates, will take public financing.
The rot of focused, monied interest campaign funds, largely through Political Action Committees is now offensive even to those who receive generous amounts of such slush.
Second, Congress should focus on enlarging the access of citizens to challenge their government in court and to participate more fully as shareholders in corporate matters, as consumers in marketplace power and as audiences for radio and television. People are up against corporate and government systems that are closing in on them. Fewer and larger companies dominate the economy, government bureaucrats under Reagan are actually more insulated from the reach of citizens and television and radio which, using the public’s airwaves so profitably under a free FCC license, continue to beam their one-way communications.
Third, Congress has a huge backlog of overdue oversight on the Executive branch. It is time for a ref lowering of thorough Congress investigations of federal departments and agencies to see how they are doing. The revival of the Senate anti-trust subcommittee, under Senator Howart Metzenbaum (D-OH), at last will lead to a review of the lax anti-monopoly enforcement of the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department. And just what abdication is permeating the inactive consumer health and safety agencies as in the fields of autos, drinking water, food and drug and pesticides?
Fourth, Congress should closely examine why it is so much more difficult and expensive now for people to get government reports, documents and even Congressional publications. The prices on these materials have skyrocketed under Reagan and many publications which offend corporations, such as The Car Book, have been stopped.
Congress itself has much to be ashamed of here. To find out what Congress is doing, a taxpayer, having paid once for Congress, is required to pay over $225 a year for the Congressional Record. Many Committee hearings and reports are printed in small amounts and depleted after a few days. Inquiring citizens are referred to the high-priced Government Printing Off ice. Government Information is the currency of democracy and it should be readily available.
Fifth, it is time for Congress to look further ahead to anticipate the big crises. About fifteen years ago, Congressman Jim Wright worte a book about the coming shortage of water, especially in the West. Nothing much has been done to plan to avert this problem. Now, Speaker Wright is in a position to initiate policy here and on slowing land erosion and other increasingly costly ecological devastations.
Long range planning and response to deficiencies in housing, student and adult education, to obstacles to inventors, innovators and community self-reliance, and to a broader based economy, so dominated by wealthy elites, need to occupy some Congressional time.
With the Joint Economic Committee now chaired by the brainy Senator Paul Sarbanes (D-MD), we should expect studies on wealth concentration, the consequences of spiralling domestic debt, and the dependency of the U.S. more and more on foreign economic and financial interests.
That dome on top of Congress is supposed to symbolize something more than politics as usual. Let’s have some far-seeing, unusual politics which provide Americans with ways to know more and do better.