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Commentary: Compel Congress to work

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 16, 2011 - We pay the members of Congress. What are we - the people - paying for? Do we pay them not to talk with one another, not to understand serious problems, not to collaborate to arrive at solutions, not to compromise differences, not to put together working majorities and not to pass legislation that a president will sign or, if he or she will not, give in and not override the veto? Do we pay Congress not to work? Washington gridlock is what we are getting. Is gridlock what we are paying for?

I suppose some of my fellow citizens like the current set-up. It suits their interests. In that case, this essay is for the rest of us.

What is the problem with our Congress? I believe the problem is that we - the people - have yet to put into place an effective system that compels members of Congress to do their jobs. Think about it. We do not require them to actually converse with one another inside their legislative chambers in an ordinary, face-to-face manner. Instead, we allow members of Congress to posture and preen for the cameras.

I am a husband, father of four and grandfather of nine. I find the state of our politics discouraging. The only so-called threat I can hang over the heads of Washington politicians to compel them to do their jobs is to aim my frustrations at my local members of Congress. What does that mean? What - specifically - can I do?

Not vote for them in the next election? The only way I can do that is by voting for the other candidates. How does that help? If the new candidates win, they join the same old system. If the incumbents win, they continue in the system. However, the system itself does not compel members of Congress to talk with one another face-to-face and solve problems. Why should they bother? We will pay their salaries anyway.

I was shaving the other morning thinking about these matters when it occurred to me that members of the College of Cardinals in the Catholic Church elect the pope under a system of compulsion. Eureka! Forget the players and the details of the compulsion in this example - the point is other systems in this world are available to us - the American people - other than handing out guaranteed employment contracts to politicians with no actual obligations to do anything.

How may we citizens change the system so members of Congress are compelled to talk with one another and pass legislation to solve problems?

It seems to me a constitutional amendment is called-for. I have one in mind. In honor of my hometown, I call it the "Kirkwood Amendment." Here it is in summary:

Either the president of the United States or any 10 governors of the states acting together may declare Congress deadlocked. The president will have the power and authority to sequester all members of Congress continuously and without exception together in their respective legislative chambers. The daily ration of food and drink for each member of Congress will decline on a non-discriminatory basis incrementally to water only by the tenth day of sequestration.

The sequestration ends upon the earliest of the following: (i) the death or effective date of resignation from Congress of one-half of the members of either the House or the Senate; (ii) the date of the president's approval of legislation passed by a simple majority of both Houses of Congress declaring the sequestration ended, but not earlier than the 15th day of sequestration; and (iii) the date Congress passes by two-thirds majority of both Houses legislation declaring the sequestration ended.

Members of Congress are released from sequestration immediately upon the effective date of their resignation. Vacancies occurring during a sequestration are filled by individuals chosen by lot from among citizens resident in the district of the state for whom the vacancy has occurred. New members so chosen serve, commencing at the end of the current sequestration, until the end of the regular term of the member who vacated the office. Consecutive sequestrations are separated by not less than three days.

The assumption is that during the sequestration, the warring factions would come to some agreement, perhaps not on everything, but on enough that the country's business moves forward and gridlock is eased.

The current setup is an embarrassment. We expect 18 year olds to go into combat; lose life or limb and they do it. From members of Congress, we expect little, require nothing and get less. It is time to change the system.

To see a draft of the Kirkwood Amendment and register your comments, go to americanconversationgroup.blogspot.com/

Daniel Hough Jones lives in Kirkwood. 

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