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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Now What? A Non-Partisan Agenda

After twenty four hours of nail-biting over one final close Senate race, it's official. Americans applied shock therapy to a Republican Party and President stuck on a failed military strategy in Iraq, bent on buying electoral votes with out-of-control pork spending and in denial about a seemingly endless series of scandals involving individual and collective failures on moral, financial and ethical issues.

The media is already fixated on the inside the beltway power struggles, committee control squabbles, and impacts on the next Presidential election. Congress is too. Of course, this confirms that both the media and the politicians have already completely missed the point they needed to learn from this election. Our Constitution begins with "We the people" for a reason. It doesn't begin with "We the politicians" or "We the lobbyists." You are there to serve us.

Democratic candidates didn't focus on specifics of alternative plans to win power but now that it is here, what's likely to happen? If you believe the campaign literature mailed to your house prior to the election, a Democratic House plans on converting the lyrics to "Taxman" directly into law verbatim. It's pointless to speculate. We the people should instead focus on discussing what SHOULD be done. If they don’t do what SHOULD be done, it will be their turn on the dunking booth next.

So what SHOULD be done? Here's a start.


Why should this be first? Is there anyone that can argue an effort to locate NINE BILLION DOLLARS of American taxpayers' money missing in Iraq is a partisan issue? Democrats and Republicans have been completely AWOL in their duty to mind our money to ensure as much of the money we spend on Iraq goes to actually equipping Iraqis to control the country and get us out of there as soon as practical. Congress has failed to issue a SINGLE SUBPOENA to investigate ANYTHING within the Bush Administration. There is no other action the new Congress could take that would demonstrate their non-partisanship and return to financial responsibility than FINDING OUR NINE BILLION DOLLARS. A subpoena to the Pentagon officials handling the planning of arms deals for the new Iraqi military and related cash outlays for local "on the spot diplomacy" should be the first subpoena issued by Congress. Of course, Congress should also follow this first subpoena wherever it legitimately leads.


Rescind the Military Commissions / Torture Legislation

Why should this be second? We shouldn't be slaves to mere public opinion anywhere in the world but something is SERIOUSLY wrong when polls abroad of our closest allies reflect a view that America is viewed as a more destabilizing force in the world than people like Kim Jong Il, the pompadoured nut-job running North Korea. We owe the rest of the modern world a clear sign that we intend to step back from the Stalin-esque abyss to which this legislation has taken us.

Eliminate Closed Debate in the House and Senate

As Matt Taibbi summarized in his Rolling Stone article on the Worst Congress Ever, Democrats and Republicans have been engaged in a decades long, escalating tit-for-tat parliamentary war that has gradually eliminated ALL amendments on the floor of the House from consideration. Literally. Not a single non-appropriations bill was taken to the floor in the past session with amendments allowed. This not only prevented the minority Democrats from influencing ANY language in legislation, it also locked out moderate Republicans since Republican leaders locked down most legislation in private outside committees. We've had too many surprises (fraudulent cost estimates for the Medicare drug plan, most notably) to allow Congress to continue the practice of intentionally blindfolding itself before voting on legislation crafted by lobbyists and corrupt committee chairs.


Pass A Special Iraq War Veteran Support Bill

Besides the 2783 Americans who have died in Iraq, roughly 44,800 additional Americans have suffered injuries in the war, including a large number of injuries previously unimaginable from a survivor standpoint. The number of veterans requiring long term, expensive medical care will be substantial. Congress needs to ensure proper funding for this long term care is set aside so returning veterans don't have to battle the entire American VA bureauacracy and medical-industrial complex to obtain the care they need. How much would this cost? There are at least 1700 soldiers who have experience traumatic head injuries. Assume roughly 5000 have lost limbs (the number could be much higher). If ongoing care for head injuries costs $400,000 per soldier and artificial limbs and therapy cost $100,000 per limb, that's $1.18 billion.


Reinvent Campaign Finance

Previous attempts at campaign finance reform have been an utter failure. You only need to look at the Delay / Abramhoff scandal and the sewer pipe of campaign ads and accountability slight of hand we just witnessed in this election for that to become clear. Attempts that focus on the source of funding as the root of the evil in our election process are flawed because they only address the "supply side" of campaign communications -- the supply of money that pays for them. They completely fail to address the demand side of the equation -- what voters should demand from candidates about details on their opinions and proposals to address public issues.

Estimates for the cost of the 2006 mid-term election cycle are in the $2.6 billion dollar range. Do YOU feel $2.6 billion dollars more informed about how your Representative or Senator will actually vote on a future issue? Have you ever HEARD your Representative or Senator attempt to speak on their feet for more than five minutes outside the friendly confines of a staged press conference? Most can't, yet they somehow get re-elected.

If even one billion of the NINE BILLION dollars of cash missing in Iraq could be tracked down and recovered, America owes it to itself to spend that one billion dollars on a simple campaign finance experiment in the 2008 election season. Allow ANY candidate who can collect enough signatures to appear on a primary ballot to receive dollars for print, radio or TV advertising of their choice in return for appearing on local or national TV debates. Not just one or two 90 minute debates hosted by a mainstream media anchor asking typical "insider" questions. A minimum of five appearances on one hour debates spread over at least five months. The PUBLIC gets to submit the questions. The mainstream media is required to carry the debates but doesn't pick the questions. This serves many synergistic purposes:

  • independents get heard without battling biases of party bosses who might stifle them

  • voters get to ask questions DIRECTLY of the candidates without filtering by the media

  • the media is taken out of its current, pointless "horserace analysis" mode of reporting

  • the public still gets to see the candidate over several months to see how their positions hold up

  • the public airwaves get used for a valid, civic function

  • independents can reach the national stage without enslaving themselves to special interest funds

  • even if the candidate doesn't survive, the ideas might improve the campaign

Think of it as American Idol meets Democracy. Seriously. The number of Americans who can identify Kelly Clarkson as a winner of American Idol is probably larger than the number that can pick Dick Cheney out of a lineup (hold that thought...) Clearly, the right candidate given the right forum and a chance to lay out a better plan for public policy issues could make an impact and gain a foothold. Critics might argue a long grueling campaign actually does serve a purpose as a rough character test for would-be winners. If you have trouble handling the stress of a campaign or cannot articulate a consistent message, you probably lack the leadership skills for public office. Maybe. However, the only way to widen the talent pool beyond the independently wealthy and traditional party players is to give others a chance to get new ideas into the process. The current money oriented campaign process has surrendered our democracy to Madison Avenue techniques for manipulation and "market segmentation". No amount of funding will improve the quality of debate in the current model.