We have embarked upon an exercise prompted by a challenge:
What do you think the Democrats should do, from the start, to change the political climate in the USA and begin better days?
Before considering bills and legislation - that may face presidential vetores -let’s talk about things that the House could do, all alone, to set a new tone in America.
1) GOOD COP/ BAD COP: Politically, there are two inherently contrary tasks before Democratic leaders, like Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi.
First, they must strive to end “culture war” in order to help heal the nation and restore adult standards of political behavior. To do this, Democrats must be seen taking the high road -- reaching across the aisle, replacing no-prisoners partisanship with sincere debate and deliberation.
On the other hand we desperately need torrents of light to shine into every dark corner where corruption has festered, these six... no, twelve years. Subpoenas must flow!
But how, without playing into Karl Rove’s trap, making “red” America feel persecuted, feeding perpetual tit-for-tat Culture War?
-- Primly divide the good-cop/bad-cop roles... and say so, openly. Assign one or two committees (e.g. chaired by Waxman/Conyers) the task of finding out everything, protecting whistleblowers and chasing the truth. Announce that the investigations will have clear boundaries in both time and number of House participants... but not in their range of topics or number of witnesses. Give two dozen attack dogs a year and say “the rest of us will not join any chorus of rebuke. Our attention will be on governing.”
Moreover, let the time limit be firm... in stark contrast to the open-ended vindictiveness of Clinton-era witch hunts.*
-- Offer clemency in exchange for truth. In many places overseas, “truth & reconciliation commissions” have been terrifically effective at prompting political sinners (some of them heinous) to fall all over each other, rushing to be first to spill their guts.
If offered a similar kind of immunity by Congressional committees, many perpetrators of recent U.S. corruption may grab for this “bird in the hand” as a better bet than the Presidential Pardon that they have been promised, (for delivery in December 2008.) Remember, every canary that goes free because it sings may implicate several other birds. We can afford to reserve actual jail time for the reticent. Civilization needs truth more than it needs vengeance.
(Indeed, there are ways that Congress might hem in those Presidential pardons, too, without blatantly infringing on Constitutional prerogatives. Something well-worth doing in advance! But we’ll save that topic for another time.)
-- Protect Whistle-blowers. Already mentioned, but unbelievably important. There are dozens of ways to augment today’s incentives for tattling henchmen. Few actions could be more certain to change the culture of secrecy and unaccountability that has been fostered by a childish and unscrupulous leadership caste.
-- Give the minority party a permanent power of subpoena.
(This suggestion rightly belongs in tomorrow’s group #2, but I put it here because it will also help reinforce the image of “good cops.”)
Of course, you do not want to give away every majority advantage. But remember, Politics is more fluid, now. A day will come (maybe soon) when Democrats are back on the outs, yet again. Now is the time to set permanent precedents, by giving the GOP minority what they never had the maturity to give you. The power to summon at least a few witnesses and demand some answers, even when your party is out of power.
Of course, there are worries. Can we guarantee that powerful party leaders will never again stifle independent inquiry, while also keeping things orderly, preventing individual members from using these member subpoenas for petty squabbles?
How about this approach? Allow any THREE representatives to JOINTLY issue one subpoena per year, beyond those voted by committees. One for every three members. That’s 140 member-chosen testimonies. A large enough number to make sure that random pokes at Truth will keep going on, even during eras when a party machine dominates every branch of government. And yet, it’s a number small enough not to disrupt House business too much. (That is, in a House that actually tries to do business.) And requiring some consensus means each trio would discuss carefully how to expend their one-per-year.
This idea has two advantages. First, it will be seen as a genuine act of openness and transparency, unlike the promises of the 1994 Republican Contract With America, that were broken as soon as the ink was dry.
Second, by setting this firm precedent, Democrats may ensure they’ll never again be completely hobbled and gelded, even when they find themselves in a powerless minority.
Even then, they will retain at least a minimal power to ask questions, to demand testimony, to poke away... and to shine a little light..
Next time... offering more proof of goodwill...
* One clever trick. Announce in advance that the committees will shrug off minor thievery (below a million dollars) and minor personal peccadillos (like consensual adult sex), concentrating only on misbehavior related to performance of actual duties of office. This may sound elevated and mature, but it also carries devastating symbolism. From Whitewater to Monicagate, such minutia were all that Clinton pursuers had. Not one Clinton era official was ever convicted, or even indicted, for malfeasance in the actual performance of official duties.