This is a dangerous time for our Republic.*
But this could also be a time of opportunity. There seems to be a readiness for new ideas, and Americans have not lost their willingness to experiment.
We need an agenda that people can rally around, that is inclusive, that focuses honestly on our real problems, that puts the common good — not greed — at the center, and that requires some sacrifice. The sacrifice that is called for is not sacrifice by the rural and urban poor, who have sacrificed mightily and disproportionately for the country in our ill-conceived foreign wars over the past half century, and otherwise. Nor is it sacrifice by the incredible shrinking middle class. It is sacrifice, rather, by the wealthy and the elite, who have largely forgotten what sacrifice means, that is now required to pursue the common good.
In 1994 Newt Gingrich published his Contract With America. That document had important consequences, many unfortunate.
Twenty-five years later, with the Republican Party little more than a mirror of Donald Trump’s whims, with our country in a kind of internal cold war in which both sides agree on very little except that we are not going in the right direction, and with the Democratic Party’s old leadership presenting a tepid agenda that barely addresses our current very difficult circumstances, it is time for an ambitious new Contract with America.
Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract was rather cryptic, doing little more than identify 10 problems that, in his view, needed addressing.
This new Contract with America goes beyond identifying problems and calling for a change in the Oval Office. It identifies 15 core problems and proposes the beginnings of a legislative agenda.
Pursuing the Common Good, with No Citizen Left Behind
1. Whether because of attacks on our democratic institutions by demagogic and corrupt leadership or for more fundamental reasons, or both, it appears that a significant segment of the population either doubts our Democracy’s continued legitimacy or is beginning to doubt it. We need to restore civility, democracy and integrity.
Restore Democracy and Civility and Really Drain the Swamp Act
Require two years of public service after high school or college, with service structured to maximize socio-economic and rural-urban mixing, e.g., children of the metropolitan elite spending two years in rural service.
Establish reasonable Federal Congressional election districts, removing that function from State control and with the assistance of a new, non-partisan Fair Elections Commission.
If that is not possible, outlaw State gerrymandering and establish a non-partisan Fair Elections Commission to work with State officials to draw fair election lines.
Establish reasonable Federal rules for voting in Federal elections, removing that from State control and with the assistance of the non-partisan Fair Elections Commission.
If that is not possible, revive the Voting Rights Act.
Make Election Day a national holiday.
Undo or limit the Citizens United decision with more narrowly drawn restrictions on money in politics that are backed by legislative findings of compelling public need.
Strengthen conflict of interest rules, including for the heads of Federal Departments and the Attorney General, so that binding conflict of interest decisions are made by a person or institution shielded from conflicts and from outside control.
Strengthen prohibitions on Executive Branch interference with any FBI or Justice Department investigation.
Otherwise strengthen public integrity and control of lobbyist laws, along the lines of Senator Warren’s proposed Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act.
Prohibit elected and appointed officials from profiting from their office, during and after terms of service, including from book sales and speaking engagements.
Require public hearings for all major legislation.
Require the public censure by Congress of any Federal office holder or candidate for Federal office whose speech or conduct promotes racism or violence.
Require all candidates for Federal office, nominees for Federal office and appointees to head Federal Departments publicly to disclose their tax returns for the previous 5 years.
Prohibit the use of taxpayer money to pay for settlement of harassment or discrimination claims, and require public disclosure of any settlements of such claims by members of Congress or Federal appointees.
2. Our democratic institutions are under attack from foreign enemies, and so are important parts of our economy. Yet our current leader turns a blind eye to these facts. We need to take action.
Don’t Tread On Me Act
Impose automatic and consequential economic and diplomatic sanctions on any foreign nation or group that attempts to influence an American election, or attempts to hack or otherwise attack any part or element of our economic system or infrastructure, and require an immediate and full public report to Congress by the Executive branch concerning any such attack or attempt.
Require all corporations and other institutions that have been ‘hacked’ to make an immediate and full public report to the Federal government.
Enact legislation to prevent foreign governments or agents from using social media to affect American elections or to sow division in our country.
Impose strict cybersecurity obligations on election bodies, on public utilities and other important infrastructure facilities, on large corporations and other important social and economic institutions.
Require paper back-up for all Federal elections, such that paper recounts are feasible.
3. Our social fabric is being undermined by unprecedented wealth disparities that will grow even larger because of the new tax-cuts-for-the-wealthy. We need to repair the social fabric by insisting on some sacrifice by the very wealthy among us.
Share the Wealth Act
Greatly increase taxes on very high earnings.
Greatly increase the estate tax on very large estates.
Increase the capital gains tax.
Enact a Federal luxury goods sales tax, e.g., on purchases of sports teams, yachts, private planes, real property purchases for more than $2 million.
Restore the corporate income tax to its previous level and repeal the pass-through provisions of the recent tax-cuts-for-the-wealthy legislation.
Tax financial transactions.
Repeal corporate/business tax breaks that do not serve the public interest, including as concerns hedge funds and real estate development.
Restore the tax deduction for payment of state/local taxes.
Greatly decrease taxes on middle and low incomes.
Enact a new tax deduction for the cost of public transportation to work.
Enact a Federal “betterment tax” on the sale by any corporate entity of any property (real property, company or company asset) whose value was created substantially by Federal action, including by any Federal license.
Make these tax increases sufficient to balance the budget within 3 years.
4. Large corporations act solely to maximize return to their shareholders and/or corporate executives, often with little or no regard for the welfare of their employees, their community or their country. We need to impose reasonable limitations on large corporations.
Relief From Corporate Abuse Act
Impose on corporations fiduciary obligations owing to employees and to the community along the lines of Senator Warren’s proposed Accountable Capitalism Act.
Impose limits on management and director salaries/bonuses, such that top compensation can be no larger than a percentage of minimum compensation, as in Federal IRA law.
Strengthen anti-trust laws and enforcement.
Impose sanctions on corporations that move jobs or money abroad or that park money abroad.
Impose privacy and other obligations on social media companies, including prohibiting them from selling personal data.
Strengthen right to unionize laws, along the lines of Senator Sanders’ proposed Workplace Democracy Act.
5. Wall Street threatens most of us every 5 years or so with personal financial ruin. But Wall Street never feels that pain and only grows more filthy rich. We need to curb Wall Street abuses.
Curb Wall Street Abuses Act
Reimpose limits on banks, allowing banks to do banking only.
Break up financial entities that are too big to fail.
Strengthen criminal penalties on corporate criminal behavior and on criminality by corporate agents, and curb the consideration of collateral damage in decisions to prosecute or charge as concerns corporate criminality.
Tax financial transactions (see above) and consider prohibiting algorithmic trading.
Impose fiduciary duties on all financial advisors.
Enact protections for pension fund investments, perhaps with a new Pension Fund Advisory Board that would review and advise pension funds on all very large investment decisions.
6. We continue to have a health care system that provides good and affordable health care only to a portion of our citizens. We need to have a system that cares for all.
Good and Affordable Health Care Act
Enact Medicare for all, including access to mental health services.
If that is not possible, then (a) affirm The Affordable Health Care Act and improve it with ‘tweaking,’ and (b) enact trial Medicare for All in the 4 states most in need, if each such state consents; if no consent, go to the state next most-in-need.
Fully find the recent opioid epidemic relief Federal legislation.
Allow medical marijuana use in any case in which a doctor prescribes it.
Establish price ceilings for all drugs, and move toward lowering drug prices to what is charged in other developed countries.
7. Our education system is vastly under-funded, and our college graduates graduate with crushing debt. And when they graduate, many cannot find jobs that pay a living wage, and many cannot find housing they can afford. We need to correct this.
Guaranteed Education and Jobs Act
Guarantee a college education for everyone who wants it, but with a means test and caps for all grants.
If that is not possible, then enact a trial guarantee for the 4 states most in need, if each such state consents; if no consent, then go to the state next most-in-need.
Guarantee a job for all who want it.
If that is not possible, then enact a trial guarantee for the 4 states most in need, if they consent; if no consent, then go to the next most-in-need state.
Provide some relief for college student loan debt, using a means-based formula.
Raise the minimum wage.
Require pay equity.
Build and rehabilitate 3 million-plus housing units for lower-income and middle-class families, along the lines of Senator Warren’s proposed American Housing and Economic Mobility Act.
Require investment in infrastructure, including modernizing our electric grid, repairing high-hazard dams and levees, bridges, rail systems, etc.
Hold hearings concerning how the Federal Government could assist teachers without undermining State and local control of education. Listen to what State teachers and State officials have to say.
8. Global warming threatens us with catastrophic flooding, fires and other huge risks. It has already happened in many places, and it will get worse. Other environmental degradation threatens our rural and small town communities with unsafe drinking water; poisoned drinking water already exists in many places, and it will get worse. We need to act before it is too late.
Protect Our Environment Act
Expand and strengthen The Safe Drinking Water Act to ensure that rural well-water and other drinking water systems are safe, including imposing criminal penalties on continuing polluters; requiring clean-up, or reimbursement for clean-up, by present or former owners of polluting sources; requiring mandatory expert safe drinking protection statements for any land use or development change that could affect water sources; and providing Federal matching grants to any State-funding clean-up efforts, conditioned on strict pollution rules and adequate enforcement and inspection policies and budgets.
With appropriate legislation, undo the Trump Administration’s undoing of environment regulations.
Require re-entry into the Paris Accords.
Invest in renewable energy.
Take all other reasonable steps to reverse climate change and protect against the dangers of the effects of climate change, including hurricanes and fires.
Require the Executive Branch to allocate disaster resources equitably, in states and territories.
Phase out Federal flood insurance in potential disaster zones.
Restore Bears Ears National Monument and restore recently curtailed protections for all National Parks, Monuments, Forests.
9. Small towns and small farms across America are suffering. We need to help.
Strengthen Small Farms and Towns Act
Beyond what is set forth above, which relates to small farms and towns:
Enact a Farm Bill that provides aid to small and medium size farms, increases access to locally grown food, promotes environmental stability and fully supports the food stamp program, along the lines of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s proposed legislation.
Hold hearings on, and give serious consideration to, the 50-year Farm Bill of the Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas.
Hold hearings on, and give serious consideration to, the Small Town and Regional Vitality Investment Act proposed by then Congressman, now Governor-Elect Tim Walz.
Enforce strengthened anti-trust laws against agribusiness and food corporations.
Reverse trade policies that bring to our markets goods produced in countries with much less stringent environmental, labor and safety laws and practices.
Award grants to towns (and cities) to which soldiers have returned from military action, to establish programs to assure that those soldiers are successfully re-integrated into civilian society.
10. Gun violence is epidemic. We need to take reasonable corrective action.
Sensible Gun Possession Act
Ban assault weapons.
Strengthen restrictions on gun sales, and enact reasonable restrictions on the sale of bullets.
11. Our immigration system is under intense pressure and in some ways has already cracked, as when children have been are taken from their families. We need to take reasonable corrective action.
Sensible Immigration Act
Strengthen the southern border, but without a wall, hiring more immigration officers and border patrol agents.
Strengthen the systems for vetting immigrants, to ensure that no one with a criminal background, or who poses a real danger, gains entry.
Prohibit the separation of children from their families.
Limit the number of new immigrants per year to the average annual limit since WWII, but maintain all existing exceptions to that limit and add an exception for immigrants from any nation that we have intervened in militarily over the previous 6 years.
Increase funding to UN refugee programs and increase foreign aid to any nation that takes in more refugees per capita than we do.
12. We imprison a much higher percentage of our citizens than any other nation. Our Justice system is too often an injustice system. We need to make it just.
Make Justice Real Act
End criminalization of any drug possession or use, and put the cost savings into drug treatment programs.
If that is not possible, legalize marijuana possession and use.
Free all Federal prisoners who are incarcerated due to drug possession or use.
Require that former felons be allowed to vote in Federal elections.
Ban private ownership of Federal jails and prisons and end all other private profiteering from the Federal criminal justice system.
Allow Federal judges discretion in all sentencing, with appellate review. Make this change retroactive, allowing all Federal prisoners who were sentenced without discretion to petition their sentencing court for reconsideration.
End money bail.
Require that for any Federal criminal justice decision to be based on or supported by any algorithmic logic, that logic be fully disclosed and open to rebuttal.
13. Ever since the Vietnam War, we have spent a mind-boggling amount of treasure, and enormous human sacrifice, fighting stupid foreign wars. We need to stop doing that. And we need to help (and not just “honor” with platitudes or parades) the men and women who fought in those wars.
Prevention of Stupid Foreign Wars/Real Support For Our Veterans Act
Require the Executive Branch to end all military action and assistance to current military conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, defunding same if necessary.
Require a full public report to Congress by the Executive Branch concerning any and all military action, or assistance to military action, abroad.
Require Congressional approval of any other or new military action or assistance within 45 days; if not approved, any military action or support is illegal and not funded.
Require and fully fund assistance programs for all soldiers returning from military action, including psychological counseling, resocialization, education, and employment programs, with Federal grants to the relevant localities to participate in these programs.
Repeal recent cuts to military pensions.
Fully fund the VA, including improving and speeding up the processing of claims for compensation.
Establish a Homeless Veterans Program, including the possibility of opening parts of Veterans Hospitals to serve as shelters.
Establish a non-partisan Commission to recommend responsible but very significant reductions in the bloated Defense Department budget.
14. Technology keeps evolving at a geometric rate, threatening major disruptions of our lives and even threatening to take control of us. We need to place reasonable limits on technology.
Protection From Threatening Technology Act
Cushion the disruption of workers and established businesses caused by new technologies, including requiring successful new technology ventures in effect to pay a part of their new wealth to those who are disrupted.
Put reasonable limits on the developments of Artificial Intelligence, including pursuing international treaties on the subject.
Establish a Department of New Technology that would analyze, and periodically make full public reports to Congress about, harmful consequences of new technologies and propose responses to them, including whether Google, Microsoft, Facebook and other technology giants should be treated as kinds of public utilities or whether other new limits should be put on them, and whether limits need to be placed on driverless cars, drones and other new technologies that could present dangers to the public welfare.
15. Some of these issues have existed for years without any legislative response because there has been legislative gridlock for decades. We need creative solutions to the problem of legislative gridlock.
End to Congressional Gridlock Act
If any of the proposed legislation above is not enacted into law within 1 year, then a Commission shall be established to make recommendations to Congress on specific legislation on the subject. The Commission is to be composed of 20 people, 1/5th chosen by the Senate majority leader, 1/5th by the Senate minority leader, 1/5th by the House majority leader, and 1/5th chosen by the House minority leader. The Commission shall be funded such that its members will be paid to work full-time and will be able to hire others familiar with the subject to assist them.
The Commission shall hold at least 2 full days of public hearings in each State, which shall be attended by all Commission members. In a separate public hearing, the Governor of each State shall appoint one person who will present to the Commission the views of that State on the subject. The Commission shall make its legislative recommendations, and text of proposed legislation, public within one year, and there shall be a Yes or No vote on each proposed Bill in both houses of Congress within 6 months. Any elected official voting no shall be required to state his or her reasons in writing.
* This was written in 2018. A lot has happened since then.
Obviously, this legislative agenda needs substantial additions to deal with the covid 19 virus, public health more generally and the virus’ effect on the economy, and with issues of policing, and to be more explicit about issues of racial justice.
Nevertheless, this agenda remains urgent.
Biden needs to stand for something more than opposition to Trump. I suggest that Biden would do well to adopt the slogan, “Pursuing the Common Good, with No Citizen Left Behind,” and parts or all of this agenda.
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