Public trust in elected officials is at an all-time low, 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-fighting industry operating in the hallowed halls of the US Capitol, it’s high time we did something to rebuild Americans’ faith in our democracy to restore.
Take Senator Dianne Feinstein: a pioneer for women, a passionate advocate for Californians, and a remarkable American. She is and remains a respected leader in Democratic politics and, after her illustrious past, deserves to end her Senate career calmly, graciously and quickly.
The senator has returned to Washington after a serious case of shingles, but reports from colleagues, reporters and staff paint a bleak picture: the senator’s health and mental state make it impossible for her to carry out the duties of her office. She must now decide whether to protect her political power at the expense of the Americans she represents, or step down and set a new principled precedent in Congress.
When I made headlines for asking Sen. Feinstein to resign, it was never about her qualifications or character — it was about her continued ability to serve the people of California. What I have said out loud is simply a sentiment shared by many in private; By choosing to remain in her seat, Senator Feinstein not only risks damaging her distinguished legacy, but also fails to uphold the sacred oath of duty we have taken as members of Congress.
But this is about more than a single person – this is about the future of our country and our democracy. Corrupt crooks like Rep. George Santos (R-NY) – who has brought nothing but lies, corruption, embarrassment and shame to the People’s House – should not be allowed to operate unchecked in our legislatures.
As members of Congress, we are sworn to take an oath – not to protect a political majority at all costs, but to protect and serve our country, our constituents, and our democracy. The responsibilities of the positions we hold must be placed above the job security of those who hold them.
Unfortunately, there are few ways to hold congressmen accountable after their election. I was a member of the House Ethics Committee for four years. With five Democrats and five Republicans, you can imagine what often transpired behind closed doors: a careful approach to justice at best, and, more commonly, outright standstill and abdication. In addition, the Justice Department regularly asked us to stop investigating when it was investigating a member of Congress, rendering the committee useless in regulating House members in the most serious cases. It is a body that lacks the resources or structure to provide the expeditious accountability required by Congress.
If elected politicians continue to do what makes political sense, rather than what is right, this crisis of confidence will only worsen.
So how can we ask the American people to trust us if we refuse to be honest with them?
How can we restore faith when we refuse to do what is right and instead engage in this repulsive, relentless pursuit of power?
It is my job to put into practice what I preach – and I will continue to do so, no matter which party it is.
Calling out bad behavior is a start, but building a government more committed to the highest standards of ethics, competence and honesty requires action.
I believe that with straightforward reform and determined optimism, we can begin to fix our broken policies and restore Americans’ confidence in their government.
We need change and we need it now. So, let’s get to work:
Legacy: High-functioning organizations become such by building strong governing bodies and limiting the tenure of their leaders. We need to think about capping the terms of office of our judiciary and legislatures, committee chairs and party leaders. This will encourage the breadth and depth of ideas and allow our institution to reflect the changing needs of our employees. Renowned leaders can walk away at the height of their legacy, rather than watching it fall by the wayside. And the American people can be confident that their interests, not the quest for power, will prevail.
Competency: Most federal government employees are subjected to rigorous background checks, especially when they have access to classified material, and it’s time we demanded the same of those elected. Congressmen have access to classified information, documents and briefings. Their comments, actions and commitments can change markets and affect alliances, and their mishandling of documents, contributions or information can encourage crime and espionage. It is in America’s best interest to ensure that members of Congress have the necessary qualifications to obtain basic security clearance, and I will soon be introducing legislation requiring this again.
Ethics: We must address the elephant present in every room of Capitol Hill: money.
The relentless pursuit of special interest payments corrupts our politics, and moreover, real and perceived patterns of self-enrichment have deeply damaged Americans’ confidence in their elected leaders.
No congressman should be allowed to trade in private stocks. It’s unethical and just plain exploitative, and as one of the few people in Congress to have proactively established a qualified blind trust, I think it’s about damn time we demanded it. The bipartisan TRUST in Congress Act, authored by Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA), would require members to relinquish personal control over their investments and place them in the hands of outside investors – a practice that is the norm and not should be the exception.
“…how can we ask the American people to trust us if we refuse to be honest with them?”
We must also reverse the Supreme Court’s disastrous decision Citizens United vs FEC Decision and reform of our pay-for-play campaign funding system. As one of the few members of Congress to turn down all campaign contributions from federal lobbyists, special interest PACs, and other members of Congress and their leadership PACs, I promise you it’s possible.
Consensus: We have an anger-fighting industry that thrives on fanning the flames of bipartisanship, and the echo chambers on our screens have many Americans doubting that cooperation 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 ranked 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 foundation on which our democracy is built, and lack of trust in one another – and in those who hold the highest offices in our government – undermines our democratic principles around us.
The crisis of confidence is not just about the Feinsteins and Santoses in our bodies, but also about the systemic flaws that have fueled unbridled scandals in Congress for centuries.
Repairing our broken system will take courage: the courage to say publicly 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 challenging, frustrating, and sometimes unpopular. But our people, our Congress and our country deserve better.
It’s time for pragmatic progressives and collegial conservatives to get off the sidelines, roll up their sleeves, and get to work.
keep the faith
Dean Phillips is a father, businessman, civic leader, perennial optimist, and representative of Minnesota’s third congressional district in Congress.
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