It does not take a veteran of Congress to recognize that our nation’s political discourse is increasingly partisan. But to identify and solve the most persistent causes of dysfunction, it does not hurt to have a few decades of public service under your belt. Representative Jim Cooper (D-TN), BPC Senior Fellow Senator Trent Lott, and BPC Democracy Project Co-Chair Secretary Dan Glickman hosted a luncheon to bring together former members of Congress, academics, and policy experts from across the ideological spectrum. The topic of discussion was how to best remedy Washington’s atmosphere of overwhelming partisanship that has too often put a stranglehold on effective government. Moderated by Democracy Project Director John Fortier, the discussion brought forth a number of creative approaches to improve the political climate.
Institutional reform was cited as a key to easing the governing crisis. Rep. Cooper, who has been a leading voice in calling for more civility in politics, described how the House has been transformed—not always for the better—since Newt Gingrich’s years as Speaker. Greater power in the Speaker’s office, and less authority vested in the Committees, has resulted in diminished cooperation and more strong-arm votes. The House, Cooper observed, has become an instrument for achieving the majority party’s goals regardless of the national interest. Gerrymandering and corporate money, particularly in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, have combined to make parties far too powerful and stretch the campaign season into a multi-year, round-the-clock affair.
Dr. Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute offered a plan to end the “Tuesday-to-Thursday club,” requiring members of Congress to spend more time legislating and less time raising money, whether in their home states or in Washington. By combining a three-weeks-on, one-week-off schedule, a ban on fundraising activities while Congress is in session, and a generous housing allowance, legislators would be given an incentive to remain in D.C. and spend time with their colleagues. Ornstein believes this would lead to both increased legislative efficiency and greater interpersonal relationships between members, a crucial component to engineering compromise. And a friendly House is a civil House; as more than one former member pointed out, friends do not attack friends for political gain.
Senator Lott noted the stark disparity between the collegial atmosphere that existed in the 1970s and ‘80s and today’s constant election season that drives members apart both professionally and personally. His experiences, he said, have led him to believe that personal friendship might be the most undervalued tool in the American political system.
Secretary Glickman provided a passionate analysis of the connection between the shortcomings of the political system and the ballooning federal deficit: the outsized influence of special interest money in politics is a prime factor in the national debt for the simple reason that no corporation, interest group, or lobby ever asks to raise taxes or cut spending; everyone petitions for their own economic interest, be it a tax break or a government subsidy. The flow of money has made it harder and harder for politicians to refuse.
If there is one argument to be made for improving bipartisanship, it might be that a room full of conservatives, liberals, and centrists can find so much common ground on such a complex issue. The challenges facing our country are daunting at times, but with mutual understanding and compromise, they can also be solved by rejecting the extremes and adhering to the middle path.
James Kennedy contributed to this post.