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First Step Post-Election – Open Up the Closed, Secretive Congress

Following the mid-term elections, progressive citizen groups have to advance an agenda that makes Congress work for all Americans. The first step, however, is to acknowledge that Capitol Hill has walled itself off from the people, on behalf of corporate autocrats.

Currently, Congress is open for avaricious business, not for productive democracy. Congress itself is a concentrated tyranny of self-privilege, secrecy, repressiveness, and exclusive rules and practices. Congress fails to hold public hearings on many important matters and too often abandons oversight of the executive branch, and shuts out citizens who aren’t campaign donors. (See my new book, How the Rats Re-Formed the Congress at ratsreformcongress.org.)

Having sponsored in the nineteen-seventies the bestselling book ever on Congress – Who Runs Congress, I have a frame of reference for the present, staggering institutional narcissism of the Congress as the most powerful, though smallest, branch of our federal government.

It would have been rare in the sixties and seventies for major legislation to have moved to the floor of the House and the Senate without thorough public hearings with witnesses from a diverse array of citizen groups being given a chance to come and testify.

In the past two years, the Republicans sent the tax escape and health care restriction legislations to the floor, without any public hearings at the Committee level. The “tax bonanza for the corporate and wealthy” passed into law, while the “take away health care for millions of people” bill fortunately lost by one vote in the Senate.

Cong. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee sent five bills to the House floor, without public hearings, that were meant to usurp the state courts’ traditional jurisdiction and weaken your rights to have your day in court before a trial by jury were you wrongfully injured. This vicious attack by Goodlatte’s corporatists on vulnerable victims was blocked by the Senate Democrats.

U.S. Supreme Court nominees before the Senate used to face days of public hearings with many valuable witnesses. For three decades, the Senate Judiciary Committee, under both Democratic and Republican control have shortened the hearings and markedly cut back on witnesses permitted to testify. Knowledgeable people with adverse information about the nominees were kept from testifying – their requests often not even acknowledged.

The signs of Congressional closeouts are everywhere. Years ago, Congress excluded itself from the great Freedom of Information Act. This arrogance fostered a breeding ground for abusive secrecy, covered up were such conflicts as members of Congress speculating in stocks with their inside information, corruption inquests before House and senate Ethics Committee. Even using taxpayer money to settle credible accusations of sexual assault against sitting lawmakers were all covered up.

The orgy of self-privilege knows few boundaries – being wined and dined and journeyed on fundraising junkets by lobbyists who donate dollars to their campaigns in return for legislated bonanzas or immunities is normal business practice. The Senators and Representatives give themselves generous pensions, health insurance, life insurance, and other goodies while denying or failing to provide tens of millions of people those protective benefits and coverages.

Members of Congress get special favors from an airline industry that gives you the back of its omnipresent, fee imposing hand (except for Southwest Airlines). Our survey of every member of Congress which aimed to publicize the details of these commercially provided privileges was ignored by every member of Congress. (See my “Letter to Congress re: Airline industry influence”). Also, nobody knows what favors the banks give them, while these subsidized firms gouge their customers with outlandish fess, penalties and ludicrously low interest rates on savings.

If you’ve ever wondered why the nearly $5 billion you pay annually to support 535 offices in Congress does not produce supervision of the sprawling wasteful executive branch Departments such as the Department of Defense, the Department of Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, and State, the FDA and others, it might just be that the corporate donors are in effect paying their recipient solons to look the other way and let their passive Committee staff slumber.

An increasing number of the staff assigned to each member and their well-budgeted Committees are coming from the so-called K Street lobbying business. A little on-the-job experience helps them deliver the goodies to their former corporate employers, before rejoining them for lucrative salaries.

This corruption of the professional Congressional staff motivated Michael Pertschuk, the great chief of staff for Senator Warren Magnuson’s powerful Senate Commerce Committee, to write the recent book titled When the Senate Worked for Us. He chronicled the days in the sixties and seventies, when professional staffers played critical roles in passing consumer, environmental, worker, and other life-saving legislation.

The heavy concentration of power in the top two rulers of the Senate and the House has stripped Committee chairpersons of much of their power to address urgent necessities and diversify and decentralize internal Congressional power and activities.

Then there are the daily irritations. Regular people trying to call members of Congress or Committees find their switchboard increasingly on voice mail during working hours. Substantive letters from constituents are not even acknowledged much less given the respect of a reply. Calls to Senators or Representatives or their top staff are often ignored if you are not a campaign contributor.

These increasing plunges into dictatorial misuses of the sovereign power we have delegated to members of Congress are not universal. There are minorities of good-faith lawmakers objecting, but their power is too little to overcome the Congressional Corporate complex that has seized our Capitol.

As I’ve written many times before, it is not as hard as we think to break the corporate grip on our Congress. Creating a people-driven Congress starts with organizing Congressional Watchdog Groups that represent the broad left/right voter support for long overdue changes and reforms, in every one of the 435 Districts. See my book, Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think (especially pp. 144-145), where the civic summons to your Congressional lawmakers is presented for powerful face-to-face series of citizen controlled meetings back home.

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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