For a way out of the gridlock In Washington, look to the people

James R. Jones (Ambassador to Mexico, 1993-1997)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Jones’ October 13, 2013 special to the Tulsa World.

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The gridlock we’re seeing in Washington today poses a serious threat to our nation’s future. The public is deeply frustrated with a Congress that can’t seem to find common ground, act for the common good, or do much of anything that reflects the common sense of the American people.

Neither side sees a way out of the impasse. So what can be done?

Right now Congress is hearing from lots of voices — voices from special interests and hard-core partisans on both sides. But they’re not hearing from the people as a whole. This is not what the Founders of the American republic had in mind.

So, how would things be different if the people did have a more effective voice?

Research shows the American people are less polarized than Congress; tend to think of the common good, not just their own interest; and, when given the facts, show a great deal of common sense. I saw this “collective wisdom” repeatedly on display when I was serving in Congress. It’s still there today.

If Congress had a better way to hear from the people, that could help leaders in both parties find a way through the gridlock and resolve some of the issues that have brought our national government to a standstill.

The problem is, the tools we’re using now to connect the people to Congress are not working. Special interests flood the airwaves with misleading ads, and congressional mailboxes with “Astroturf” grassroots campaigns, and the Internet has only given them new arenas to dominate and control. This is why it’s so hard for the common sense of the people to get through.

Now there’s a way to change that, and bring our 21st Century technology to bear to give the people a more effective voice. The idea is to create what’s called a national “Citizen Cabinet” — a standing online panel of 120,000 Americans, 275 from each congressional district — scientifically selected to precisely mirror the American people. Those without Internet are given it.

On a regular basis, Citizen Cabinet members are briefed on an issue Congress is facing, with all the materials carefully reviewed by a panel of bipartisan experts and Congressional staff from both parties, to ensure that it is both accurate and balanced. Once they have the basic facts, Cabinet members are presented the policy options Congress is considering, hear the best arguments for and against each option, then make their recommendations. The findings of the Citizen Cabinet are released to the Congress, the media and the public, and broken out by Congressional district, state and the nation as a whole.

Congress would get a much clearer view of what the public in each district wants, and because the whole process is available online, anyone can go through it on their own to learn more about the issues and the tradeoffs their member of Congress is facing.

I think this would be a great way to bring the thoughtful views of the people back to the table, and help Congress find a way through the gridlock. It’s a way to use today’s technology to reconnect to the Founders’ vision that the people should govern.

I’ve joined with a group of former Democratic and Republican members of Congress, distinguished business, civic and academic leaders from across the ideological spectrum, to advance this idea through a new group called Voice Of the People (www.VOP.org). We’re asking all Americans to join us.

America is a truly great country, but our democratic institutions are in bad shape and in need of a serious upgrade. Who better to provide it than the people themselves?

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