You have to start somewhere.
A report today on reducing partisan bickering and gridlock in American politics deserves close attention and consideration. While it doesn’t address all the problems that keep Washington in a bind, it sets forth a number of practical and achievable steps that would begin to break up the logjam.
The political stalemate in the nation’s capital is not simply business as usual. The members of the commission, many of them former members of Congress representing both parties, can personally attest that the political climate today is the harshest in memory. Commission co-chairman Olympia Snowe, a former Republican senator from Maine, declined to run for reelection in 2012 because of a hostile atmosphere that made working across the aisle, a Senate tradition, nearly impossible.
Today’s politicians shouldn’t bear all the blame, however. Polls show that the American electorate has become more deeply divided along ideological and party lines and more wary that those who represent the other party are acting in good faith. They are more likely to stay in social “silos” in which their friends share their political views.
Those with strongly held positions on the far left or far right are also among the most active in participating in the political process, including being more likely to vote in primary elections. Politicians ignore these strongly ideological voices at their political peril.
It’s appropriate, then, that the commission includes recommendations for what citizens themselves can do to change the environment, as well as state governments.
After 18 months of forums and deliberations the 29 members of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform have offered a blueprint for steps to take to improve American democracy. The recommendations include the following:
•The US Senate should end the use of filibusters by individuals that keep bills from even being debated on the floor. But it also should permit the minority party to have more opportunities to offer amendments to bills.
•The US House and Senate should synchronize their schedules so that they are in session at the same time, making cooperation easier. The commission recommends a pattern of three five-day workweeks followed by a one-week recess.
•States should take a bipartisan approach to the once-a-decade task of redrawing congressional districts. Districts should not be twisted into strange geographical shapes to favor one party over another.
•Primary elections, not party-run caucuses or conventions, should determine each party’s candidates. They should be held nationwide on a single date in June.
•Both parties should commit to increasing the turnout for primary elections, with a goal of 30 percent of eligible voters by 2020 and 35 percent in 2026.
•Finally, all post-high-school-age Americans should give one year of service to their country in the form of military service, through civilian service in a program such as AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps, or through other nonprofit groups that serve those in need.
The commission’s recommendation to more deeply engage young Americans is no afterthought: This generation may be among those most turned off by Washington’s “my way or no way” stalemate. Growing up, they’ve known nothing else.
But American history tells a different story, one of Americans working together to find common ground and do the nation’s business. These recommendations are a reminder that steps are needed now to begin to restore a functioning American democracy.
The challenge now is to keep the topic in public thought beyond a single 24-hour news cycle. “We are all determined ... to make sure [the report] doesn’t gather dust, sitting in a bookcase,” Senator Snowe says. To this end commission members will lobby members of Congress and begin a grass-roots campaign called Citizens for Political Reform. Americans who agree with them should jump in to help.