Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Rep. Jim Cooper On How To Fix Congress

Coop, my Congresscritter, recently gave a speech at Harvard on this topic. He pulled few punches in his lecture, to the point where during the post-speech Q&A he said he hoped his appearance “would not be a career limiting move” (and for those wanting parity, a Republican lecture on the same topic is coming in March). I found his speech enormously interesting and urge everyone give it a listen/watch.

Before you let the lecture’s apparent length deter you, Cooper’s talk is only about 30 minutes long (the rest is Q&A) and actually doesn’t begin until 4 minutes in. (Also, you can download it as a podcast and listen to it while walking the dog, should you be so inclined.)

Here’s the video:

What’s interesting to me is his contention that Congress has basically become a parliamentary system; for those of us who have decried our current partisan state and wondered what living under a real parliamentary system might be like, it’s a douse of cold water. And in fairness to Coop, he says we have the worst of both worlds: the parliamentary aspects without the accountability a party-nominated prime minister provides.

Cooper calls the state of our modern Congress “grim,” labels the institution “willfully blind to most of the nation’s problems.” I daresay you'd be hard pressed to find disagreement on that point, regardless of your political affiliation. His focus on the negative outcome of the Citizens United decision struck me as especially interesting, since he’s a Blue Dog and I thought being against Citizens United was unique to us DFH's.

Cooper had some intriguing ideas on how Congress can be reformed, including these two “quick thought experiments”:
1- What if Congress were paid on commission to cut spending or repeal obsolete laws?

2- What if Congressmen could only raise money from real people who lived inside their district, not outside interests?

What, indeed? A lot of Cooper’s talk casts the blame for our current overly partisan woes on the shoulders of Newt Gingrich, who politicized longstanding Congressional practices back in the ‘90s -- and the Democrats who failed to go back to Tip O’Neill-style rules and practices when they came into power in 2007. That lends a bit of an “offa my lawn” quality to Cooper’s talk but the information is still useful. For instance, how many people know that the political parties now require members of Congress to pay exorbitant dues -- or, as Cooper infers, that plum committee assignments are related to one's timely payment of said dues?

Cooper’s talk has received little attention but I think it’s something every political observer should watch.