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About Ivan W. Parkins:
Dr. Parkins is a retired professor of Political Science from Central Michigan University. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago and is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy. Dr. Parkins served as a naval officer during WWII aboard the battleship Alabama. He is a recent widower with three daughters, 3 grand children and 2 great grand children. Dr. Parkins has written extensively, having authored 3 books and a newspaper opinion column for many years.
Newt Gingrich’s revolution, taking over the House of Representatives in the elections of 1994, can not be appreciated unless one first understands that for an unprecedented time, 40 years or twenty Congresses, the Democrats had held firm control of the House. They took it from Eisenhower’s Republicans in 1954 by a margin of 29 votes, and 29 votes was the smallest margin of their control for 40 years. In seven Congresses the Democrats controlled the House by 100 votes or more. None of the Republican advantages in the six years (1995-2001) following the Gingrich’s victory was by a margin as large as 29 votes.
Scot Faulkner’s book Naked Emperors details his effort as first-ever chief administrative officer of the House to correct the management problems left by 40 years of Democrat majorities. Faulkner had no legislative authority; his job was to oversee how 800 million dollars was spent and how 13,000 employees served the needs of House Members. For starters, a private accounting firm called in to do an audit quit, the records were simply too few and poorly kept for auditing.
The reform met with strong resistance. Why should any Member not be happy with a bank where his checks would be cashed and no one had authority to demand that he make deposits? Recent media stories had forced release of names of the 303 Members (both parties) who were taking advantage of that. The largest such individual “indebtedness totaled nearly $600,000.
Contracts for services and supplies were often missing. Apparently, they were let as political favors and evidence had been destroyed. Thousands of lobbyists and journalists had passes to enter the Capitol Building after the hours available to mere citizens.
Faulkner’s book is very specific about persons, times, places, and other details. Obviously, he is presenting his report of his work. Not so obviously, because poorly publicized, that work attracted dozens of foreign officials, including at least one Russian anxious to learn of how to provide better services to a legislative body. He and his management team achieved at least one real First, The first reduction of a House budget in the Twentieth century.
Some of this makes dull reading. But, it is worth at least a quick skim by any citizen serious about voting in the 2008 elections. Some of the Congresspersons involved are still there, and they have more seniority and power.
Should we now trust the party that had 40 years of solid majorities in the House prior to 1995, and now is in control again, to oversee the management and budgets of our government’s other branches?
(The following article was printed two years ago and is a multiple part series of articles discussing the failure of Congress.)
Have our major parties been equally responsible for failures to enact and maintain sound long-term policies?
From the first substantial popular vote for Presidential Electors in 1828 (about 10% of Americans participated) until 1956, every President who won a majority of the popular votes entered office with a Congress of his own party. In 1956 Eisenhower was reelected by a landslide majority (57.7%) but faced a Congress in which Democrats controlled both houses.
From 1955 until very recently Democrats controlled at least one of the elective bodies. For fourteen of those years they controlled all three. Throughout that period they could either have their way or delay and force compromises on the Republicans.
Now, with President Bush having a slim majority advantage in Congress, Democrats are outraged. They employ every device available to the minority, forcing delays and compromises. Among such devices is the Senate filibuster and threats of its use. Two recent Democrats, Johnson and Carter, have had Senate majorities large enough to close off filibusters. No Republican President (ever) has had such an advantage.
Congress, Is It Broken?
Our national election system has become confused in ways that hamper effective leadership and obscure partisan responsibility. Since 1948, the first post WWII presidential election, five democrats (Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton) have won office. There have also been five Republican winners (Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, G. W. Bush).
But, contrary to our previous history, there has been little apparent correlation between presidential election successes and congressional support. In 1992, Clinton, who had just won 43% of the popular vote, entered office with larger majorities in both houses of Congress than any Republican President has had since the 1920’s.
Carter, a majority winner of the popular vote with 50.1% got one of the largest congressional majorities in our history.
Among recent Democrats, only Truman and Clinton have had to face Congresses dominated by the other party, and neither of those Presidents won a majority of the popular vote. Among the five recent Republicans were three winners of landslide reelections (Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan) and none of them got a Republican Congress with his new term.
Do American consciously vote against leadership and for partisan conflict, or are other factors shaping our election results?
Road to Chaos
It takes a bizarre partisanship for the majority of 110th. Congress to
suppose that their modest victory (in an election attended by nearly 30 million fewer American voters than elected the 109th. (Two years earlier)
mandates major changes in the nations direction. The evidence suggests
more clearly that many Americans are alienated and confused about how
their government does, or does not, work.
Congress has come to believe that oversight of the Executive and Judicial Branches is it’s most important function. And, the resulting conflicts do win media attention. Meanwhile, Congress focuses too little of
its attention on providing our country with effective laws for dealing with
immigration, energy needs, etc. Even more significantly, Congress fails
to approve timely, manageable, and “clean” budgets.
If the United States is to survive and to prosper, it cannot afford a
Legislative Branch that neglects its own primary, and most constructive,
powers while it interferes in time-consuming and other damaging ways
with the Executive and Judicial Branches.
No simple reform will remedy what has become a systemic and institutional failure of Congress. The problem extends beyond the short comings of individual members and practices. Congress must be reconstituted to be both closer to the American people and more respectful of the other branches. Anything less is just more pavement on the road to chaos. I.W. Parkins
One concern of those who drafted the Constitution of the United States was that representatives should not have such small constituencies that the office would fail to attract able candidates. Even so, Chairman of the Convention, George Washington, called for a minimum constituency of 30,000 instead of the already approved 40,000. This was his only suggestion regarding details of the Constitution and it was adopted.
THE FEDERALIST, No. 51 states that “dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government.” No. 52 adds “… it is particularly essential that ..” the representative “… have an immediate dependence on and an intimate sympathy with the people.”
Now, with the congressional districts having average populations of about 690,000, and with only 524,160 minutes in a year, we face a very different situation. All Representatives, whatever their origins, become members of the upper class by virtue of their salaries and perks alone. The long sessions and increasing details of their involvement in nearly all matters of government, keep their minds and bodies within the confines of the “Beltway” most of the time. National journalists, pollsters, lobbyists, and congressional staff members, along with legislative “earmarks,” get them reelected. Meanwhile, it is literally impossible for them to allot one minute of their time per year to each constituent.
The House was intended to reflect changes in public opinion. It too often reflects entrenched political power and privilege. My proposal, now very old and not so much forgotten as dissed, i.e. never widely considered, was "Let's Disassemble the House,"--the title of my article in SOUTH ATLANTIC QUARTERLY, Spring 1960. The legally fixed number of the United States Representatives is now 435, far more than the Framers, and I, believed to be practical for a legislative assembly. But, with our vastly expanded national population and improvements in communication, wouldn't it be possible, now, for much more numerous representatives to operate separately, from their several districts? And, wouldn't the representatives then be much more directly dependent on and sympathetic with their constituents?
My submission of that to a couple of dozen political scientists, some acquaintances and some not, produced several and mostly similar responses. My idea was declared to be original, interesting, logical, and sound in its description of Congress. But, it was unlikely to be accepted and unworkable. Such comments came from senior people at Harvard, Cornell, Miami of Ohio, and the Legislative Reference Service of the Library of Congress. My chief reply, now, would be that the present House looks less effective and our population and communications improvements continue to grow.
A much larger number of disassembled representatives would be a very practical defense if our nation's capital were to be destroyed. It should also provide a suitable base for nominating presidential candidates--as the earliest Congresses did. It should reduce the need for vast media advertising and the money to pay for that. Most of all, it should encourage more extensive and meaningful involvement of "the people" in major policy decisions.
Our representatives should be much more numerous; they should spend most of their working time in their districts; and they should have infrequent, but authoritative votes on major public issues. In order to add that to the Constitution, I suggest the following: (See “Disassemble the House,” Page two)
The Wall Street Journal, noted in an April 3 editorial “Hoover Heirs”, that the taxation remedies our two Democrat presidential candidates are proposing are remarkably similar to legislation signed into law by President Hoover. Many economists have regarded those as among the most significant factors aggravating the “Great Depression”.
One blessing of knowing little history is being able to enjoy the wave of enthusiasm that goes with making creative changes, while actually repeating old errors.