home political and economic essays You Broke It, So You Fix It: A Modest To-Do List for Congress

You Broke It, So You Fix It: A Modest To-Do List for Congress

by David Brin, Ph.D.

The American Experiment was never about dogmas and incantations. It was about eager and pragmatic problem-solving, using all kinds of consensual and market tools, a gradual and gritty but powerful process that involves relentless negotiation with our neighbors, in a spirit of good will.

You Broke It, So You Fix It: A Modest To-Do List for Congress

"A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles."
— Thomas Jefferson in 1798, after the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts

Was the recent election enough to make a difference? Have the nation and Western Civilization been rescued by — (of all people) — the People?

All right, that's pretty florid talk for what was, after all, only a U.S. mid-term election. Let's keep perspective, all you liberals and moderates... and sincerely pro-future conservatives. This isn't the first time dogmatists waged all-out war against freedom and modernity. (Sometimes attacking from the left and sometimes from the right.) It won't be the last.

Other generations had to resist the same forces and so can we, renewing our unique covenant: America's ever-optimistic pact with tomorrow.

So now what?

This important little victory will be meaningless if it's botched, or implemented without imagination, or else with a mean-spirited zealotry that plays into the hands of those who want perpetual "culture war." It is the tradition of pragmatic problem-solving that is at stake here, not any one left-or-right game plan.

Hence, speaking only as a private citizen, let me offer a "short list of items" that I'd like to see the new Democrat-led Congress accomplish. These proposals fall into three groups:

ONE: What can the House of Representatives do, all by itself, even if legislation is blocked or stymied?

TWO: What legislative endeavors (actual bills and laws) might Democrats pursue, beyond the obvious (e.g. raising the minimum wage) that might survive presidential veto?

THREE: Which ambitious goals should we announce, deliberate and pursue, even knowing that final passage must await a new president and Congress, in 2009?

group one: what can the House of Representatives do all by itself?

Even assuming that the Senate will be locked up by GOP filibusters and that President George W. Bush will wield a mean veto pen, there are things that can be accomplished now, with a Democratic majority in the House alone. Important moves that may help restore public confidence in government and the health of our republic.

Pursue a good cop/bad cop strategy. Politically, there are two inherently contrary tasks before Democratic leaders, like Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi. First, they must avoid getting snared into waging Karl Rove's put-up "culture war" and instead find ways to end it. Only this will heal the nation and restore adult standards of political behavior.

Hence, Democrats must be seen taking the high road — reaching across the aisle, replacing no-prisoners partisanship with sincere debate and deliberation. This mature contrast to neocon pettiness should pay long term dividends.

On the other hand we desperately need torrents of light to shine into every dark corner where corruption festered, these twelve years. Subpoenas must flow! Or else, you can bet we've been betrayed.

How can this be done without playing into Karl Rove's hands, letting "red" America feel persecuted, feeding an image of tit-for-tat vindictiveness and perpetual Culture War? Surely not by pursuing an absurd impeachment process that (though satisfying) offers no possible useful outcome.

One way to achieve the balancing act may be to 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 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, unless the People demand an extension, let the time limit be firm... in stark contrast to the open-ended vindictiveness of Clinton-era witch hunts.

One clever trick: announce in advance that we 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 noble, 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.

Lure canaries into singing. One way to do this is to 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" perceiving it as a better bet than the Presidential Pardon that they have already been promised. (For delivery in December 2008, in exchange for silence.)

Remember, every canary that goes free because it sings may implicate several other birds. We can afford to reserve actual jail time for the obstinate. Civilization needs truth more than it needs vengeance.

(Indeed, there are ways that Congress might hem in those Presidential pardons, without blatantly infringing on Constitutional prerogatives. Something well-worth studying in advance! But we'll save that topic for another time.)

Top priority must be given to protecting whistle-blowers. 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.

Spread the power of subpoena — and include the minority party. 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. 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 a 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 just 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.)

Moreover, requiring some consensus means that each trio would discuss carefully how to expend their one-per-year.

This idea has three 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, offering this to the GOP, just as the Democrats are about to launch fierce committee investigations, will powerfully counter cries of "witch hunt." (It could also break up today's fanatical GOP party solidarity, as small clusters of Republican representatives realize they can use this small power however they see fit.)

Third, by setting this firm precedent — enshrining it as a permanent House rule, with GOP backing — 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.

Require more work days deliberating the peoples' business. All right, that one is a no-brainer, after by-far the laziest and most contemptible Congress in more than a century. Especially given the workaholic personalities of most Democratic staffers! It will play well, too.

On the other hand, the next suggestion may need some chewing-on, before you see the benefits.

Enforce the "good parts" of Gingrich's "Contract with America." Wait! Don't leave! Please stop and think about it. What deed could possibly embarrass the GOP more than pointing out half a dozen solemn promises from the "contract" that Republicans betrayed?

Moreover, it would say to the voters: "Hey, we remember your anger in 1994. We acknowledge why many of you wanted us out of power. In fact, here is proof that we listen."

In case you have political amnesia, drop by this essay and look over Newt's old "contract." View it with the eyes of a winner, who can afford some generosity of spirit. And who may be willing to learn from a historically masterful stroke of political polemic!

One that did have some "good parts" that millions of Americans found appealing then, and would find even more desirable now. Here is a list of those good parts:

Require all laws that apply to the rest of the country also apply equally to the Congress.
Arrange for regular comprehensive audits of Congress for waste, fraud or abuse.
Limit the terms of all committee chairs and party leadership posts.
Ban the casting of proxy votes in committee and law-writing by lobbyists.
Require committee meetings to be open to the public.
Guarantee an honest accounting of our Federal Budget.

Really, who could object to these particular items? Indeed, what could be a more powerful blow to the GOP than to remind Americans of these broken promises... and then for Democrats to fulfill them at long last?

And yet, in a strange win-win scenario, this could also strike a note of bi-partisanship! By saying "we will listen to good ideas, wherever they come from."

Finally, it would perfectly set the stage for rejecting the worst parts of the "contract." The parts that (alas) did get fulfilled by the GOP!

Portions that only served the interests of a secretive elite.

Restore independent advisory agencies for science, technology and other areas of skilled analysis, to counsel Congress without bias or dogma-driven pressure. Ensure that technical reports may not be rewritten by politicians, changing their meaning at the last minute.

No neoconservative crime was more outrageously hypocritical than deliberately dissolving Congress's own technological and scientific staff, while crying out that they "need more studies" of important issues like Global Climate Change.

This restoration (which can be accomplished even without risking Presidential veto!) would strike a dramatic contrast between an era ruled by dogmatic fanatics and a return of the "reality-based community." A community of facts and basic common sense.

Imagine the note that this would ring, across the land and the entire world. The America of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein will be back in business.

Adjust rules to limit pork — the earmarking of tax dollars that benefit special interests or specific districts.

Yes, this is already on the declared agenda. Reducing the sheer number of earmarks from 15,000 down to 1,000, the number allocated last time the Dems ran Congress, would help a lot. But we can do even better. And yes, I have ideas how it could be done. For example:

Require that all future earmarks come from a single pool, no larger than one tenth of a percent of the discretionary budget. Get representatives adversarial over this, instead of slyly cooperative.

Moreover, future earmarks must be placed in clearly marked and severable portions of a bill, at least two weeks before the bill is voted upon.

Earmarks may not be inserted into conference reports.

Each member may sponsor one... just one... earmark per year. And every earmark must have a sponsor. (Advantage, it gives members an excuse when telling folks in the home district that their hands are tied. Let the folks back home argue among themselves about which project they need most!)

Further, establish a lawful system of "challenges" under which any company or person out there may publicly demand a show-cause as to why they cannot compete to deliver a service similar to the one that had been earmarked... or else challenge the reasons for bypassing normal contract rules. With burden of proof on the recipient of the earmark.(Some of this would require actual legislation; other parts the House can accomplish on its own.)

This brings up yet another crime of the Neocon Era...

Restore and revamp procedures for soliciting bids and awarding government contracts. A lot of Americans don't realize how vast and filthy the warping of contracting procedure has become, resulting in more graft than earmarking itself! Even with "war" as an excuse, this should have been a major scandal of the campaign!

Far more stringent limits must be placed on no-bid, crony, or noncompetitive contracts. Conflict of interest rules must be strengthened, closing the "urgent" way that a small community of kleptocrats managed to turn the federal contracting process into their own, personal potlatch, rewarding loyalty with multi-billion dollar gift fests.

And this came from hypocrites who dared to call themselves believers in a free market! Adam Smith would curse their eyes. (Note: even if no bill passes, simply holding hearings on this topic would be political dynamite.)

Create an office tasked to translate and describe all legislation in easily understandable language, for public posting at least three days before any bill is voted upon, clearly tracking changes or insertions, so that the public (and even members of Congress) may know what is at stake.

This office — independent of member pressure — may recommend division of any bill that inserts or combines unrelated or "stealth" provisions.

Punish K Street. All right, there has to be a limit to highmindedness. Is it forgivable to also want a little outright partisan vengeance? Especially where it is MOST deserved? And where it would do the least collateral harm? I have tried to keep things elevated, so far. But is it all right if one — just one — of these suggestions carries a taste for blood?

I choose one that the House Democrats can accomplish all alone, if necessary. One where the People will not only understand, but cheer!

Under the previous Congressional leadership, a scandalous attitude of outright whoredom led to inviting lobbyists right into Congress and letting them write whole swathes of actual legislation. Moreover, extremist GOP bosses let it be known that they would do no business with firms that had even a few Democrats or independents working on staff! In effect, they required that K Street purge all moderates, as a price of even being allowed into Congressional offices.

This behavior was so outrageous and blatantly corrupt that there simply is no "mature and judicious" response. There must be comeuppance and it must be very intense... a warning never to do this kind of thing, ever again.

Participants in this crooked process must at minimum be banished. (If not prosecuted.) Their lobbying firms must be rendered useless and valueless. Permanently and without a scintilla of mercy. (And note, many of the worst GOP Congressional staffers are currently fleeing to K Street firms, as a way to stay in town.)

Sure, many of the same players will be back, the following week, using proxies. There must be followup reforms, like limiting the "revolving door" of rich consultancies for retired officials. Still, I leave it up to Beltway experts exactly HOW to accomplish this... and how to ensure that representatives are not lured back into temptation, yet again, when "normality" creeps back.

All I can say is that I will look with favor on genuine ruthlessness in this one area. I expect most Americans will.

Note that so far we have concentrated on things that the House of Representatives can accomplish even if they face obstinate presidential vetoes. Some of these measures are win-win-win propositions, letting Democrats be seen taking the high road, while achieving much good for the republic, while additionally helping to drive a corrupt GOP deeper into the wilderness. Where — one hopes — they might commence a regime of fasting and meditation, in order to re-commune with a better brand of conservatism.

Now I'd like to turn to more ambitious agenda items — actual bills worth turning into laws.

group two: actual legislation that might pass

Let's start by looking at what the Democratic Senate and House leaders already say they want — Speaker Pelosi's legislative priorities for a Democratic House:

Increase the minimum wage (enact within the first 24 hours)
Overhaul House lobbying rules (I have already mentioned this)
Enact recommendations of 9/11 Commission
Cut student loan interest rates
Lower Medicare drug costs
Broaden stem-cell research
Reform education funding
Pass labor reform legislation (Employee Free Choice Act)

Over a longer time frame, Democrats have floated numerous policy proposals in some key areas:

Budget/Taxes (fairer taxation and better fiscal prudence)
Health Care
National Security/Defense

Clearly, the "policy wonks" have been very busy while they were in exile. You can bet they return filled with enthusiasm and with an almost-puritan work ethic! (The trait that probably makes GOP Congressional folk shudder most.)

Still, might there be room on the reformers' plate for a few more good ideas? Some of the following concepts may seem strange, at first sight. But the proposals in Group Two should strike the public as needed and fair.

some laws that could make a real difference

My top proposal is — create the office of Inspector General of the United States, who will head a uniformed agency akin to the Public Health Service, charged with protecting the legal and ethical health of government.

No, I am not asking for yet another vast new bureaucracy. Ninety percent of this service exists today! Every major department or agency already has an internal Inspector General (IG), charged with examining operations and giving warnings — when it comes to minor infractions — or else stepping in when things get out of hand.

For instance: "Inspectors general at two agencies have begun an investigation into whether the Bush administration has suppressed government scientists' research on global warming, officials at NASA and the Commerce Department confirmed yesterday. Prompted by a request this fall by 14 Democratic senators, the IGs are examining whether political appointees have prevented climate researchers at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from conveying their findings to the public." (per Washington Post, November 2, 2006, "IGs Probe Allegations On Global Warming Data")

The problem? Nearly all of these officials owe their jobs and paychecks to the very same secretaries and directors who head the agencies they must inspect! In some cases, they were old pals, ensuring partiality and conflict of interest. Many of the IGs are biding their time, working toward promotions that have nothing to do with a career in accountability.

Only now picture this. What if we made a very simple change, by appointing and assigning and paying all of the inspectors through a civil service unit completely separated from each department's political chain of command? Indeed, separate from the legislative, executive and judicial branches?

A uniformed service, with its own elite career path like the Coast Guard and NOAA and the Public Health Service... so that the word "general" has real meaning, encouraging higher-than-normal traditions and standards of conduct.

Under this simple law (possibly it could fit on one page), IGUS will command a corps of trusted IG observers, cleared to go anywhere and see anything. And thereby assure the American people that the government is still theirs, to own and control. IGUS might be appointed by a commission consisting of all past presidents and retired justices of the US Supreme Court, plus other nationally respected sages, with advice and consent of Congress.

One might imagine special rules requiring inspectors to stay mum when it comes to legal policy decisions that fall rightly in the political sphere, but giving them a range of options when they uncover violations of basic ethics and/or the law. These needn't all entail immediate revelation or disciplinary action! For example, an IG cannot rebuke executive officials for their confidential musings, but should speak up, confidentially, when a plan seems likely to break a law.

One might even picture the Inspectorate as a way to provide basic rights to people who are being held under urgent "special circumstances" — ensuring that those rare exceptions aren't abused or over-used. And above all, that all exceptions are temporary.

Ponder this; the very act of establishing such a General Inspectorate would so clearly be neutral, offering no visible long-term advantage to the Democratic Party, that this law would have immediate political effects, triggering public approval that (ironically) benefits the Democrats. Indeed how could the GOP dare oppose it?

Finally, consider this: who needs a special prosecutor when every agency already contains the pieces that we'd need? All of the right parts are already in place to create an ideal force for accountability, simply by incorporating all of them into a professional service that serves the people and the republic and the cause of honest government.

The Secrecy Act would ensure that the recent, skyrocketing use of state secrets to avoid accountability — exceeding anything seen during the Cold War — shall reverse course.

Without betraying field operatives or vital tactical information, independent commissions of highly-trusted Americans will observe, approve, or set time limits to all but the most sensitive classifications. These commissions will include some members who are chosen (after clearance) from a random pool of common citizens.

Secrecy will still be a useful tool. But we are entering an age when it is simply foolish to count on any secret lasting forever. Also it encourages sloppy habits. But above all, it should not be used as a convenient way to evade accountability.

The Professionalism Act will protect the apolitical independence of our intelligence agencies, the scientific and technical staff in executive departments, and the United States Officer Corps. All shall be given safe ways to report attempts at political coercion or undue political meddling in their ability to give unbiased advice.

Further features: appointments to military academies and other special institutions shall be made in ways that avoid dogmatic bias and emphasize excellence. Whistle-blower protections will be strengthened within the US government. Which leads us to...

The Henchman's Act. It has a provocative name, but the aim is simple. A permanent office will be created, outside the intelligence community, 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 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.

Moreover, a system of graduated rewards and prizes will be set up, that encourage emergence of new sources of information about threats to peace or law or public well-being. These rewards will range from financial to public recognition... or else assistance in creating new identities, so that henchmen can turn into whistle blowers in an atmosphere of safety.

A neutral advisory board will ensure that there are no systematic biases in the execution of this program, so that incentives apply to whistle-blowers at all ends of the "political spectrum."

The Political Reform Act, Part One. Part One will ensure that the nation's elections take place in a manner that citizens can trust and verify. Political interference in elections will be a federal crime. Strong auditing procedures and transparency will 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 will be encouraged to try a variety of incentives to encourage greater (and more secure) voter registration and participation in elections.

The Political Reform Act, Part Two. Part Two will distance government officials from lobbyists. Campaign finance reform will reduce the influence of Big Money over politicians. (A huge ball-o-wax but already on the agenda. Note this goes beyond simply punishing K Street firms, which the House can do even without a law!)

The Political Reform Act, Part Three. Part Three will begin the process of returning the legislative branch of government to the people, by finding a solution to the problem of gerrymandering.

Declaring an end to hypocritical one-state-at-a-time initiatives, this act will call a meeting of all states, encouraging them to negotiate among themselves a uniform method for ending a modern travesty. It will encourage and insist that states do this in an evenhanded manner without much net injury to any party, either by using independent redistricting commissions or simply by minimizing overlap between state legislature districts and those for Congress. (A one-sentence method that would cure the problem, at a stroke.)

If this 50-state solution in not achieved by a specified deadline, the Attorney General will be required to file suit before the US Supreme Court, seeking redress under the principle of "one person-one vote."

I admit that I hold out little hope for this last suggestion to be enacted by politicians. At one level, there is all the difference in the world between good and bad politicians, and we should work to help the former to defeat the latter. (Hurrah!) But at another level, they are all members of a political caste that has been complicit in the crime against the citizenry that is gerrymandering. We'll get around to spanking them all, some day. If some members of the political caste actually help to bring that day a little closer... well then, those few will earn our undying gratitude.

I was going to pause there, but one more item comes from former intelligence officer and consultant Robert Steele...

The Smart Nation Act would "enhance the role of the Assistant Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Open Sources by legislatively mandating an Open Source Intelligence Program directing that no less than 1% of the total National Foreign Intelligence Program be allocated to collecting, and analysis of open sources of information in all languages, which are essential to the mission of the secret intelligence community. Among other things, it would create fifty state-based Community Intelligence Centers... and broad networks that permit citizens to report threats (119) and suspicions (114), while also leveraging a global translation network...."

What's not to like? By encouraging educated and tech-savvy citizens to see themselves as part of the nation's (and the world's) collective intelligence (in every sense of that word), we can ensure that this civilization remains agile and not overly dependent upon a skilled-but-narrow set of secretive professionals, who can (because of their small numbers) be coerced or suborned by special interests.

Indeed, there is strong reason to suggest that this 1% of the intelligence budget — applied to open sources — could provide as much new information — and as many useful correlations — as the other 99% using cryptic means.

group three: actual legislation that might psss... Someday

Let's have a brief pause/reminder about our purpose here. Ideally, these concepts should be:

good for the nation,
good for the majority party,
hard for the president to veto, and
keep faith with the spirit of a better 21st Century.

We've covered the easy and moderate agenda items, that might stand at least a remote chance of surviving President Bush's veto pen.

Now for some much more ambitious legislation that the new majorities should try for... even knowing that actual passage must await the next president and Congress, in 2009.

The Security for America Act will ensure that top priority goes to America's military and security readiness, especially our nation's ability to respond to a wide range of unexpected threats, including natural disasters, surprise attacks or other emergencies.

Reversing a trend that has demolished readiness down to Pearl Harbor levels, our military and other reserves will be augmented and modernized, with emphasis on both agile preparedness and opportunities for enhanced citizen involvement.

When ordering a discretionary foreign intervention, the President must report probable effects on readiness, as well as the purposes and likely duration of the intervention. If those purposes change, the President must state the reasons in clear writing.

Without impeding in the President's powers as Commander-in-Chief of active-duty military units, this law requires that no reserve unit shall be sent overseas without submitting to Congress for a certified state of urgency. This certification must be renewed at six month intervals. If at any point this state of emergency expires, reserve units shall return to their states within a month, to resume training and preparation for future emergencies.

Furthermore, members of the active duty Officer Corps and non-commissioned officers shall be regularly consulted by an ombudsman's office, reporting confidentially to Congress on the morale of troops and their level of confidence in their political leaders, as well as contemplating suggestions that are offered, confidentially and respectfully, by skilled professionals.

Keeping with longstanding American tradition, in which past generations of the wealthy always willingly helped pay for urgent wars that must be fought by other peoples sons and daughters, an automatic surtax shall set in one year after any foreign intervention is ordered by the President without declaration of war. This surtax will apply to the top 10% of tax brackets, and remain in effect until the previous year's intervention costs are paid for.

Further, the Commander-in-Chief may not suspend any American law, or the rights of any American citizen, without submitting the temporary suspension to Congress for approval in closed session, and setting a clear time limit.

(Comment: Difficult to get past presidential veto? Sure. But, parts of this bill might prove possible, even now. The rest can at least get put on the record. It would highlight the obvious fact that reserves are supposed to be mostly held in... reserve! In case of the unexpected. Also we be seen reaching out to the long-suffering men and women in our active-duty and reserve forces...)

The Sustainability Act will make it America's priority to pioneer technological paths toward energy independence, emphasizing economic health that also conserves both national and world resources.

Ambitious efficiency and conservation standards may be accompanied by compromise free market solutions, with the goal of achieving more with less, while safeguarding the planet for our children.

Yes, this topic is already on the table... and obvious to any sane and/or patriotic American. Alas, nowadays, when the real rulers want high oil prices and a nation of feulish addicts, it will take more electoral revolutions in order to see much progress made in this area.

The Tax Reform Act will simplify the tax code, while ensuring that everybody pays their fair share. Floors for the Inheritance Tax and Alternative Tax will be raised to ensure they only affect the most wealthy. And the wealthy will be asked to pay to help defend a civilization that defends their privileges.

Again, much of this is already on the table... and only snippets stand a chance of passage or surviving veto. The neo-feudalists hope that they can retake Congress in 2008 in order to make their ripoff cuts permanent. We need to look long term. As they clearly do.

The American Excellence Act will provide incentives for American students to excel at a range of important fields. This nation must especially maintain its leadership, by training more experts and innovators in science and technology. Education must be a tool to help millions of students and adults adapt, to achieve and keep high-paying 21st Century jobs.

Here is an area where standard politics does not make any sense at all. Obviously some increased standards and testing were needed, in order to increase accountability. The "right" was right to demand more accountability and the "left" was wrong to resist it. At the same time, "teaching to the test" is poisoning one of the things that American education always did well, encouraging vivid creativity at the level of individual students, teachers and classrooms.

We need more experiments and less dogma.

The Media Fairness Act will restore the Fairness Doctrine — or antitrust rules that forbid a given media organization from controlling more than 30% or so of its market. Other measures will help correct a drift toward dogmatism in "news."

They will fight this tooth and nail, of course. It goes to the very roots of their power. Don't bet on even a smidgen surviving vetoes.

A Healthy Children Act. The blatant blunder of the early Clinton Administration was attempting to create a vast bureaucracy in order to solve health insurance, comprehensively, all at once. Well-meaning but arrogantly out of tune with public opinion, this effort paved the way for Newt Gingrich's first wave of neocons to take over Congress in 1994, which opened the door for worse monsters, later on.

What if they had tried it incrementally? "Let's insure children, first!" Who would have dared to say no? Citizens have time and again proved willing to think "socialistically" (e.g., public schools) when it comes to kids. Even when they feel — in the frontier tradition — that grownups should fend for themselves.

Yes, this suggestion is at last "on the table." Howard Dean spoke of seeking insurance for "all Americans under age 25." Even if it's 18 years at cutoff, the effects would be remarkable ... and probably insanely popular, even though actual passage would have to wait till 2009.

And at last I am done... well, almost. Because (if truth be told) I have more proposals... plus suggestions that many readers have sent in... and then there is another whole category of items that are less about political action than general political advice.

Along that line, some of my past articles may bear fresh pondering during the planning for 2008. For example:

How to solve the disparity between the Electoral College and the popular vote, without having to amend the Constitution

Or how two sincere opposing candidates could help the country without hurting their own candidacies... (that is, if we ever go back to an era when elections feature "two sincere candidates.")

Or how one presidential candidate could appear statesmanlike with a devastating rhetorical flourish setting a permanent tone of maturity.

These three musings may strike some as hopelessly naive and utopian... I feel that way myself, sometimes! And yet, if only...

Finally, there is a deeper matter. The problem of ending the "culture war."

I have referred to this repeatedly, because I think it is the key problem before us. In order to end the culture war (instead of getting suckered into waging it), I think it is essential to study the roots of this sickness eating at the American heart. Yes, many causes are regional or ethnic or rural-vs-urban... and some even say that we are fighting Phase Three of the American Civil War (with the Confederacy winning this round, so far).

My own contribution examines some mistakes that moderates and liberals have made for thirty years! Bad 20th Century habits that helped create the very neocon monsters who foisted "culture war" upon a noble republic, weakening the Great Experiment at its very roots. (The one thing that all of our nation's enemies would want most.)

There are some bad habits that liberals and moderates badly need to break! And an injustice that could easily be corrected. But more on that, anon.

For now, let me wish good luck to the genuine and sane Americans — of all parties, including sincere, future-oriented conservatives — who are joining in this revolution, this counter-attack against a new wave of would-be feudal masters.

Remember, the American Experiment was never about dogmas and incantations. It was about eager and pragmatic problem-solving, using all kinds of consensual and market tools, a gradual and gritty but powerful process that involves relentless negotiation with our neighbors, in a spirit of good will.

Dogmatism is an enemy, wherever it arises, even among our friends!

I hope that our representatives will remember this, in the weeks and months ahead, keeping an eye upon their own, human fallibilities.

And that they will vigorously shed light into every corner, every dark place that had been shadowed, allowing rats and scoundrels to thrive.


You Broke It, So You Fix It: A Modest To-Do List for Congress

about this article

"You Broke It, So You Fix It: A Modest To-Do List for Congress" (published in full here) was written after the 2006 U.S. mid-term election. It offered suggestions on how Congress could offer leadership and guidance instead of simply implementing the leadership coming from the White House. Were any of these suggestions taken?

Copyright © 2006 by David Brin. All rights reserved.

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cited in this article

David Brin, "America's Declining State of Readiness"

David Brin, "The Electoral College: A Surprisingly Easy Fix"

David Brin, "Free the Inspectors General"

David Brin, "Gerrymandering American Democracy: More Fragile Than We Think"

David Brin, "Honor the Losing Majority"

David Brin, "Neo-Romanticism: Why Neoconservatism Is Waging War"

David Brin, "The 'No Losers' Tax Simplification Proposal"

David Brin, "Political Blackmail: The Hidden Danger to Public Servants"

David Brin, "Should Democrats Issue Their Own 'Contract with America'?"

David Brin, "Truth: Can We Restore Integrity?"

David Brin, "Why Candidates Should Stipulate"

Juliet Eilperin, "IGs Probe Allegations On Global Warming Data"

Robert Steele, The Smart Nation Act: Public Intelligence in the Public Interest (book #ad)

fixing a broken congress

letting others have their say

Eric Metaxas, If You Can Keep It

Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin, We Are Indivisible

Richard L. Hasen, The Voting Wars

Meaghan Winter, All Politics Is Local

Dana R. Fisher, American Resistance

Bruce E. Cain, Democracy More or Less

Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality


a brief intro to author David Brin

DAVID BRIN scientist


David Brin's science fiction novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages. They range from bold and prophetic explorations of our near-future to Brin's Uplift series, envisioning galactic issues of sapience and destiny (and star-faring dolphins!).
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shorter fiction

Short stories and novellas have different rhythms and artistic flavor, and Brin's short stories and novellas, several of which earned Hugo and other awards, exploit that difference to explore a wider range of real and vividly speculative ideas. Many have been selected for anthologies and reprints, and most have been published in anthology form.
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Contrary Brin blog

Since 2004, David Brin has maintained a blog about science, technology, science fiction, books, and the future — themes his science fiction and nonfiction writings continue to explore.
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Who could've predicted that social media — indeed, all of our online society — would play such an important role in the 21st Century — restoring the voices of advisors and influencers! Lively and intelligent comments spill over onto Brin's social media pages.
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David Brin's Ph.D in Physics from the University of California at San Diego (the lab of nobelist Hannes Alfven) followed a masters in optics and an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Caltech. Every science show that depicts a comet now portrays the model developed in Brin's PhD research.
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transparency expert

Brin's non-fiction book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?, continues to receive acclaim for its accuracy in predicting 21st Century concerns about online security, secrecy, accountability and privacy.
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speaker & consultant

Brin speaks plausibly and entertainingly about trends in technology and society to audiences willing to confront the challenges that our rambunctious civilization will face in the decades ahead. He also talks about the field of science fiction, especially in relation to his own novels and stories. To date he has presented at more than 200 meetings, conferences, corporate retreats and other gatherings.
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future/tech advisor

Brin advises corporations and governmental and private defense- and security-related agencies about information-age issues, scientific trends, future social and political trends, and education. Urban Developer Magazine named him one of four World's Best Futurists, and he was appraised as "#1 influencer" in Onalytica's Top 100 report of Artificial Intelligence influencers, brands & publications. Past consultations include Google, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, and many others.
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