President Obama's State of the Union Message was both a call to action and a reminder that we still have a long way to go to create "a more perfect union" envisioned in the Preamble to our tattered Constitution.
Step 1 – Abolish the filibuster
Nothing only can or will change until the Senate rediscovers the principle of majority rule. Like it or not, it's the way a democratic republic is supposed to work.
The fix: Get rid of the filibuster, put bills to a vote, and let the chips fall where they may. If the voters then decide to throw the rascals out, so be it.
Step 2 – End life tenure for Supreme Court justices
The title of a recent New Yorker essay – "Benedict XVI Resigns: A New Path for the Papacy?" – contains a clue to the faux mystery of what's wrong with the nation's high court. With charity befitting the subject, Alexander Stille muses "[the papal resignation] may reflect…a sober acknowledgement that things have not always gone as they should have on his watch." Pedophiles disguised as priests, for example.
As it happens, sundry other "things" have gone wrong, less mortifying, perhaps, but sufficiently glaring and appalling, if not incriminating, to demand recounting and cry out for atonement: "…close to eighty, Benedict…has been unable to hit the right note. Perhaps, with his resignation, he has finally done so." Indeed.
Life tenure for justices is wholly inconsistent with impartial justice. Thus, the idea of an apolitical high court becomes a categorical imperative.
Arguably, the most important, enduring, and supremely political single thing most sitting presidents ever do is to appoint Supreme Court justices. The justices, in turn, can decide when (if ever) to resign. At present, that decision depends less on the age and health of a justice than on the ideological predisposition of the chief executive. So much for impartial justice(s).
The fix: Establish fixed terms for the justices, say, 15 years give or take a few; a mandatory retirement age of, say, 72 or 75; and some variant of the Missouri plan. In Missouri high court judges are nominated by a bipartisan panel. The panel selects a small number of nominees and submit the list to the governor. The governor chooses one nominee from the list.
Step 3 – Get serious about campaign finance reform
Money corrupts and absolute money (i.e., unlimited cash contributions) corrupts absolutely. Right now we have the worst Congress money can buy. Everyone – seriously, everyone – with any experience inside the beltway knows it.
The Supreme Court can fix it by overturning Citizens United. Congress can fix it. But only if a) the filibuster is abolished and b) the Supreme Court is drastically depoliticized.
The fix: First, limit political campaigns to six weeks before each election (primaries and general elections). Second, require every radio and TV licensee to set aside a certain amount of time for free political ads to all candidates on the ballot in any given voting district as a condition of obtaining and retaining a license to use "public airwaves". Third, limit by law the total amount any candidate can spend. And one more thing: it's not a "free speech" issue. (Anyone who says otherwise spends way too much time watching Fox News.)
Step 4 – Regulate lobbying (and prosecute violators)
No more revolving door. There are currently over 12,300 registered lobbyists, many of them located along K Street in Washington, D.C. Actually, that number is a bit bogus. Many lobbyists use a loophole that magically turns a lobbyist into a "consultant". Don't believe it? Check out the Lobbying Disclosure Act.
In all, lobbies spent $3.28 billion "influencing" Congress (bribing, cajoling, promising, threatening, and servicing) in 2012 (compared to a "mere" $1.44 billion in 1998). Lobbies do the dirty work for TBTF banks, the NRA, and such like. Meanwhile, between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of House members more than doubled from $280,000 to $725,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars, excluding home equity. To say nothing about the scandalous "revolving door". Check out former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle if you have any further questions. Then check out his (second) wife, a former beauty queen who's all "business".
Corruption is corruption even when Congress legalizes it for, well, Congress. But it's gotta stop.
The fix: Ban any member of Congress, general officers, and federal senior executive service (SES) officials from engaging in any kind of lobbying activities for life. Make it a crime punishable by serious jail time and large fines. Enforce the law. Require member of Congress to disclose all contacts with lobbyists. Require Congressional staff members to log all contacts with lobbyists. Publish the logs on the internet.
Step 5 – Restore fiscal sanity with deep cuts in defense spending
Demythologize war and demilitarize the American economy. Mothball at least 7 of the 11 carrier strike groups, scuttle the F-22 Raptor Stealth Fighter and the F-35 Lightning, and do not build 3,000 more tanks. The Pentagon has thousands of tanks, armored vehicles, and jeeps military vehicle junkyards and "throws an estimated trillion dollars a year onto the scrap heap".
The fix: Under the Constitution, Congress has the power of the purse, so Congress can fix this problem at any time. To put it mildly, our defense budget is defensible. Cut it by 10-15% every year for the next four years. Then continue cutting it until it is no greater as a share of GNP than the average for the other OECD countries.
See, fixing Washington is easy. If only we didn't have to depend on Washington to do it…