Politics & Government

Former Washington insiders think they have a plan to make Congress work

Their combined experience in Congress adds up to more than a century – 119 years, to be exact.

But now these former members of the Senate and House – three Republicans, two Democrats – are sounding the alarm in this election year about a Washington that has become so polarized, dysfunctional and unpopular that they asked whether democracy can function effectively in such a partisan atmosphere.

It can, say these co-chairs of the Commission on Political Reform, but only if Americans demand more bipartisan problem-solving and less ideological rancor. Armed with a new report that calls for changing Congress, the electoral system and Americans’ commitment to public service, the commission’s leaders are barnstorming the country to build support for this plan they’re calling a blueprint to end gridlock in Washington.

Two of them will be in Charlotte on Thursday night. Speaking to a sold-out audience of 600-plus at uptown’s Booth Playhouse will be Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican who left the Senate in 2013 out of frustration over inaction, and Dan Glickman, a Kansas Democrat who served in the House and as President Bill Clinton’s secretary of agriculture.

Moderating the evening’s conversation: Erskine Bowles of Charlotte, a former White House chief of staff. Like the out-of-town speakers, Democrat Bowles also established a reputation for seeking bipartisan solutions as co-chair, with former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, better known as the Simpson-Bowles Commission.

The Thursday event will inaugurate “Our Times, Re-imagined: A Distinguished Speakers Series,” organized by The Charlotte Observer and underwritten by Bank of America.

Besides Snowe and Glickman, the other co-chairs of the 29-member commission are former Senate majority leaders Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Trent Lott, R-Miss., and former Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho.

A fountain of ideas

The group was launched in March 2013 by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based nonprofit. After 18 months of investigation and deliberation – including four national town hall meetings – the commission produced a 109-page report with 65 recommendations.

The proposals address everything from filibusters (limit them) to campaign donors (identify them) to congressional workweeks (extend them).

The House and Senate, the commissioners say, should start working five-day weeks to spend more time legislating.

States, they say, should end gerrymandering of congressional districts by getting independent, not partisan, groups to draw the lines.

They also suggest raising the low voter turnout in congressional primaries by holding all of them around the country on the same day in June.

And to spark more interest in public service, the commissioners say people 18 to 28 should be encouraged to spend a year in the military, the Peace Corps or some other form of service.

Besides being a fountain of ideas, the commission also could be a model for a Congress whose inability to find bipartisan solutions has driven its public approval rating into single digits.

“We had people of dramatically different ideological perspectives,” Glickman said of the commission. “But if you spend enough time and you’re focused on an objective, I think compromise and consensus-building are possible and even likely.”

The group didn’t agree on how to reduce the power of money in politics. And there are no proposals for checking the influence of lobbyists.

Still, some former and current members of Congress from the Carolinas welcomed the report, if not all of its recommendations.

“A good solid piece of work,” said former Rep. John Spratt, a York, S.C., Democrat, who chaired the House Budget Committee.

Rep. Mick Mulvaney, the Indian Land, S.C., Republican who unseated Spratt in 2010, agreed: “It’s a very insightful document, clearly written by people who understand the issues we face.”

A call for action

Most of the commission’s recommendations call for action by Congress or the states.

But despite good reviews from some incumbents, Snowe said none of these changes are likely to happen unless the public pressures politicians to act. That’s why she and Glickman are coming to Charlotte: to urge voters to help them.

“I want to convey to people that they have it within their grasp to do something about this,” Snowe told the Observer. “If we all stand back and sit on the sidelines, then obviously no change can occur. But if we get involved and demand accountability on the part of those in office and those running for office, it can make a profound difference.”

She said she decided not to run for a fourth term in the Senate because she realized that Congress would never correct itself; it would have to be pushed from the outside.

“I was not giving up when I left Congress. I was taking my fight in a different direction,” Snowe said. “I thought, given my experience in the legislative arena, I could convince people that they had the power to change it. And to make them understand that politicians need incentives like everybody else and that the incentive to change and build consensus has to be reinforced by the public.”

Glickman’s exit from Congress was involuntary. After 18 years, he lost his Wichita district in the 1994 Republican wave that made Newt Gingrich speaker of the House. He said he kept his seat for so long by listening to constituents. Members of Congress are still all ears, he said, but they don’t often hear much from moderate voters.

“What’s happening is that members of Congress largely hear from people from the extremes,” he said. “There’s got to be a way for those people (in the middle) to speak up more vociferously and also let members of Congress know that they’re watching them and watching their votes if they don’t really try to work things out and get things done.”

Snowe, one of the few moderates to survive in a GOP that has moved increasingly to the right, said this domination by the far right and far left in Congress and in the two political parties has spawned the polarization and paralysis that the commission is addressing.

“We do not want to institutionalize this political culture that reflects a ‘can’t-do’ attitude. America has always been ‘can-do,’ ” Snowe said. “That doesn’t mean we haven’t had our arguments and ferocious disagreements. But we’ve always managed to resolve those differences and, at the end of the day, solve the problems.”

Time in D.C. or the district?

The Observer asked past and present members of Congress from the Carolinas about the commission’s recommendations. The most popular idea is the five-day workweek for senators and House members.

“If they spent a lot more of their time in Washington, even Monday through Friday, their families would likely live there and there would be less disrespect because they’d get to know each other and each other’s families,” said former North Carolina Gov. Jim Martin, a Republican who represented Charlotte in the House in the 1970s and ’80s. “If you and I have a difference of agreement on something but we know each other and respect each other, we’re going to find some kind of accommodation.”

Freshman Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., worried the workweek proposal would cut into time with constituents. Returning often to his district in and around Charlotte is “a reality check. D.C. is its own little world,” he said. “You want to know what your people are thinking. And some of these (House members) have 14 or 15 counties. It’s not like I’m going to fly home to my one city. You’ve got to be out in the field.”

Pittenger did like a recommendation that the president meet monthly with congressional leaders. So did fellow GOP Rep. Mulvaney, who said it was refreshing for the bipartisan group to recognize the president needs to be more engaged in the process.

He said he’s not been critical of President Barack Obama’s time on the golf course, only that he’s chosen to play with celebrities instead of with members of Congress, people he needs to know better if he wants to get things done.

“The job of president involves working with Congress,” Mulvaney said.

Spratt called most of the commission’s proposals practical and modest, which he said may mean they’ll have a better chance of being implemented than more ambitious “academic” recommendations that have poor prospects in the “the real world of politics.”

The Senate candidates say

And with Election Day now less than two months away, what do U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and her GOP challenger, N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, think?

Hagan saluted the commission for promoting bipartisanship and said in a statement she also endorsed its call to disclose the identities of all campaign donors to expose the “dark money” in elections.

“Shadowy outside groups have been allowed to spend millions of dollars on television ads without disclosing where their money comes from or who is behind them,” Hagan said in the statement.

Tillis said in a statement that the commission “has done a great job of starting a conversation.”

He expressed support for a few proposals, including its call for greater communication between the president and Congress and for a different approach to redistricting.

“I’ve been a proud supporter of non-partisan redistricting reform in Raleigh and will continue to be an advocate in the U.S. Senate,” he said, adding that he agreed with the commission’s theme that “it’s time for Washington to finally get something done for the American people.”

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