I had a dream.
Last night, I dreamed that I sat down for a chat with President Obama. It was apparently a rather informal encounter, because I called him “Barack” and he was just fine with that. But despite this informality, we were still in that oft-photographed pose, sitting in armchairs, slightly angled toward one another, but not completely so, which I always imagined must contribute to developing a frightful kink in the neck.
I shared with Barack my thoughts on the American political system. Having lived in several countries which operate under a variety of approaches to government, and having traveled to many other countries, I shared my perspective with the President.
The United States is a great nation indeed…but it could be better. Our 236+ years of history puts us firmly in our adolescence in comparison with most other nations on the planet, and it’s time that we took some steps to continue in our maturity.
My U.S. political experience began with a week-long opportunity in 8th grade, serving in my state House of Representatives as a page. It was then that I got my first view of how things really happen. Of course, C-SPAN and other networks provide plenty of open windows for us to gaze on the political machinations of our day. And if not those, then the television show The West Wing has likely provided many modern Americans with a view of how things work in Washington.
While there are many things that could be reformed, my proposals to Barack were primarily twofold.
First, I think there should be a change in presidential terms. Our current 4 year system leads to a great deal of waste and missed opportunity. It seems that the last year of each President’s first term is really dedicated to getting reelected to a second term. If he wins, having effectively lost a year to campaigning, he really only ends up with 7 years of service.
What if we made presidential terms 7 years in length, and limited presidents to just one term? There would be no lost time to campaigning for reelection, and the terms might actually be long enough so that policies instituted by a particular President might actually take effect while he’s still in office. Furthermore, he would be around long enough so that even opponents might eventually take a liking to him and decide to work together to get things accomplished.
It amazes me to consider that, given enough time, nearly any leader becomes likeable, at least to some segment of the population. Outright tyrants and dictators become beloved in the eyes of the people after being in power for several decades. Rather than keeping terms so short that naysayers can keep up their naysaying during the entire tenure of a given President, what if we lengthened that amount of time, so that pundits would have to get past their griping and start figuring out how to make this work. The President’s going to be here for a while, so let’s see what we can accomplish.
I would keep election cycles for the House and Senate the same, so that perhaps sometime during the 7 year term the President would have a Congress that he can actually work with, whether his party holds a majority or not. Leaders need time to build trust, to grow, to find their niche, to connect with constituents, to consider, contemplate, decide, and act. I don’t know that 4 years maximizes those opportunities.
In my dream, my second recommendation for moving America toward political maturity was to reform the process for passing legislation. My thoughts turned toward the classic film Mr Smith Goes to Washington and the use of the filibuster…the co-opting of the Senate floor by a lawmaker usually intent on blocking a piece of legislation. Amazingly enough, I discovered that BBC News printed a feature on just this phenomenon this morning (can be read here: The art of the filibuster).
This strategy is not a mature way to handle debate and the passing of legislation. Reading phone books and recipes for unending hours hardly makes us into a model of the value of the democratic process for the oppressed nations of the world.
But what’s worse than this practice is the attaching of amendments and riders to completely unrelated legislation. The political dealings that take place which result in unpopular, niche laws being attached to more likely to pass legislation, all of this arranged in exchange for some votes. This is not governing. This is loophole-finding, special-interest supporting, if-you-want-my-vote-you’re-gonna-pay-me-for-it power-wielding. The people have ceased to matter. The political record of individual politicians comes to the fore in each vote.
Let’s pick a topic, draft legislation, and vote on it…without muddying the issue or turning it into a bargaining chip. Let’s encourage lawmakers to make laws, to consider the state of the nation and the needs of the people and to respond appropriately.
I have no recollection of how President Obama responded to my proposals in the dream. But he welcomed my thoughts and let me talk.
I would love to see America mature in the execution of its representative democracy. I would be honored to see a nation that considers how to improve its governance, to take itself beyond adolescent schoolyard tumbles into a mature dialogue about serious issues.
Would these two proposals solve every issue? Certainly not, but I think they would be a step to take us in the direction of creating and maintaining the very best society that we can be, to be an exemplar to other nations…speaking with a mature voice and behaving with honor and dignity in the face of great trials and real needs.