Six Tiny Non-Partisan Steps For Reviving Congress

John Linder Former Congressman
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The new Republican Congress has a steep hill to climb to earn back the respect of the American people. First, they must govern. No small task. Then they must reassert the primacy of the people’s representatives in a constitutional republic.

For too many years, decision-making has gravitated from our elected representatives to an unelected bureaucracy. Frankly, much of the problem is created by the Congress which passes bills that leave the final shape of legislation to future rule-making. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services and IRS were given vast authority to determine – by regulation – the final definition of Obamacare.

The bureaucracy has not been shy to accept those additional powers. They have even found ways to create their own laws without having to deal with Congress.

With that as a background I offer some small steps for the new Congress to begin to reclaim their constitutional powers.

1. Get control of bonuses.

Thirty years ago, government workers made less than those in the private sector doing similar jobs. The shortfall was compensated for by better benefits. Bonuses became an important tool to keep competent government employees from leaving for the private sector. Now government workers make about 70 percent more than those in the private sector, have better benefits, and get bonuses that are abused by every agency of government. The VA waiting period scandal was hatched to protect bonuses. Congress needs to re-examine the entire policy of bonuses.

2. Put all revenues into the general fund.

In fiscal year 2014, the Department of Justice collected $24.7 billion in settlements. Where did all that money go? Some went to community groups to provide credit counseling. Who decided which groups would get it?

In the dispute with the administration over immigration law Congress lost its leverage on funding since border security is funded through fees they collect. Why are those fees not put into the general fund,  appropriated through regular order?

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) watches our financial transactions and fines institutions that they believe are taking advantage of us. Who decides where the settlements are spent? The CFPB is a creature of the Congress, but is funded by the Federal Reserve and thus, not subject to Congressional budgeting and oversight. The exact same thing could be said of the Federal Reserve Board which funds itself as needed and gives any surplus to the treasury.

All monies should be put into the general fund for appropriating by Congress.

3. Require Congressional action on “sue and settle” agreements.

Government agencies with dreams that could never muster a Congressional majority urge their friends to sue the agency demanding those goals be met. After some court filings, and passage of time, the agency and plaintiffs agree to a settlement which is signed by the court effectively creating new law without Congressional action. All “sue and settle” agreements should require Congressional approval.

4. Send FOIA requests to a federal court.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was passed to allow the public access to public information. Increasingly, administrations have found ways to ignore FOIA requests – usually for political reasons.

It often takes a court action, and some years, to get a response. FOIA requests not met in the time frame required by law should go immediately to a federal court for a judicial decision. The court could throw out harassing requests and demand immediate response to legitimate requests. All requests should be published for public perusal.

5. Congressional vote on all government grants.

Every year we learn of federal research grants for projects that are just silly. For $325,000 we learned that wives would be happier in marriage if they would calm down quicker when they get into an argument with their husbands. Didn’t we already know that?

Congress should require that all proposed grants be published on the Internet for six months before the money is granted and then require a single Congressional vote on the total. The American people would efficiently vet the grants and uncover those that serve no useful purpose.

6. Publish all grants received by those testifying before Congress.

Many people testifying at Congressional hearings are represented as independent experts, but are protagonists on the public payroll. Jonathan Gruber was represented to be an independent expert on healthcare when he was a paid partisan. Everyone testifying before a Congressional committee should be required to list all income they have received from taxpayers. It should be published on the committee website.

These are tiny steps that should not meet partisan resistance. They will not reverse the zeitgeist, but they will give the voter a bit more information about how their tax dollars are being spent and who is spending them.