It has become routine to talk about the polarization in Washington leading to gridlock and dysfunction in Congress. But Washington need not be irretrievably broken.
For the past year, we have been working toward a solution as members of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform. The commission is investigating the causes and consequences of America’s partisan political divide to develop and champion concrete reforms in three critical areas: electoral reform, public service, and congressional reform.
The American people understand intuitively the urgency of this mission. In a CBS News poll, Congress received a meager 13 percent job approval rating, while 63 percent of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. In February, a Gallup survey found that dissatisfaction with government, Congress, and politicians ranked third on a list of the most important problems facing the country today, just slightly behind unemployment and the economy.
The late Senator Edward Kennedy was often called the “liberal lion” of the Senate, but he was respected by members on both sides of the aisle as a legislator’s legislator. He knew that legislating was not a zero sum game, that one side did not have all the answers and that accepting less than 100 percent of what you want is usually the only means of securing most of what you seek.
The divisiveness that has come to define politics and Congress today is not representative of the way things always were, or how they must be in the future. The forces of polarization can, in fact, be defeated — but it will require bold action and a comprehensive prescription for change.
The commission will release its recommendations in June. They include changes in our system of primary elections, independent mechanisms for redrawing congressional districts, and the possibilities for campaign finance reform. We will also address how best to ensure fairness in access to voting while securing the integrity of our electoral process — especially as perpetual disagreement over the rules between the parties only exacerbates polarization and hardens the allegiance of party members as they seek advantage over their opponents.
To bolster the capacity for legislative productivity and, indeed, to foster better relationships between members, Congress should return to a schedule of five-day work weeks in Washington. Out of 78 days in 2014 (through March 19), the Senate has worked only 28 of them, the House 29. Instituting a full work week would not only secure additional time for engaging in the kind of bipartisan process necessary to forge legislation that can actually pass, but also for greater relationship-building across the political aisle.
Moreover, Congress must allow the regular order of the legislative process to guide issues to enactment. Increasingly, House and Senate committees have become marginalized, as bills are more frequently brought to the floor as directed by the congressional leadership, and as 11th-hour agreements are forged to avoid impending deadlines, as we witnessed during the debt ceiling showdowns and last fall’s government shutdown. These committees should be serving, as they have in the past, as incubators for developing bipartisan consensus before legislation reaches the full Senate.
Congress must also take steps to diffuse the endless cycle of political standoffs over the debt and government spending and revenues. A key first step would be to shift to passing a budget every two years, rather than annually. This would help restore budgetary discipline, and also provide additional time for Congress to engage in aggressive oversight of existing programs.
Communication among the parties, the chambers, and the branches of government must be improved. Joint meetings of the Republican and Democratic membership should be scheduled in both chambers on a regular basis, focused on discussion of pending issues with an expectation that members would agree to move at least one matter of legislation at each meeting. And the president should conduct regular, monthly meetings with congressional leaders, and attend a bipartisan joint congressional caucus twice a year.
We don’t pretend that these measures alone constitute a complete solution to the hyper-partisanship that is spawning today’s gridlock of monumental proportions. Rather, returning to functional government will require a multi-pronged strategy, and these measures should be part of any comprehensive solution.
It will indeed be a journey of a thousand miles. But it is a distance we can traverse if we will commit ourselves to beginning now and walking the path together, motivated by the reality that the status quo of stalemate politics can no longer be sustained.