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Congress Works for Us: Let's Make Them Prove It

Wal-Mart promised to hire more veterans last Tuesday – up to 100,000 over five years – and begin a “Buy American” campaign, after years of excoriation for choosing profit over humanitarian concerns. Meanwhile, BP is allocating $500 million to improve its public image in the wake of the Deepwater disaster. White-shoe law firms, mindful of their profession’s position in the public eye, dedicate massive resources to pro bono services. Even the NBA instituted a dress code and a public service initiative when its players’ reputations began to falter. 

Somehow all of these private institutions have figured out what the United States Senate, a publicly accountable institution suffering a jaw-droppingly low 18% job approval rating, cannot (or will not): Commitment to the common good matters. If the Senate takes seriously its responsibilities to the public, and if it cannot overcome its comity problem long enough to pass a funding bill or two without scaring the entire free world, the time may have come for it to demonstrate its commitment in other ways.

Modest, and much chewed-over options abound. Senators could, for example, be required to reveal their daily schedules, to read every piece of legislation they wish to vote on, or to pass a minimum knowledge test before they vote, or before they take their seats in the first place.

More ambitious options are also available. In each of the 18 years that Russ Feingold was the Senator from Wisconsin, he held a town meeting in each of his state’s 72 counties. Why shouldn’t every Senator have to do that? (Perhaps in the cases of states like Texas, which has 254 counties, it might be enough to hit each county twice in a six-year term).

Alternatively, given that the Senate was only in session for 153 days in 2012, why not require them to use the remaining time to build personal relationships with their constituents? Senators could take a job as a construction worker (or whatever blue-collar job is most numerous in their home state). Sit on juries or parole boards. Shake no fewer than 20,000 hands in their home state, or respond to 5,000 tweets. Start a small business. Teach live classes on the past Congress’s most important legislation. Join a Senator from the opposing party in a tour of their home state. In other words, anything that would better acquaint them with the pressures experienced by their constituents, and the effects of the legislation they themselves pass – and that might, on the flip side, give their constituents a chance to get to know their elected representatives.

Whatever steps they choose to take, there are at least two easy ways to implement them. First, the Senate could include the new requirements within any changes to its own rules – changes, conveniently, that it will have to pass in the next few days. The default rules, passed every two years at the beginning of each new Congress, already include provisions governing Senators’ behavior, like caps on gift amounts or curbs on foreign travel. Imposing service requirements beyond members’ duties on the Senate floor would be a logical next step.

If the Senate doesn’t wish to, or simply cannot, take action itself, a second option would be popularly-demanded ballot statements. The voters of Oregon adopted this route to great effect during the fight for the 17th Amendment, requiring candidates for public office to indicate, in a statement printed next to their names on the ballot, whether they would under all circumstances abide by the will of the people or would consider the people’s votes “nothing more than a recommendation, which I shall be at liberty to wholly disregard.” In an updated version, the voters of each state could require candidates for Senate to indicate on the ballot whether they agree or disagree with the statement, “In addition to discharging my legislative duties, I agree to do the following things during my term in service as your Senator: …” They might even require would-be Senators to pledge support for rules changes to that effect.

The means may not immediately be obvious, but the essential truth is clear: Our Senators work for us. Why shouldn’t they work harder to prove it?

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