Public confidence in elected officials is at rock bottom, and it’s not hard to see why. Between the gerontocracy controlling our governing bodies, the corrupting influence of money in politics, and a thriving anger entertainment industry operating in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Capitol, it is high time to act to restore trust Americans in our democracy.
Take Senator Dianne Feinstein: a trailblazer for women, an outspoken advocate for Californians, and a remarkable American. She is, and will continue to be, a revered leader in Democratic politics and, after her renowned history, deserves to step down from her Senate career in a thoughtful, graceful, and prompt manner.
After battling a serious case of shingles, the senator returned to Washington, but testimonies from colleagues, reporters and employees paint a grim picture: The senator’s health and mental acuity render her unable to cope. discharge the responsibilities of his office. She must now decide whether to protect political power at the expense of the Americans she represents, or to step down and set a new principled precedent in Congress.
When I made headlines for calling on Senator Feinstein to step down, it was never about her qualifications or her character, but about her continued competence in serving the people of California. What I said out loud is simply a sentiment shared privately by many; by choosing to remain in her seat, Senator Feinstein not only risks tarnishing her remarkable legacy, but fails to live up to the sacred oath of duty we have sworn as members of Congress.
But it’s about more than one individual, it’s about the future of our country and our democracy. Corrupt crooks like Rep. George Santos (R-NY) — who brought nothing but lies, corruption, embarrassment and shame to the House of the People — should not be allowed to serve unchecked among our legislative bodies.
As members of Congress, we have sworn to keep an oath, not to protect a political majority at all costs, but to protect and serve our country, our voters and our democracy. The responsibilities of the offices we occupy must be placed above the job security of the people who occupy them.
Unfortunately, there are few options for holding members of Congress accountable once they are elected. I served on the House Ethics Committee for four years. With five Democrats and five Republicans, you can imagine what often happened behind closed doors: at best, a pick and choose approach to justice and, more often, outright stalemate and abdication. Additionally, the Justice Department has routinely asked us to stand aside when it investigates a member of Congress, rendering the committee useless to regulate House members in the most egregious cases. It is a body that lacks the resources or structure to provide the prompt accountability that Congress needs.
If elected leaders continue to do what is politically expedient rather than what is right, this crisis of confidence will only get worse.
So how do we ask the American people to trust us if we refuse to be honest with them?
How can we restore faith if we refuse to do what is right and instead engage in this loathsome and relentless pursuit of power?
My job is to practice what I preach – and I will continue to do so, regardless of the party in question.
Calling out bad behavior is a start, but building a more accountable government of the highest standards of ethics, competence and honesty will take action.
I believe that with direct reforms and determined optimism, we can begin to mend our broken politics and restore Americans’ faith in their government.
We need change, and we need it now. So, let’s get to work:
Legacy: Successful organizations become successful by building strong benches and limiting the tenure of leaders. We need to consider adopting term limits for our judicial and legislative branches, committee chairs and party leaders. This will foster breadth and depth of ideas and allow our institution to reflect the changing needs of our people. Renowned leaders can rise to the top of their legacy, instead of seeing it fall by the wayside. And the American people can trust that their interests, rather than the pursuit of power, will prevail.
Competence: Most federal government employees are subject to thorough background checks, especially if they have access to classified documents, and it is time to demand the same of those who are elected. Members of Congress have access to classified information, documents and briefings. Their comments, actions and responsibilities can move markets and impact alliances, and their mishandling of documents, contributions or information can facilitate crimes and espionage. Ensuring members of Congress have the credentials necessary to obtain basic security clearances is in America’s best interest, and I will soon be reintroducing legislation to require it.
Ethics: You have to tackle the elephant in every room on Capitol Hill: money.
The relentless pursuit of special interest money corrupts our politics and, on top of that, real and perceived patterns of personal enrichment have deeply damaged Americans’ trust in their elected leaders.
No member of Congress should be allowed to trade private stocks. It’s unethical and just plain exploitative, and as one of the few people in Congress who has proactively established qualified blind trust, I think it’s high time we did. demand. The bipartisan TRUST in Congress Act, drafted by Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA), would require members to relinquish personal control of their investments and place them in the hands of outside investors — a practice that should be the rule, not the exception.
“…how do we ask the American people to trust us if we refuse to be honest with them?”
We must also overturn the disastrous Supreme Court decision Citizens United v FEC decision and reform our paid campaign financing system. As one of the only members of Congress who withholds all campaign contributions from federal lobbyists, special interest PACs, and other members of Congress and their PAC leaders, I promise you it can.
Consensus: We have an anger industry that thrives on fanning the flames of hyper-partisanship, and the echo chambers on our screens leave many Americans doubting that collaboration in Washington is even possible.
But it doesn’t have to be like that!
We should encourage consensus-seeking candidates to run for office by promoting preferential voting in our elections.
And we should break bread, share personal stories, and seek to understand the perspectives of people who think, eat, pray, and vote differently, as I have done in Common Ground workshops across Minnesota.
Because trust is the bedrock on which our democracy rests, and without trust in each other – and in those in the highest offices of our government – our democratic principles erode around us.
The crisis of confidence is about more than the Feinsteins and Santos in our body, but about the systemic flaws that have allowed unchecked scandals to occur in Congress for centuries.
Fixing our broken system will take courage: the courage to speak publicly about what others fear, the courage to challenge the status quo, and the courage to put the interests of the American people ahead of political interests.
It will be difficult, frustrating and sometimes unpopular. But our people, our Congress, and our country deserve better.
It’s time for pragmatic progressives and collegial conservatives to step off the sidelines, roll up our sleeves, and get to work.
Keep the faith.
Dean Phillips is a father, businessman, civic leader, eternal optimist, and a representative from Minnesota’s Third Congressional District in Congress.
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