It’s a bold goal. Audacious, even, by a sponsoring organization’s own admission: The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate hopes to use its resources, reach, and replica of that storied chamber to remind the dysfunctional real deal in DC of what it should be.
By reintroducing the nation to lively, respectful debate between senators of different parties and vastly divergent points of view.
To that end, at Monday noon, the institute will kick off a jointly sponsored project with an hour-long debate between US Senators Bernie Sanders, the independent democratic socialist from Vermont, and Lindsey Graham, the former John McCain wingman-turned-Trump-allied Republican from South Carolina.
Their broad topic: the economy.
The two will debate for an hour in the Kennedy Institute’s full-size reproduction of the US Senate chamber on the University of Massachusetts Boston campus, with Fox News’s Bret Baier serving as moderator and Fox Nation living-streaming the event.
A second such debate, between as yet unnamed senators and hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center, will be held in July at George Washington University, while the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation will host a third in Utah in the fall, with more debates to come thereafter.
One goal of the so-called Senate Project program is to give Americans a sense of how the US Senate could operate.
In other times, one might well have said: If I want to see US senators debate, I’ll simply turn on C-Span. But when was the last time the Senate had an edifying debate that wrestled intelligently with a complex issue?
Which brings us to the other aim.
“Our goal is at very least to remind senators that constructive dialogue and civil debate can yield positive results even though the person you are debating with has a very different perspective,” said Bruce Percelay, chairman of the institute’s board.
That’s an admirable aspiration for an institute whose mission is to educate the public about the Senate and invigorate civil discourse, and which is cultivating a reputation for bipartisanship. But does Percelay really think these debates will help call the US Senate back to a higher purpose?
“If anyone is in a position to do it, it is us‚” said Percelay. “That may sound audacious, but if you don’t try, you won’t succeed.”
The Hatch Foundation is part of this project because the hope is to rekindle in the Senate the spirit of collegiality and productivity that existed between that political odd couple, Ted Kennedy, the latitudinarian lion of the left, and Orrin Hatch, the straight-arrow stalwart of the right. The impetus came from former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and former senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, both of whom serve on the institute’s board, as does Andy Card, chief of staff under President George W. Bush.
Daschle and Dodd have grown increasingly concerned that the Senate is too dysfunctional to serve the nation’s needs.
“Part of the way the Senate has always contributed is through a robust deliberation of the challenges and issues of the day,” Daschle said in an interview. “The most important thing we think we can do is bring back the degree of deliberation that used to be such an integral part of the Senate.”
At its best, the Senate of middle memory was a unique and remarkable institution, a place where men and women representing very different states, regions, and outlooks tried to hammer out compromises that were acceptable to a diverse country on the pressing issues of the day.
Today, it’s the broken branch of our government, a body where little of significance is debated proactively, much less accomplished. Legislation drafted in the respective caucus leaders’ offices regularly supplants the traditional policy-development role of committees. (Last year’s infrastructure law was the rare exception that proves the rule.)
Then there’s the rust lock imposed by routine use of a virtual filibuster. The blame there lies lopsidedly with Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who has made requiring a filibuster-ending supermajority of 60 senators the prerequisite for almost any action, the better to enhance his power and obstruct for partisan advantage the agenda of President Biden and, before that, Barack Obama. A Senate where matters can’t regularly be decided by majority vote is a body that can’t reliably meet the needs of the country.
The people happiest about the Senate’s current state of dysfunction are the autocrats in Moscow and Beijing, who see it as confirmation of their view that democracy is an outdated form of governance, said Daschle.
One wishes the Kennedy Institute and its partners success. But realism compels this question: Given how far it has slipped, is the Senate really fixable? Daschle’s portentous reply:
“You have to believe it is fixable, because the alternative is unacceptable.”
Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.