The Commission on Political Reform began its work in 2013. Twenty-nine commissioners— including former Members of Congress, former governors, former cabinet secretaries, and more —conducted their work over the course of 18 months through field hearings across the country, exploring what might be done to change Congress to improve the governing climate.
The commission co-chairs were well-versed in how to do this, representing leadership experience in both the legislative and executive branches of government. The commission’s unanimous bipartisan final report—Governing in a Polarized America: A Blueprint to Strengthen Democracy—contained more than 60 recommendations under the categories of Electoral System Reform, Congressional Reform, and A Call to Service.
Recently, CPR Co-Chairs Tom Daschle, Dan Glickman, and Olympia Snowe discussed the importance of the CPR report’s recommendations in this current political environment—and shared what gives them hope for our democracy during these contentious political times.
We posed three questions. Here’s what they had to say.
In your view, what were the top recommendations in the CPR report that are relevant today?
Daschle: All of our recommendations are perhaps even more relevant today than when we wrote them. But without a doubt, the recommendations on congressional reform are the most important. The legislative branch is broken and nearly completely dysfunctional. The budget process is one of the best examples. As I read our recommendations, each of them apply doubly today.
Glickman: The top recommendations of the commission which are relevant today are the internal reforms in the Senate and the House to make the legislative process work better, and the need for Congress overall to act as an equal constitutional body to the executive branch in everything that it does under our laws. To the extent that Congress acts passively, does not pass its budgets and appropriations on time, and cedes authority in foreign policy to the president, it will continue to weaken itself. I also see Congress asserting itself in foreign policy issues, especially in the Senate, where there is a growing trend toward bipartisan oversight.
Snowe: I believe our recommendations for institutional reforms, including using the committee process to draft legislation to create bipartisan buy-in and creating a more open amendment process, remain critical. At the same time, real progress cannot occur inside Congress without changes outside of Congress, in the electoral process.
As we urged in our report, states should adopt measures to create more open primaries, to move away from closed primary systems which produce more staunchly ideological candidates who do not reflect the true depth and breadth of the American voter. It is also critical for states to establish redistricting commissions, to avoid the kind of single-party gerrymandering that has contributed to political polarization. This is particularly important and urgent as the next round of redistricting will occur in 2020.
What can individual citizens do to make change?
Daschle: Individual citizens can do many things. The key is to be engaged. I would define engagement in several contexts: letters and meetings with members with our recommendations in hand; op-eds to the local papers; supporting “good government” efforts currently underway with financial and personal assistance; and, of course, most importantly, supporting candidates who endorse this agenda.
Glickman: With social media and modern means of communications, it is easier for citizens to approach members of Congress than ever in our history. Sometimes this dialogue is uncomfortable for members, and sometimes the public does not have accurate or current facts at their disposal, but in our democracy the only way for our political and governmental systems to stay relevant and resilient is for there to be open, honest, unvarnished, and transparent dialogue between members and their constituents. I have been concerned that the numbers of open town hall meetings has gone down in the past year; I recognize that some of them have gotten out of hand. But it is dangerous for members to look like they are hiding from those constituents. It is the job of members to educate; in effect they are some of the highest paid teachers in the country.
Snowe: First, I think it is essential to recognize that we are at a tipping point with respect to Congress’s ability to govern. What it will require to turn the tide is that all of us must become more active in providing a political reward at the ballot box for those politicians who work toward common ground when it’s clear their party positions cannot prevail and a political penalty for those who don’t.
The simple truth is, in a democracy, we ultimately get the government we demand. And if we demand and value bipartisanship we will get it. Fortunately, there are still plenty of us in America to make that happen. In one study conducted since the early 1970s, Americans were asked about their ideology and even today, very few describe themselves as “extremely” conservative or liberal, and the rest who called themselves conservative, liberal or moderate have remained relatively stable over the past 40 years—even as Congress has become dramatically more polarized. So, it is incumbent upon all of us who aren’t at the far ends of the political spectrum to stand up and speak out.
What are you seeing and/or hearing that gives you hope for our democracy?
Daschle: There isn’t much to point to today regarding our democracy that we can feel good about. But I will share a conversation I had with the president of the country of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili, a couple weeks ago. Over dinner we talked about Trump, the wild time this has been and the embarrassment he has been to the office. But the president made a comment that I have thought about a lot. He said that in many ways his country was even more impressed with the U.S. these past six months because of the strength of our governmental institutions. He cited several examples: a judge in Hawaii overrules the President of the United States on his Muslim ban; an investigation by a respected former FBI Director of the president; oversight of this administration, particularly in the Senate Intelligence Committee, regarding the possibility of Trump collusion with Russian efforts to disrupt the last election.
Glickman: There is greater citizen involvement today than in many years. The current health care debate is an example where average citizens are speaking out more forcefully and candidly than in many years. That is certainly a positive trend in our democracy. To some extent, this is an antidote to the obscene amount of money spent by interest groups with resources. There are some encouraging trends that more citizens are running for political office at all levels, especially Congress. Many of these people are political moderates, not captive by the political right or left. There is more discussion by academics and intellectuals about making changes to our election systems, in the redistricting process and in other areas. I remain concerned that the obsessive fixation of raising money in races for Congress remains an odious and dangerous development that never seems to end. And both parties, notwithstanding their protestations to the contrary, seem unlikely to have the political clout or will or inclination to change that phenomena. I really worry that all this money paralyzes the ability to solve the public’s problems, and remains a dangerous threat to our democratic institutions.
Snowe: This is indisputably a troubling time for our democracy and our nation. People are concerned not only about the level of polarization in Washington, which one group of political scientists found is at the highest level since Reconstruction, but also a coarsening of political discourse and a lack of civility in our national dialogue.
I believe it was a glimmer of hope when the next generation of leaders, the freshman class in the U.S. House of Representatives, recently recommitted themselves to a Commitment to Civility at an event co-hosted by BPC. Moreover, I am encouraged by the fact that, everywhere I’ve traveled on behalf of BPC and giving speeches across the country, Americans understand intuitively that we cannot allow Congress to default to the lowest legislative common denominator and forfeit the opportunity to collaborate for the sake of our nation’s future.
People are deeply concerned that the current dysfunction will continue as a permanent culture, as they have increasingly experienced an alarming detachment of our governing systems from their daily lives. Throughout our history, Americans have always confronted and conquered our challenges together, and I fervently believe there are still enough individuals from both parties across this country who ultimately will step up and not allow the status quo to become the new norm.