The Senate majority’s decision to exercise the “nuclear option” on presidential nominations is the clearest evidence yet of how much the Senate has changed in the years since we left office. The two of us worked in Congress for, collectively, more than a half-century as Capitol Hill staff, members of the U.S. House and Senate, and Senate majority leaders. We believe in representative democracy as strongly today as we did on the first day we arrived in Washington.
Looking back, we know that many things could have been done better. Partisan battles prevented good people from being confirmed for public office or good legislation from being enacted. But in the 1990s, under Democratic and Republican administrations and Congresses, we ended the decade with balanced federal budgets and more than 22 million new jobs. Telecommunications reform, welfare reform, safe drinking water, portability of insurance, tax cuts, education reform and hundreds of other bills were enacted despite sometimes bitter political disputes, evenly divided party caucuses and a constitutional crisis involving the impeachment of a president.
In recent years, Washington has become deeply polarized and far less civil. Dysfunction has become the status quo. So, what changed?
First, there used to be a shared determination to get things done. When we were in Congress, we had active lines of communication and, for the most part, members were friends. Members spent more time in Washington with their families. There were many occasions to socialize across party lines.
In many ways, the polarization rampant in Washington today reflects the fact that, on matters involving government’s role in society, the American people are deeply divided.
A core challenge for every member of Congress is knowing when to stand one’s ground and when to find common ground. Politicians generally get elected because of their ideological beliefs and the effectiveness with which they articulate positions. Understandably, legislators want to defend their positions during debates. In recent years, however, many lawmakers have taken that tendency to new heights, even pledging that they will never compromise.
The problem with standing one’s ground exclusively is that it assumes that a majority in the House, a supermajority in the Senate and the president of the United States all share that same fervent position. Without compromise, there is no common ground. With no common ground, efforts to address national problems cannot succeed.
This dysfunction is compounded by the fact that members of Congress spend less and less time in Washington. With fewer legislative days, there are fewer opportunities for dialogue and negotiation. It is not uncommon for legislators to leave Washington on Thursdays, return on Tuesdays and attempt to govern on Wednesdays. The Senate calendar expects three weeks of work in Washington and then one week for state work. The House calendar calls for two weeks here and two weeks of district work. Less time in town means fewer opportunities to get to know one another. Less familiarity leads to less trust, which leads to less cooperation, which often leads to less consensus and, ultimately, fewer accomplishments.
Then there is the “permanent campaign.” When we entered Congress, election campaigns lasted a few months. Most of the time when the election ended, the winners came to Washington and attention turned to legislating until the next election cycle started 18 to 20 months later.
Today, there is no end to campaigns. Senators elected to a six-year term start the fundraising process virtually the day after the election. The travel, events and phone calls required for any member in a competitive primary or general election have reached unprecedented levels. The more time spent on fundraising, the less time spent on legislating.
Another effect of the permanent campaign is the practice of members of Congress campaigning against their colleagues. We would have never campaigned against each other. This trend has fractured relationships, undermined trust and diminished chances for a more conducive environment for legislating.
So what should be done?
There is no simple panacea for reform of redistricting issues, campaign finance, voter participation and political advertising. These and structural-reform proposals on the budget, legislative committees and rules ought to be viewed as longer-term matters. But some things could be done to improve the political climate.
First, Congress should return to a five-day workweek and commit to “regular order.” Leadership should schedule votes on Fridays and Mondays to accommodate a more ambitious legislative agenda. Conference committees should be re-established with a commitment to complete the budget and appropriations process on time. If necessary, recesses should be canceled to accommodate this.
Second, joint caucuses should be scheduled at least once a month. The primary focus could be an off-the-record discussion of pending issues with an expectation that members would agree to move at least one matter of legislation for which common agreement could be found at each meeting.
Third, end the Senate practice of “holds.” Members of both parties have abused this practice, which is now tantamount to a veto. Unanimity on a nominee or procedural motion is too high a bar in a democratic legislative process. It invites far too much delay and dysfunction. Given recent events in the Senate, holds on nominees may be less frequent in the near future. But it is more imperative than ever that all senators show respect for Senate rules and procedure.
Fourth, initiate weekly meetings at the White House and quarterly weekend meetings at Camp David. Regular engagement between the president and leaders of Congress is necessary. Camp David offers the opportunity to work and socialize. There is far too little bipartisan socialization among political leaders today.
None of these recommendations is a game-changer. Ultimately, the American people must demand greater statesmanship and legislative achievement. But our political leaders in Washington can do a lot to set the example and improve the tone.