DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

David Brin's "off-axis" political suggestions

Suggestion Seventeen: Political Suggestions

By David Brin, Ph.D.

[image from Bradley Bryan's blog]

These suggestions have, more often than not, steered toward pragmatic problem solving and away (mostly) from partisan matters. Frankly, I dislike having to line up with a particular party on all issues and very often seek themes that cut away at unusual angles. (I even once keynoted a Libertarian Party National Conference!)

And yet... can there be any doubt who has to win, in the near-term, if the treason called "culture war" is to be cured and sensible negotiation resume in America? Until decent conservatives gather the courage to perform their own Miracle of 1947 and reclaim their movement from the loonies who hijacked it, we really have no choice (alas) but to offer help, advice and passionate support to the Democrats... and to hope that this will be one of their better (less flaky) eras.

And so, to politics! Let's start with some ideas I posted back in December 2006 -- my suggestions to the new Democratic Congress. Alas, the first term of Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House featured almost no accomplishments at all. Sure, it is convenient to blame Senate GOP filibusters and presidential vetoes, but we have to insist that the 2008 Congress will show more guts, verve, imagination and hard work.

Here's a brief remise of some of those 2006 ideas (with others set aside for my "crackpot suggestions" segment, at the very end).

Adjust House rules to limit "pork" -- the earmarking of tax dollars that benefit special interests or specific districts. Wasn't this a favorite issue of John McCain? Terrific! Then steal this issue out from under Republican noses. (I'll have more to say about this, next time.) Some ways to do this:

  1. Reduce pork allocations from $15,000 down to $1,000 (the number allocated last time Democrats ran Congress)... or even a symbolically redolent limit of one earmark per member, per year.

  2. Require that all future earmarks come from a single pool, no larger than one tenth of a percent of the discretionary budget.

  3. Insist they be placed in clearly-marked and severable portions of a bill, weeks (instead of hours) before it's voted on.

Spread the power of subpoena -- and include the minority party. Here's a note to Congressional Democrats; remember, a day will come when you'll be back on the outs. Now is the time to set permanent precedents that ensure you'll still have a little power to poke after truth when that happens. Establish processes NOW so that even a congressional minority can hold some future Bush-like administration at least somewhat accountable!

One way would be to give today's GOP minority what they never had the maturity to give you -- the general power to summon witnesses and demand some answers, even when a party is out of power.

There is no way that Speaker Pelosi and the leadership will want to do this, now that the GOP is reduced to an irksome nuisance. Still, please think about it. Just giving them the right to grill a few people won't let them do much mischief to an open and honest and competent Obama Administration. Meanwhile, such a precedent could guarantee we’ll never again have an era as dark as the Bush years, without the other side getting to light some candles.

Here's another idea: Allow any three representatives to jointly issue one subpoena per year beyond those voted by committees -- and provide a venue with some staff support. One for every three members -- that's 140 member-chosen testimonies... maybe sixty a year from the minority party. A large enough number to make sure that pokes-at-truth will keep going on, even during eras when a single party machine dominates every branch of government. And yet, it's small enough not to disrupt House business too much.

Also, do something ruthless about K Street. For about fifty reasons. And you know them all. Above all, to make sure the old "revolving door" turns into ashes in their mouths. Enough said.

Take a sensible next step toward public financing of elections. Of course, it has to be in stages. But respected scholar Lawrence Lessig makes a strong case for a method that would free all Congressmen and Congresswomen from the hundreds of hours of fundraising they must do, every year, making their lives more livable and allowing them to go back to deliberation, instead of relentless sucking-up. Lessig's proposal seems plausible and within reach. Indeed, something like it may be necessary, if a gerrymandering reform takes place.

Reduce secrecy. Say it. Do it. Stand by it.

The Henchman's Act has a provocative name, but the aim is simple. A permanent office might be created, outside the justice or intelligence communities, that will confidentially and securely advise any person, in America or around the world, who may be thinking about revealing information about bad activities, including those that are illegal or harmful to the people, or that impair the effective operation of justice, democracy, or fair markets. According to each individual's needs, the informant may be steered toward intelligence or law-enforcement services, or toward open source networks, or even toward mass media. Judiciously, some varying types of protection and/or rewards would be made available to brave whistleblowers. Yes, this one will confuse some people. But I hope it will percolate in the minds of some.

An Elections Reform Act will ensure that the nation's voting takes place in a manner that citizens can trust and verify. Political interference in elections should be a federal crime. Strong auditing procedures and transparency must be augmented by a requirement that all voting machines and associated software belong to the People and shall be subjected to relentless open-source testing. States should be encouraged to try a variety of incentives to encourage greater (and more secure) voter registration and participation in elections. Negotiate a compromise with decent conservatives, so that their fears over voter fraud are addressed, too.

Now, while gas prices are low, take an advantage of an opportunity to switch from a cents-per-gallon tax to a percentage tax! This can be revenue neutral at the time it is enacted! But when gas prices rise, so would revenues. Another option, do a tradeoff of higher gas tax vs lowered FICA, since both mostly affect the middle class.

Start thinking about how to end the catastrophic Drug War. Start a series of nationwide open town halls to explore whether it is politically possible to do something about this endless quagmire. Make it a matter of medicine and science. Start building quiet consensus, so that, if Obama succeeds at his first wave of endeavors, this can be addressed in the next wave. Consider the possibility of state-by-state experiments.

Reinstate something like the Fairness Doctrine of the airwaves. It doesn't have to be the old one. But something! My reason is deadly serious and has nothing to do with party politics. Today, you can drive across many parts of the country -- and it is no coincidence that these sections are "red" -- without hearing any breadth of opinion, news, fact or commentary. Radio, in these regions, feautures only the most bile-drenched and horrific hate fests.

We need to remember what happened in the years that led up to the first American Civil War. Before the breakout of hostilities in 1861, there was a similar absolute uniformity of rabble-roused opinion all across the South, where even a slight effort to widen the debate led to the mob-torching of newspapers and the smashing ot their presses. (In contrast, there were "copperhead" or Democratic Party newspapers and broadsheets available in most Northern areas.) Remember, also, that Timothy McVeigh lived immersed in such uniformity. If we want to end this phase of the Civil War, instead of seeing it burst into conflagration, the best tool is to encourage diversity of input and a spirit of peaceful argument.

[image from ATHA]