Resetting the cuckoo clock

If the cuckoo clock is annoying you, it’s time to tinker with its inner works.

Both houses of Congress and both major parties have been cuckoo.

We elect our representatives hoping they will be missionaries for effective government. And then, as theologians might say, we watch them stumble: doing things that need not be done, and leaving things undone that ought to be done. The government closure and debt-ceiling crisis are just recent examples.

Exasperated voters may favor a simple solution: “Throw the bums out!” But as Herald political reporter Jerry Cornfield explains, the realities of incumbency and gerrymandering make a wholesale purge of Congress unlikely.

So, if the cuckoo itself is here to stay, let’s work on the cogs and pulleys that make the clock run so erratically.

Each chamber has rules governing how a bill can be introduced, debated and brought to a vote. Unfortunately, those same rules can be used to frustrate the legislative process. Both the House and the Senate have made modifications to standard parliamentary procedures, creating Rube Goldberg-esque systems that would seem silly were they not so damaging to democracy.

The Senate reveres its arcane rules and privileges as “tradition.” In truth, the Senate is just a hoarder who can’t distinguish treasures from trash.

During the Bush Administration, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Republican, considered the so-called “nuclear option” to empower a simple majority (rather than 60 senators) to bring matters to a vote. This year, Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, made the same threat for the same reason: Important business was stalled.

In the House, the Rules Committee can issue instant edicts at the partisan whim of the speaker. On Oct. 1, for example, it ginned up a rule that barred anyone but the House majority leader from calling for a vote. This freshly minted restriction gave about 30 Republicans the power to keep our government closed.

Voters should insist on transparency and commonsense legislative rules with the same fervor we have demanded peace, voting rights and fiscal responsibility. Aspiring candidates, supported by sage Capitol Hill retirees, should join in making this a real issue. (In the process, however, we must be mindful that streamlining is not an excuse for denying minority voices their constructive place in deliberations.)

It is naïve to think current gavel wielders will tolerate changes that curtail their powers. So reforms should be aimed at some future session of Congress, perhaps one that won’t be seated for six years or so?

It could be worth the wait.

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