By The Gazette Editorial Board
Jim Leach can now be found at the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington D.C. Dave Nagle is in his Waterloo law office. Jim Ross Lightfoot spends much of his time driving a 40-foot RV, towing a 24-foot trailer, across the country.
“I think I just made a wrong turn,” Lightfoot said to an editorial writer this past week whose call broke his concentration on a highway in Texas, his GPS recalculating furiously in the background.
But once upon a time, all three men were in Congress, representing Iowa districts in the U.S. House. Leach, a Republican moderate, served 15 terms, Lightfoot, a conservative Republican, served six and Nagle, a Democrat, spent three terms in Washington D.C.
They differ in their politics. Their vantage points are now spread across the nation. But, in separate interviews this past week, each agreed that the U.S. Congress has become a highly partisan and dysfunctional place. And they agree that reforms, both small and ambitious, may be needed to fix it.
“The partisan divide has become very intense,” Leach said. “And within the parties, the mix of people is no longer as broad as it once was. The center has become largely eviscerated in both parties. And this makes reaching consensus difficult.
“Compromise used to be the art of politics. Now, intransigence is the art of political survival,” Leach said.
“It’s a darn difficult place to get anything done right now,” Nagle said. “I’m glad I’m not there now. It’s got to be a terrible place to work right now because it’s so partisan, so bitter.”
“I really think if you had to put your finger on one thing, it would have to be the high level of partisanship that’s developed over the years,” Lightfoot said. “I think that’s done more damage than anything. Neither party is 100 percent right. Both parties got good ideas and both parties got bad ideas, depending on your point of view. But the partisanship, extreme partisanship, has become a source of a lot of the trouble.
“That’s the disease. Some of the symptoms, the money and the other things, go along with it. That’s the disease the needs to be treated,” Lightfoot said.
We need a cure
But is there a cure? And is Congress willing to take some potentially strong medicine?
It’s a question we believe needs to be asked now. Because, for all the talk of a pivotal presidential election, the reality is that its eventual winner will face a Congress that’s likely to be more closely divided than it is today, regardless of which party is in control. And today’s Congress has been one of the most, if not the most, gridlocked, divided and disliked in the nation’s history.
Congress has not passed a federal budget in three years. Ceaseless filibusters have bottled up legislation in the Senate. Presidential nominees are locked in limbo by senatorial blocks. Even seemingly essential measures such as a Farm Bill and transportation spending have tied Congress in partisan knots. Huge national problems, from deficit and debt to job losses and a sluggish recovery, have gone largely unaddressed.
What do Americans think? According to a Gallup poll released last month, Congressional approval stands at 13 percent. It is among the nation’s least popular institutions.
“When I was there in the ’80s and early ’90s, it was that middle group from both parties that really got the work done,” Lightfoot said. “Your bomb-throwers on the left and the right were kind of ridiculed and left out of things to a great degree. But it seems to me that’s probably the problem now. The bomb-throwers are running the place.”
So how do we fix it? It depends a lot on who you ask.
California congressional candidate Eric Swalwell advocates that members of Congress use information technology to conduct most business from their districts, instead of going to Washington D.C., and its high concentration of lobbyists.
Retiring Arkansas Rep. Mike Ross blames highly partisan redistricting processes in many states, which have created increasingly partisan districts where primaries are the only real election contest and moderates can no longer win.
Others target the Senate’s filibuster. Some advocate term limits. Campaign finance reform is frequently mentioned.
But the boldest, broadest proposal is being pushed by Nebraska U.S. Senate hopeful Bob Kerrey. Kerry has anchored his uphill campaign to what he calls the “Norris Amendment.” Here’s a summary of his proposed constitutional amendment, found on his campaign’s website:
l Eliminate the partisan caucuses and the four partisan campaign committees that make compromise between the political parties nearly impossible.
l Prohibit the organization of Congress by political parties and establish a mechanism to reduce the number of committees, improve the quality of executive branch oversight, and increase the quality of congressional budgeting.
l Establish a reasonable limitation on consecutive years of service. Twelve years seems reasonable to me, though I could also make the case for 18 years.
l Allow Congress to ban the unlimited independent expenditures by corporations and unions permitted by the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, and impose limitations on campaign spending that have not been allowed since the Buckley v. Valeo decision of 1976.
l Change the rules of the Senate and House to limit the use of the filibuster, open up the budget process, require that amendments to legislation actually relate to the subject of the bill, and increase transparency so citizens may see how their money is spent.
“Wow,” Lightfoot said after hearing the summary. “Well, I don’t see that happening.”
“If we could legislate a change in human nature, we should. But I’m not sure that we can,” Nagle said of Kerrey’s proposal.
Lightfoot contends congressional term limits would help, to inject new blood, keep members from becoming too powerfully entrenched and make Congress a citizen body more like the founders envisioned. “I had a strong opinion when I went in that people stayed there too long. And that opinion has not changed. If anything, it’s become stronger,” Lightfoot said.
Nagle and Leach each cautioned, however, that experience can also be an asset when facing bureaucrats and lobbyists who have no term limits. Nagle described being on a panel that oversaw NASA, and how it took time to understand the agency well enough to know when its administrators were being less than candid.
Congress saw considerable turnover in 2010, but that new blood didn’t make the machine run more effectively.
Make Speaker outsider
Nagle advocates two changes in the way the House operates.
First, he would take advantage of the fact that the Constitution does not require that the Speaker of the House be a member of the House. That would allow an outsider respected by both parties to be elected by a broad coalition of the entire House, not just the majority of one party caucus.
Second, Nagle would remake the Rules Committee, which sets the rules for procedure and debate, to have equal membership from both parties. “That way, both sides would have to be satisfied before the legislation could be brought to the floor,” Nagle said. “The institutional framework would force the compromises that are necessary to promote legislation.”
Leach actually backed a non-member for speaker in 1996, when Speaker Newt Gingrich’s ethics issues prompted Leach to cast his vote for retired Rep. Bob Michael. Leach himself got two votes.
Leach believes that partisan redistricting in many states (Iowa has a well-regarded, non-partisan process) and an explosion of corporate and special interest campaign spending have played large roles in narrowing the interests of members of Congress to their party’s base and special interest agendas. They can no longer risk running afoul of either if they hope to win.
“What I think the public ought to ask every candidate of every political party running: Are you willing to back the common good against what might be a narrow interest in your party?” Leach said. “It used to be in American governance that the term common good was used a lot. Today, it’s out the window. People talk about I’ve got to appeal to my base.
“For Congress not to operate in that fashion is letting down the American people,” Leach said.
Nagle, however, said any move to dramatically change a system should be approached with caution.
“If you look back at the Depression and some of the hair-brained ideas that gained wide popularity, in some ways it’s amazing that the republic survived it,” Nagle said. “So you’ve got to be a little careful changing in troubled times. But there’s no question that this isn’t working right now.
Tuneup or overhaul?
We’re not yet ready to endorse any single solution or approach. But we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time for the American people to discuss whether our federal government machine needs a tuneup or a massive overhaul. And if the next Congress sputters, stalls and disappoints us like the current one, then it may indeed be time for that discussion to be transformed into action. A great nation with so many critical problems in need of solving needs a government that works.
Somewhere, we took a wrong turn. It’s time to recalculate our route.
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