How to fix Congress? Citizens get involved

Limits on filibusters, nonpartisan redistricting, open primaries – those and several other possible political reforms got a mention Thursday night as two former members of Congress spoke in Charlotte about how polarized and paralyzed Washington has become.

But the theme running through just about everything former Sen. Olympia Snowe and former Rep. Dan Glickman told the audience of 600-plus was this: Don’t sit around waiting for Washington to fix itself. Change will only come when many more average citizens get engaged and speak up.

“It’s going to require pressure from the public to get involved and hold them accountable,” said Snowe, a Republican from Maine. “I think many people underestimate the power of their voices and their input.”

Added Glickman, a Democrat from Kansas who later served as secretary of agriculture: “The people need to speak up, first and foremost.”

Thursday night’s event inaugurated “Our Times, Re-imagined: A Distinguished Speakers Series,” organized by the Observer and underwritten by Bank of America.

Judging from reaction after the 90-minute event, many got the Washington veterans’ message.

“We have to do it ourselves,” said LuAnn Ritsema, 60, of Charlotte, who works for Council for Children’s Rights. “I think that’s the hard work. It’s easy to complain and have opinions. It’s harder to show up, and not just once every four years.”

That’s also what Tony Edwards, a retired businessman from Charlotte, took away from the evening.

“It’s extremely complicated, and there are no quick-fix solutions,” said Edwards, who’s in his mid-70s. “But you have to start somewhere.”

And that somewhere, he added, is “Engage your local politician.”

Snowe and Glickman, who are among five co-chairs of the bipartisan Commission on Political Reform, said it’s especially urgent that more young people buy into the basics of civic involvement – study up on issues, contact their elected representatives, and vote.

Their point was reinforced by the overflow crowd at Booth Playhouse: The great majority appeared to be over 50.

Monica Hoffman, 34, of Charlotte, noticed that, too. She found out about the event from her parents.

“It’s interesting to hear from leadership who have actually dealt with these issues,” said Hoffman, who works for an immigration attorney. “And they really spoke to the common person. A lot of time it’s confusing to young people (what’s coming out of Washington). I feel like I should be more involved.”

The conversation was moderated by Charlotte businessman Erskine Bowles, a former White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton who occasionally aired his own desire for more bipartisanship – and his disgust with how toxic the country’s political environment has become.

“I think most of us are just plain sick and tired of seeing all the negative (campaign) ads from the left and the right,” said Bowles, who introduced Glickman and Snowe as “a Democrat and Republican who actually like each other” and “two magnificent bipartisan leaders.”

The commission Snowe and Glickman co-chair was created in 2013 by the Washington-based nonprofit Bipartisan Policy Center. After 18 months of deliberations and national town hall meetings, the group put together a report with 65 recommendations.

But audience members who approached microphones with questions appeared to want a shorter list of what is doable now.

Snowe said the commission’s lobbyists are focusing on six:

• Open congressional primaries, in hopes of raising the low turnout – and the dominance by the far right and far left – in such elections.

• Independent commissions to draw congressional districts to avoid gerrymandering that favor one political party.

• Five-day workweeks for members of the House and Senate, to make time for more legislating.

• Restoration of a strong committee process in Congress, so that issues are aired and more members have a say.

• Limited filibusters, along with giving the minority party more freedom to introduce amendments to bills.

• Build a citizen reform movement to drive all these changes.

Some of the commission’s other main recommendations: Encourage young people to spend a year in military or other public service and require disclosure of all political contributors.

The two speakers punctuated their comments with their own stories, which further illustrated how gridlock and the growing influence of campaign cash have resulted in a broken system in Washington.

Snowe, a moderate Republican in a GOP that’s become increasingly conservative, left the Senate in 2012 after 34 years in Congress. She cited her frustration with the Senate’s inaction and its obsession with short-term partisan victories.

“I was full-tilt running for re-election when it hit me like a brick wall,” she said. “People don’t want to solve problems anymore, and I recognized that would not diminish in the short term.”

Glickman said he and the Republican congressman he unseated in 1976 each spent $100,000 on their campaigns.

“That race today would cost $3 million to $5 million,” he said. And the chance that some wealthy ideological donor could drop millions to beat you, Glickman said, makes members of Congress “afraid of (their) own shadow and not willing to do anything.”

The biggest need, both Snowe and Glickman agreed, was for centrist voters to get more involved in a political process that has become captive to hard-line ideologues on the left and right – often the only ones voting in congressional primaries.

Most Americans, Glickman said, are centrists who “are between the 30-yard line and the 30-yard line. But people near the end zones are the ones calling the shots.”

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