Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The U. S. Congress - Need for better Performance and Reforms

Congress has generally been performing quite poorly and ineffectively for a number of years and this needs to change. Evidence of this is widespread and both Democrats and Republicans can be fairly blamed. Part of the evidence is found in their inability to come up with long needed, supportable comprehensive legislation on reform of Social Security, Medicare, health care, energy independence, global warming and immigration. Part of it is the manner in which a majority of members supported President Bush's Administration to go to war in Iraq, not really questioning expected duration, nation rebuilding issues, costs and casualties. Another part is Congress' approval in May of a new wasteful Farm Bill continuing to provide billions of dollars in commodity price subsidies to farmers at a time of record crop prices and a large federal budget deficit. Still another part of the evidence is found in public opinion polls.

According to a recent Rasmussen Reports poll, a national survey indicated that as many as 47% of voters think Congress is doing a poor job, and another 34% that Congress is doing just a fair job, while only 13% think Congress is doing an excellent or a good job. Only 13% of voters think Congress has passed legislation to improve life in America within the past year. Even worse, 71% of voters think members of Congress are more interested in furthering their own political careers than helping people! That's very little confidence in our members of Congress!

Both major political party presumptive nominees, Senator McCain and Senator Obama, have made it clear in their respective presidential campaigns that they want to see substantive changes in the way our federal government is functioning, though they have major differences of opinion on many key political issues, including on the Iraq War, international dialogue and diplomacy, taxes, energy policy, global warming, health care, and social issues such as abortion, sex education, gay rights, and gun rights.

Like most voters and taxpayers, they both want to see better relations between the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch, and more "reaching across the aisle" and bipartisanship between Republicans and Democrats in Congress. I think that's very desirable and important. For too long too many of our representatives in Congress have worked primarily to support party platforms, legislation sponsored or favored by their party leaders, and what will help keep their jobs in Congress, as opposed to working for what's in the best interests of the country and our citizens.

However, to my disappointment, I have seen little clear evidence so far of either candidate making any kind of a strong comprehensive statement about needed reforms in the Congress, reforms which I believe the majority of Americans would support and that would likely lead to better performance. The likely reason for this is that they don't perceive this as a priority in the minds of most voters, and they would be concerned about their colleagues' adverse reactions, including support from the Congress when one of them becomes President. The right candidate won't be deterred by that.

Briefly stated, here are some of the reforms I think are needed to have a more effective and efficient, better performing Congress:

1. Spending limits on election and reelection campaigns to restrict influence of lobbyists and special interests who are seeking legislative favors.
2. Tougher restrictions on trips, meals, tickets and other expenses paid by lobbyists and specal interests.
3. No more pork barrell politics or earmarking, i. e. sneaking funding for clearly unworthy pet projects into bills considered by appropriations committees, as a means to gain support of constituents or campaign contributors.
4. No more filibustering, i. e. extended speeches on the floor of the Senate to stall legislative procedures with the intent to stall or thwart a bill members oppose.
5. Changing the current practice of Congress approving their own compensation and benefit packages, which already are quite generous. Instead these should be reviewed and considered by an independent outside agency or compensation consulting firm, based in part on performance.
6. Requiring that Congress members forfeit at least a significant percentage, say 25-35%, of their pension and related retirement benefits in event they are convicted of a felony or are expelled by their fellow members due to unacceptable behavior.

I'd also like to see leaders of Congress make a strong, publicly shared commitment to work harder on a bipartisan results-oriented basis, and with the President and his staff, to achieve early approval of legislation on key issues that will serve the best interests of the country and the American people.

These needed reforms won't have a good chance to be adopted without effective pressure from the media, business leaders, and, especially, the voters. A great many more voters need to contact their representives in Congress and make their views known to the media. Stand up and be counted! It will take a significant effort, but the return on investment can be substantial.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Iraq War - What Now?

After more than five years of a highly expensive war, with political party conventions meeting in the next several months, and a presidential election coming up in November, it's definitely time to have a vocal public debate about what we should be doing in Iraq going forward. This is so even though public opinion polls indicate that most American voters are more concerned with economic issues than with the war. What now?

I published two postings on the Iraq War last September primarily expressing strong concerns with the cost in national treasure and mounting casualties, the fact that the U. S. was bearing far too high a burden, compared especially to other countries in the region who also had a strong strategic interest in the outcome. I also expressed the view that we needed to move to a better balance between investing in foreign affairs and investing in, and meeting serious needs, domestically. I mentioned particularly the needs for public infrastructure, healthcare, and mending Social Security and Medicare.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, has indicated he will essentially continue President Bush's policies, pursue "victory," and bring most of our 155,000 troops there now home by January 2013, the end of his first term if he wins the election. The presumptive Democratic nominee, Senator Barack Obama,
has said he wants to end the war much sooner and bring most of our troops home by the end of December 2009, near the end of his first year in office, if he wins the election.

Supporters of each candidate to a large extent think their candidate's views are obviously entirely correct and that the views of the opponent in the election are obviously wrong. It's not that simple. There are positives (benefits) and negatives (risks) for both points of view. Selecting the goals and policies to be pursued and implemented on this subject should be a matter of pragmatically and objectively weighing the positives and negatives and choosing the goals and policies that are in the best interest of America and our citizens. It should not be a partisan Republican or Democratic issue.

I favor Senator Obama's approach, even though it entails some material material risks. One of these is that conditions on the ground in Iraq may not be stable enough for the Iraqi government and military and police forces to satisfactorily cope with insurgents and potential interference from Iran and other countries in the region. A related risk is that international terrorists led by Al Qaeda will use our troop withdrawals as a sign of U. S. weakness and defeat and as a tool to recruit more terrorists. There is also the highly emotional potential issue of American soldiers "having sacrificed and died in vain" if we withdraw troops before a clear "victory" has been achieved.

However, I'm not persuaded that these potential negatives and risks outweigh the benefits of Obama's approach, assuming that it's prudently implemented. First,
there are many reliable signs that there has been material progress in curbing violence over the past year, beating down Al Qaeda's activities in Iraq, and the ability of Iraqi forces to increasingly take over a larger share of combat requirements. Second, with an Obama victory in November, the Iraqi government would have a much stronger picture of what they need to do to further political progress and they will have at least an entire year to do what's needed. The same with the military and police forces. To support them, I would expect that, even with Senator Obama as President, we will still have a small force of military trainers and advisors available in Iraq and the region. Third, our costs of this war, and needs domestically, are too high to ignore.

As a reminder, the direct costs are reportedly running at a minimum of $12 billion each and every month or $144 billion each year, excluding the effect of inflation. Indirect costs, such as health care and disability payments for veterans, rebuilding our military hardware and support facilities, and interest on the national debt for monies borrowed, add many billions more each month. Then there are the immeasurable costs of our military casualties. We can't do anything to erase the fact that so far we've suffered 4,084 deaths and another 29,000 wounded. However, we can greatly limit additional casualties. It doesn't do the families involved any good to hear that the number of our casualties are relatively very low compared with previous wars. In addressing the costs for a war like this one, where Iraq is no threat at all to the U. S., it is not compelling for war supporters to claim that the costs we're incurring are small in relation to our national GDP.

Moving to end the war and planning bring at least most of our troops home by the end of 2009, as opposed to 2012, thereby limiting our costs and casualties, and clearly encouraging the Iraqis to do what's necessary for them on a reasonable timeframe to get prepared, is clearly the preferred option. The prospects for the success of implementing this option can be greatly enhanced by effective dialogue, coordination and requests for non-military support with our allies, other countries in the Middle East, and with influential major countries like Russia, China and India.