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Bill Daley’s D.C. reforms go too far

Bill Daley  |  JOHN J. KIM~SUN-TIMES


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Updated: June 2, 2012 8:07AM

The gridlock, bickering and small ball ruling Washington these days have former White House chief of staff Bill Daley worried that government is so hobbled by systemic flaws that big reforms are required. Maybe, but then again maybe not.

In a Chicago speech, Daley backed the idea of extending the two-year term for the U.S. House to four years. Members have to spend too much time raising funds for the next looming election, he said. “People ought to actually do something before they run again, and be held responsible.”

However, the two-year term makes the government, through the House, regularly accountable to the voters. Sea changes in popular sentiment can mean electoral coups in the House.

For example, the nation soured on President George W. Bush’s war policies and turned the House over to Democrats under the leadership of Nancy Pelosi in 2006 only two years after Bush’s re-election on those policies. And in 2010 voters expressed their disenchantment with President Barack Obama’s breathtaking expansion of government power and red-ink spending to turn out Pelosi and the Democrats in favor of Republicans, including a new class of Tea Party conservatives.

Thus the two-year term offers the voters a chance to order up a dramatic course correction for government. You have to wonder if eliminating this biennial check on the public’s pulse would dilute the democratic input of the voters.

Some argue that polling affords a regular barometer of voter sentiment. But politicians ignore polls in pursuing ideological goals. Public sentiment against Obamacare and the partisan way it was being railroaded through Congress didn’t give pause to Obama, Pelosi or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Tea Party legislators push divisive social and cultural issues such as abortion restrictions in defiance of voter sentiment to keep the eye on the economic ball.

Daley also complained about the filibuster and the 60-vote rule it can impose on legislation in the Senate. Yet, the filibuster serves the vital role of ensuring that the majority party can’t ride roughshod over the minority faction, which after all represents the sentiments of millions of Americans.

That’s not to say the filibuster can’t be abused. It often is when used to block votes on presidential appointments. One idea for reform is to require an up-or-down vote on a White House nomination within 90 days or have it confirmed by default. That makes a lot of sense — up to a point.

Any president deserves the respect of seeing his appointments for executive office confirmed or rejected within a reasonable time frame. So a filibuster rule change to allow a president to get timely “advice and consent” on the men and women he wants to run his government seems appropriate.

But a lifetime appointment, meaning judges, is a different matter. It would be unwise to invest such an important, lifelong office through default.

Daley is certainly correct to say the Senate should end the practice of letting a single senator put an anonymous hold on an appointment to “extort” the president.

Daley is a serious man who has seen government up close and done a lot of thinking about it, so his ideas merit serious respect. Still, aside from some limited tinkering, it would be unwise to alter fundamentally the institutions that have served our republic so well for two centuries.

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