Why I'm quitting Congress

March 21, 1994|By Tim Penny

IN 1982, I was the first Democrat in this century to be elected to Congress from southeastern Minnesota. Since that time, it has been my distinct pleasure to serve the citizens of the 1st District. But when my current term expires later this year, I will leave Congress. Why?

First and foremost, my decision is based on the belief that political careerism is not a positive aspect of America's political system.

But second, when I reflect on the founders' vision of Congress, I think in most respects they would be disappointed with the system as it operates. The founders warned against the evils of regional or partisan factionalism and conceived of Congress as a decision-making body that would rise above base political considerations to focus on the overall interest of the country.

Yet today, virtually everything Congress does has partisan undertones. The majority party sets all the rules.

When I arrived in Washington in early 1983, it took about six months for me to figure out that Congress wasn't on the level. For example, unlike the Minnesota state legislature, in which I served, Congress has no deadlines for making decisions involving the expenditure of tens, even hundreds of billions of dollars. The start of the next fiscal year isn't even a deadline. If we fail to meet our responsibility to pass the 13 annual appropriations bills by Oct. 1 (the official start of the fiscal year) we simply pass a "continuing resolution" and treat the date as meaningless.

Congress doesn't have a fair, open legislative process. The rules of the House of Representatives are designed to severely limit debate on the House floor and to predetermine the outcome of legislation. The work of House committees is commonly conducted behind closed doors and given favored status: Few amendments to bills reported out of committee are allowed to be introduced or debated on the floor.

Congress also needs to stop exempting itself from anti-discrimination and other labor laws it passes for the rest of BTC the country. The American people would be more respectful of Congress if they knew it doesn't hold a double standard. It's a matter of practicing what we preach.

The commission to reform Congress, the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, has been given the task of recommending changes in the legislative process. Some of the commission's proposals are good. But reform won't go far enough if the commission doesn't suggest we cover Congress under all laws applied to the private sector; if it fails to limit the number of subcommittees on which individuals can serve; and if the commission doesn't recommend cutting the number of committees and eliminating overlapping committee jurisdictions.

My concern is that the very flaws I have outlined will derail the reform process, resulting in the commission's report being brought to the floor under rules that doom all other reform proposals. The best signal Congress could send to the American people that it means business about reform is to allow all proposals to be considered in an open, fair manner.

If Congress follows this course, it has a chance to return to the vision established by our founders.

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