How to fix Congress: Two former Senate leaders give their repair list

Part 1 of 4: Tom Daschle and Trent Lott urge lawmakers to spend more time in Washington, build relationships across the aisle, and retool the committee process. 

Illustration by Sean Kelly

You can’t run the government of the most powerful nation in the world on Wednesdays alone. Yet that is what members of Congress, in effect, are trying to do.

Pulled in one direction by the ever-growing need to raise campaign funds, and pushed in another to avoid appearing disconnected from their constituents by spending too much time in Washington, they often arrive in the capital on Tuesday and go home on Thursday. This leaves them little time for deliberation and lawmaking. 

This has to change. Our institutions are not broken. We believe in and stand by our representative democracy as strongly as we ever have. The challenges themselves are not too great for us to overcome. 

To that end, the House and Senate should adhere to full, five-day workweeks in Washington to provide enough time for legislative business. Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle should also maintain hot lines so they can discuss issues directly. They should hold regular monthly meetings with the president as well. 

When a new Congress is seated after the midterm elections, these are just a few of the small changes we believe could go a long way toward changing the tone in Washington and restoring Congress to the democratic institution that once was the envy of the world.

Today’s Congress is almost unrecognizable from when we served as Senate majority leaders. When we led our respective parties in the Senate, we faced many unprecedented and difficult events. The nation was horrifically attacked on 9/11. Our government was threatened with the anthrax scare. We presided over the first evenly divided Senate in history. Congress impeached and tried the president. Yet we managed to balance the federal budget, add millions of new jobs, enact welfare and education reform, cut taxes, and safeguard drinking water. This despite divided party caucuses and bitter political disputes.

We recognize that all was not perfect when we served and that the political atmosphere has changed since our days in leadership. However, despite these developments, our government must continue to work. It simply must adjust to this new political reality. We believe a few small changes will help restore functionality.

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform, which we co-chair, recently made recommendations to improve all areas of civic life. These include addressing voting and election issues that improve the democratic process and calling for a one-year commitment to community and national service by our young people. Not surprisingly, congressional reform was a major aspect of the report. Some of these reforms are procedural, while others are cultural.

Members of Congress and the president must renew a shared desire to get things done for the country. With that there needs to be a sense of comity and of reestablishing trust among our leaders. Vital to this are more open and frequent lines of communication among them. When we led the Senate, we had a hot line between the two of us so that we could discuss issues as they arose. When necessary, we held joint caucus meetings of all our members to address major issues such as 9/11, the anthrax scare, and the Clinton impeachment trial. These sessions were effective in building consensus, and we both wish we had held more of them.

Republicans and Democrats should do more things together. At least once a month, joint party caucus meetings should be held in each chamber, and the congressional leadership should plan other informal gatherings of members from both parties to build relationships across the aisle.

And the president must be a part of the solution. When we led the Senate, we met regularly with President George W. Bush. Scheduled monthly meetings between the president and congressional leadership would be helpful today. In fact, the president should attend joint congressional caucus meetings at least twice a year.

Members of Congress spend relatively few days in Washington, and even then their time is not always spent legislating. In addition to adhering to a five-day workweek in Washington, we believe the chambers should establish concurrent schedules with three weeks in Washington and one week in states or districts. 

Changing the culture of Washington is only one of the necessary components of reform, though. Congress will also have to return to regular order if it is to tackle the nation’s problems. This means reinvigorating the committee process and allowing full deliberation of bills on the floor. It also means procedural changes that protect majority rule and preserve minority rights.

Committees are an essential component of the legislative process. They allow for fact-finding, deliberation, and information-gathering that lay the foundation for good lawmaking. Committees foster compromise and provide rank-and-file members an opportunity to have more input on bills than they would otherwise. As of late, however, the committee process is circumvented and major legislation is brought directly to the floor for consideration.

For Congress to work, its committees must work. Important legislation should not be brought to the floor in either chamber without first having the benefit of committee deliberations and a full report. Committee chairs must take a greater lead in passing authorization bills and ensure the views and ideas of all committee members have an opportunity to be heard and considered. Additionally, committees should be allowed to meet without interruption from business on the floor.

Senate rules have been abused through overuse of the filibuster and other delay tactics by both parties, preventing even bipartisan legislation from being considered. One way to ameliorate this would be eliminating the filibuster on motions to proceed. This would allow the Senate to debate the issues themselves, instead of debating whether to debate, freeing up valuable floor time for other legislative business.

Another problem is that members are often locked out of the legislative process because of procedural maneuvers that prevent them from being able to offer amendments. This tactic, called “filling the tree,” particularly prevents members of the Senate minority from having any influence on legislation. When we were in Congress, this tool was rarely utilized by the majority, whereas today it is used on almost every bill. A fair change would be to guarantee each party a minimum and equal number of amendments upon initial consideration of any bill.

After the midterms, it will require leadership from both parties to put aside their tactics and partisanship and find common ground to move the country forward. While these recommendations cannot solve all of Washington’s current problems, they can have a profound impact and begin to put the country on a more productive path.

Former Senate majority leaders Tom Daschle and Trent Lott now co-chair the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform.

- A former speaker of the US House of Representatives gives his thoughts on how to address the issue.

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