Democrat Dan Glickman has seen the American political process work – and not work – from various perspectives.
He has been a U.S. representative from Kansas (1977-1994), secretary of agriculture in the Clinton administration (1995-2001), director of Harvard’s Institute of Politics (2001-2004) and a lobbyist for Hollywood (2004-2010).
He’ll be in Charlotte on Thursday to talk about ways to fix what has been widely described as a dysfunctional political system, especially in Washington.
Glickman, 69, recently spoke with the Observer. The Q&A has been edited.
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Q. Your commission did what Congress has not done: got a bunch of Democrats and Republicans together to act and even compromise. Are you showing Congress the way as well as offering 65 reform proposals?
A. We had liberals, conservatives, extreme conservatives, extreme liberals, and people in the middle. It took a lot of time, and we had a lot of in-depth discussions.
That’s something Congress doesn’t do – spend the necessary time to drill down into these issues. But if you spend enough time and you’re focused on an objective, I think compromise and consensus-building is possible, even likely.
Now there are things that made our situation different. We had lots of time. It’s something Congress doesn’t have a lot of – in part because they’re spending all their time raising (campaign) money.
Q. Many think tank reports suggesting similar reforms are gathering dust. What’s the chance Congress will act on these?
A. Most think tanks don’t do advocacy. We’ve got a team that’s out working to implement these recommendations over the next year or two. And we have folks going up to (Capitol) Hill and lobbying on them.
The reaction (from Congress) has been positive. They view this report as comprehensive. Some simple things that we recommended – a five-day workweek, for example – are things most members would like to see done. Hopefully, this report will help facilitate that.
Q. What can ordinary people do?
A. People need to speak personally and loudly to their members of Congress about actions they want to see our government take. The public is not as engaged as they need to be in letting Congress know that they will look with deep suspicion on those members who don’t try to work things out – on moving the highway bill or dealing with immigration or just getting along.
What’s happening is that members of Congress largely hear from people at the extremes and don’t hear from people in what I call the center part of the political equation.
Q. In Congress, it seems as if moderates are an endangered species. What can be done to bring those people in the middle back into power?
A. I think most members of Congress are actually in that center-left/middle/center-right category. But because of congressional redistricting, most districts are now homogenous one-party districts. Therefore, the extremes on the right and the left tend to dominate. That makes it tough for members of Congress to gravitate toward solutions.
And that, accompanied by the changing nature of the media, has created a culture where consensus-building and compromise are viewed as weakness.
Q. Public approval of Congress is in single digits. What would have the most impact in restoring that trust?
A. Congress ought to work like normal people do, which is every (weekday). Part of their job is (meeting with) their constituency. So they do need to go home on a periodic basis. But not come (to Washington) on a Tuesday morning and leave on Wednesday, (as they do) more and more.
The most important thing Congress can do is to work to pass substantive legislation, where people can see they’re doing their work. They need to show the ability to pass things. Now you can’t even get nominees for federal jobs confirmed. If the public’s business isn’t getting done, it leads folks to (wonder), “Why do we even have a government?”
Q. What about the role of the president?
A. Sometimes when we focus on Congress, we under-focus on the role of the White House. The president is the only one who speaks for all the people. The leadership that a president shows is critical to getting things done. I’m sure it’s true that it’s very difficult to work with the partisanship in Congress. But without a president trying to overcome that – working on it day by day – these problems are hard to solve.
Q. The commission calls on Americans 18 to 28 to give one year of public service. That’s not a new idea, but it’s not usually linked with political reform. How would it help fix the system?
A. The sense of responsibility and community, which you certainly see in the military and, classically, in “The Greatest Generation,” as Tom Brokaw wrote about, is something that helps build a country and makes sure its foundations are strong.
It also allows people to see others (outside) their traditional social mix, and it tends to give them a belief that what you do on the ground can change lives. So it creates a culture of engagement. And that is what is missing now.
It also tends to help with voting – most people who serve also vote. That’s also an important part of American democracy.