Surprise! There may be a way to fix Washington.

November 10, 2014

U.S. President Obama hosts a luncheon for bi-partisan Congressional leaders in the Old Family Dining Room at the White House in Washington

The morning after the midterm elections, one of the best places to go for hope that the 114th Congress might actually get something done was a think tank not far from the Capitol called the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Founded in 2007 by four former Senate majority leaders and its director, Jason Grumet, the BPC gave itself the mission of trying to figure out how to make government work in a time when hyperpartisanship seemed to be bringing Washington to an almost complete stop.

Last Wednesday morning, former majority leaders Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) and Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) talked about how things used to work, in a time when members of Congress lived where they worked, their kids grew up together, their spouses were friends, and compromise happened because people trusted each other, even when they profoundly disagreed.

If you want to know how bad it has become, the place to go is Grumet’s recently published book, City of Rivals: The Glorious Mess of American Democracy. “The people I have spoken to across the country who are absolutely the most fed up with Congress are members of Congress,” he said in an interview. “It’s a horrible experience. One U.S. senator described his job to me as ‘a glorified telemarketer who occasionally gets to vote for an assistant secretary of education.’”

Grumet’s story is about a breakdown of trust between the people and their representatives that started with Vietnam and Watergate but snapped outright when the reforms that followed “our long national nightmare,” as President Gerald Ford put it, failed to produce a new dawn.

The series of bribery, embezzlement and money-laundering scandals that hit Congress in the 1980s and 1990s led to many positive ethical reforms. But the scandals of the 2000s, encompassed in the name of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, were so sordid and pervasive that they put every member of Congress under suspicion, and the wave of reform that followed created as many problems as it solved.

As evidence, Grumet reports watching a group of high-priced corporate lawyers urgently hacking up finger food before a party where legislators were expected, so that the portion sizes would be in line with the so-called “toothpick exemption.”

“While recognizing that these rules were not in the best interest of the [Congress],” Grumet writes, the members “simply could not go on the record voting against them.”

In a reaction Grumet describes as “strategic self-loathing,” every sitting and hopeful elected official began running away from Washington, politically and literally. Members sold their homes and moved back to their states and districts. To avoid allegations of corruption, members stopped traveling together. The Congressional work week shortened from five days to three, and more and more of a legislator’s time in Washington was spent raising money to meet the rising costs of elections, especially since the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United. Tightening this vicious circle, the flow of money into PACs went mostly into negative ads that only encouraged public cynicism.

Eventually, the members of Congress no longer knew, much less trusted, each other. From a place where people could debate and negotiate their disagreements in an atmosphere of trust and friendship, Congress became a stage on which strangers arranged themselves in front of C-SPAN cameras, and posturing for constituents replaced serious policy debate. 

Some of Grumet’s prescriptions for these and other problems may seem politically incorrect, but they are founded on not only the work of the BPC’s researchers in residence but also the long experience of the center’s four co-founders–George Mitchell, Tom Daschle, Robert Dole and the late Howard Baker. Among them:

  • Stop passing laws that try to prevent acts that are already criminal. Let the FBI and capital police do their jobs.
  • Instead of stigmatizing all lobbyists as potential Jack Abramoffs, which threatens the work of serious policy experts along with loophole hucksters, don’t stop the revolving door, just make sure the bad guys don’t get through it. “There are a lot of lobbyists who have no business serving in the federal government,” Grumet said in an interview, “and there are a lot of lobbyists who are absolutely talented public policy experts.” (Grumet becomingly concedes that he and the BPC have a dog in this fight, since they too have a lobbying arm that pushes for bipartisan policy solutions.)
  • Return Congress to a five-day work week, and make Congressional travel a mandatory committee assignment, not a perk, to give members both close exposure to high-priority issues and the time and space they need to build trust in each other.
  • Members of Congress must have a way to debate against each other in some forum where their words don’t end up taken out of context in the next round of negative campaign ads, which is to say in private. As a journalist, it’s hard for me to advocate for less transparency, but the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, for example, could never have agreed on our founding document except in the complete secrecy of the “dark conclave.” Open government must somehow coexist with the kind of candid deliberations that happen behind closed doors, and in the interest of a functional democracy we need to find that middle ground.
  • Since the Supreme Court has set loose the flood of Big Money into politics, and since the Supreme Court isn’t going anywhere, focus for now on full and immediate disclosure of donors — no delay and no exceptions.
  • Encourage the shift away from the PACs’ knife-sharp negative ads by raising the limits on donations to the political parties, which are more accountable than anonymous, benignly aliased PACs will ever be.
  • Finally, bring back “earmarks” — not the bridges to nowhere of the bad old days, but the kind of funding for worthy local projects that makes a decision to do the right thing for the country as a whole compatible with political survival for the member who takes a “hard” vote. The prohibition of earmarks since 2011, while addressing a very real problem of abuse, robbed Congress of one of the most important means of squaring national, state and local interests, a fundamental tension in the U.S. Constitution and in the federal form of government.

This summary does Grumet’s work a disservice if it suggests that he advocates letting Congress get back to its junkets, fat cats and pork. He does not. What he advocates is government that can function even in a time of highly charged partisanship.

The polarization that exists today clearly doesn’t have to be fatal to our democracy, he argues, since it actually used to be a lot worse.

The campaign rhetoric of 1800, for example, when Thomas Jefferson ran against John Adams for the presidency, makes MSNBC and Fox News look like founts of bipartisan reason. One of Adams’s favorite newspapers said that if Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will all be openly taught and practiced.” Jefferson’s flack called Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force nor firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

By that standard, even the nastiest races of 2014 races seem polite.

Grumet’s bottom line is this: “If your choice is to make the country less partisan or make a partisan country governable, I think the choice is pretty clear.”

Jefferson and Adams would have to agree.
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I welcome your comments, reactions, amplifications, relevant links and ideas for future columns. You can reach me at jimgaines.reuters@gmail.com

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama hosts a luncheon for bi-partisan Congressional leaders in the Old Family Dining Room at the White House in Washington, Nov. 7, 2014. From left to right are Speaker of the House John Boehner, Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. REUTERS/Larry Downing 

6 comments

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‘Fixing Washington’ via the suggestions offered by Mr. Gaines has to be seen in a much larger context and therefore as a small part of any overall solution. For a democracy to function like we all would [supposedly] like to see it function means you must have an educated and informed body politic. Right now, we don’t have that here in the US, a result of a relentless dumbing down campaign that really started to [re]gain traction about 35 years ago and that’s still going strong. It has resulted in the election of more dimwitted reps who are so strident and set in their ways/beliefs that not even Jesus himself would be able to convince them to change their ways for the benefit and betterment of the US and its democracy. Washington will only be fixed when more and more of us can become better educated and informed and can think more critically and objectively. Asking for a return to a more sanitized version of the status quo from years ago in and of itself simply won’t do it.

Posted by trevdiman | Report as abusive

I can only see Washington functioning when the one party stops hating government, stops starving the beast ideology, and understands there needs to be a strong tax base to invest in the future.

A 20 year infrastructure plan that includes clean water and air, roads and bridges, seaports and airports, water and sewer lines, etc.

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

there is an extremely simple way to fix the Federal government.

term limits. this is the USA, this is not a country ruled by dictators and their families / descendents.

read the news: a bill passes the Senate or House but “Mr. Big” aka Speaker X of the Y will not allow it to be considered in the ‘other half’ of Congress.

Excuse me, we did not elect the Speaker of anything to be a dictator. we elected people to represent us – you know, “WE” – the people.

people become professional politicians. they “owe” everyone they look at some favor or another. none of them do anything in the interest of the country or the nation, they only act in their own interests / re-election issues.

so – two terms, that’s it. no senior-super-power-broker-politicians.

do not expect the Congress to pass any such legislation. it is up to “WE the people” to send these fifty year politicians home without a job.

solves the power broker problem.
solves the lobbyist problem.
solves the “The Party Insist You Vote Like This” problem.
allows no elected politician to become inordinately influential.
solves the corruption/graft/payola issue – who’s going invest billions in a politician who will not be there next year?

no pensions, no life-time benefits.
cash out their 401K and send them on their way.

just like the founding fathers envisioned.

Posted by Breadie | Report as abusive

Good article. And good comments.

Posted by NotWhoUThink | Report as abusive

There is a way to fix Washington; to break the gridlock and get meaningful reform on Corp taxes, Govt Spending, Immigration, a National Energy Policy and many other important areas for our Country. And it is happening already in Washington; as I write this miraculously the Senate will now take up the Keystone Pipeline – something that Harry Reid and Obama have sat on for 6 long years.
Why do you think this came about? Why is Harry allowing this now? Because for the 1st time in 6 years, Obama and Reid fear losing control of the Legislative Agenda; something that they have used to promote the gridlock in Congress that we all hate.

Keystone is the proverbial ‘first olive out of the botttle’. GOP leadership along with mainstream Democratic support in both the House and Senate, who know that 2016 is not that far away, will start to send substantive bills to the President on a number of important issues. He will be forced to either agree and vote with the Nation, or he will veto and identify himself and his party as the real impediment to fixing Washington.

Posted by willich6 | Report as abusive

We need to start holding our politicians to standards in the same way that employees are held to employer standards. Most of our Congressmen and Senators (and Presidents, for that matter) act more like, and are treated more like, celebrities than leaders. Many of them would have been fired already if they were being assessed by and practical standard. They are awful at doing their jobs. This is a massive problem because they have the most important jobs in the country and we as their employer need to stand up and put them back in their place. They’re supposed to be our representatives, not our overlords.

Posted by mynrkt | Report as abusive