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A shout-out to the best, but not most popular, ideas in Congress

By Ezra Klein,

This column is usually about the Big Issues. Health-care reform. The deficit. The debt ceiling. The grand, Ragnarok-level clashes (you were into Norse mythology when you were younger, too, right?) between the two parties.

But not today. Today I want to introduce the No-Brainer Awards: a roll call honoring some of the best legislative ideas you won’t see leading the evening news. These thoughtful bills and responsible reforms aren’t polarizing or sweeping, which you’d think would make it easier for them to pass. But for many of them, the absence of partisan passion means they never make it to the front of the congressional agenda. So let’s give them a push.

The taxpayer receipt

When I buy groceries, I get a receipt. When I buy a chair whose name I can’t pronounce from Ikea, I get a receipt. But once a year, I send a whole heap of money to the federal government and I get . . . nothing. But it would be trivial for Treasury to provide me with an itemized receipt showing how my money was spent. Then, for good or for bad, I’d know.

The White House created an online tool where you can enter your income and tax payments and see what your receipt would look like (make your own at www.whitehouse.gov/taxreceipt), but there are bipartisan bills in both the House and the Senate to go even further and have Treasury send all taxpayers the receipt they deserve.

The Weekend Voting Act

Ever wondered why Election Day always falls on a Tuesday? It dates to 1845, when Congress was trying to find a convenient day for a largely agrarian society to vote. It took many voters a day or so to travel into town, and a day to travel back out, and it was important for everyone to be home on Sunday, as that was the Lord’s day. So Tuesday seemed like a good compromise. And maybe, in 1845, it was. But in 2011? It looks less like a compromise and more like a conspiracy.

“They don’t want you to vote,” Chris Rock said. “If they did, we wouldn’t vote on a Tuesday.”

Rep. Steve Israel and Sen. Herb Kohl have a bill that would move Election Day to the first full weekend in November — two days when most Americans don’t have to work, drop their kids off at school or rush home to prepare dinner. A compromise, in other words, that fits the economy in 2011 rather than the economy in 1845.

End the penny

In 2007, economist Austan Goolsbee wrote an op-ed article in which he asked, “How dumb do you have to be to mint money at a loss?” Goolsbee is now President Obama’s chief economic adviser, so it would be unwise for him to answer his own question. But I’ll do it for him: really, really dumb. And we’re doing it.

It now costs 1.7 cents to pound out a penny, which means we’d save billions of dollars by retiring the hardy coin.

And it’s time to get rid of it anyway. America has never kept a coin in circulation that’s worth as little as the penny is today. In 1867, when the half-cent coin was phased out, the penny was worth 26 cents at today’s rates. But today we’ve got a coin worth 25 cents. It’s time for the penny to enjoy a well-deserved rest.

The Pay for War Act

War costs money. When we don’t pay for it, it costs even more money, because we have to pay interest on the debt we rack up and the absence of fiscal discipline keeps us from making hard choices.

That’s why Sen. Al Franken’s Pay for War Act should be such an easy sell. The resolution says nothing about the legitimacy or desirability of armed intervention. It just says that we, rather than our grandchildren, should bear the cost of the conflicts we start.

As Franken said in an eloquent speech on the floor of the Senate, “The idea that we should pay for our wars is not a Democratic idea, and it’s not a Republican idea. It’s not left or right. It’s not antiwar, it’s not pro-war. It’s just common sense.” Or, to put it slightly differently, it’s just a No-Brainer.

Stop hogging the beachfront

We can see our physical infrastructure crumbling. In fact, we can feel it wreck our suspension as we drive over it. But our invisible infrastructure — the electromagnetic spectrum that carries all information that doesn’t come through a cord — isn’t in much better shape.

We handed off the rights to the best of it, the “beachfront” spectrum that can carry lots of information over long distances, decades ago, when broadcast television seemed like the height of technological achievement and no one had ever heard of an iPad. But now there’s no good way for the television guys to sell it to the iPad guys, or the iPhone guys, or even the emergency broadcast guys. So they sit on it.

Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Kay Bailey Hutchison have legislation that would allow spectrum holders to sell at auction, giving them a reason to give it up to more productive uses and free the innovations of the 21st century from the decisions we made in the 20th.

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