October 29, 2013

From The Dallas Morning News

No single magic cure will suddenly place Washington on a path where disagreeing lawmakers respect each other enough to get things done. The extremes on the left and right continue to dominate discussions about overhauling Medicare, reforming immigration laws and, yes, funding the Affordable Care Act.

But a number of steps, when taken together, could improve the political climate. They largely revolve around getting politicians to hear the views of the broad mainstream, which is neither hard left nor hard right. Perhaps then legislators could resist making decisions simply to please their most vocal constituents.

One encouraging step is the formation of Voice of the People. The goal of the new Washington-based group is to create a Citizen Cabinet. Once assembled, it could help Capitol Hill move beyond partisan gridlock.

The cabinet would consist of 275 people carefully selected from each congressional district. Richard Parsons, Voice of the People’s executive director, says the constituents would be selected using the methodologies of respected public opinion surveys.

Once identified, the balanced sample would be asked far more than yes-no silo questions. For example, instead of just asking panelists whether they favor cutting spending, the survey would go deeper into what kinds of cuts they would make.

As they work through a range of issues, panelists would receive an online briefing that features various points of view that Democratic and Republican experts alike have vetted. Parsons said in a telephone interview with our editorial board that the aim is to get citizens thinking about how they would solve problems.

The answers from each district would be presented to the appropriate member of the House and to senators from the respondent’s state. The reports also would be placed online for the rest of us to examine and to register our own views.

The panelists would work for free and serve only nine to 12 months. They would provide a stream of information to members of Congress who may not hear from more than their most liberal or conservative constituents. The reports also could counter shallow surveys that legislators put out themselves.

Interestingly, former Dallas Democratic Rep. Martin Frost and other former lawmakers back the Citizen Cabinet idea, appearing during a recent Washington news conference to offer support.

Frost told our editorial board last week that while lawmakers won’t blindly accept the information, the surveys could give representatives and senators the power to oppose the left or right on a particular vote.

Voice of the People is only in its infancy, and the group is still seeking enough foundation dollars to make this concept work. We hope the organizers succeed because Washington needs more opportunities to hear from America’s mainstream.

Views on Citizen Cabinet

“Members of Congress are not computer terminals, so they will vote their consciences. But they need information like this. Most members poll only at election time, and it rarely is issue-driven.”

– Former Rep. Martin Frost, D-Dallas

“Right now, members of Congress hear mostly from organized interests that don’t reflect the will of the people as a whole. If we had a Citizen Cabinet, it would raise the quality of public discourse.”

– Former Rep. Mike Castle, R-Delaware