In his final State of the Union speech last week, President Barack Obama revealed "one of the few regrets" of his time in office:
It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency—that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.
Our current political culture in America has reached a uniquely difficult time, with extreme division between the two parties and a presidential election unlike any we’ve seen before. Former Senate Majority Leaders Trent Lott (a Republican) and Tom Daschle (a Democrat)—formerly on opposite sides of the aisle— have collaborated to address America’s partisan problem, in the form of a new book. Lott and Daschle joined Jim Braude and Margery Eagan to discuss today’s politics, and Crisis Point: Why We Must and How We Can Overcome Our Broken Politics in Washington and Across America.
According to Daschle, it’s important to remember that we, as country, have endured worse. “Obviously we have had to endure civil war,” he said. “Things got very bad...150 years ago.”
Still—the relationship between the two parties isn’t ideal, which Daschle attributes to a number of factors. “This is one of the worst [times], in part because the factors are new,” Daschle said. “The airplane, money, the schedule demands that people have, social media… all of that has changed. It’s unique, this time. It’s not the worst, but it’s unique and I think in the challenges we face, we’ve got to acknowledge that.”
Lott and Daschle say these ingredients make up a recipe for governmental dysfunction and gridlock. “I’ve been watching Congress and politics pretty closely for 50 years,” Lott said, “and this is about as bad as I’ve seen it.”
So how do we fix it? And what are the problems at the root of the current crisis?
“I’ll start with the airplane,” Daschle said. “The airplane has accommodated people’s schedules today unlike anything we’ve ever seen. It has allowed people to leave Washington on Thursday, they’re gone until Tuesday, they come back on Tuesday and we try to run the country on Wednesday. That is not much of an exaggeration today. The senate will be in session 111 days this year, that’s two days a week. We can’t run a country this complicated on two days a week.”
Campaign finance reform, and not just on the presidential level, is another huge factor, according to Daschle. “The money chase is unbelievable today,” he said. “We’re going to spend over $5 billion, I’m told, on the presidential race this cycle. A typical senator has to raise $15,000 a day to reach what you need to have in the next re-election cycle. They spend 20-30 hours a week raising money, dialing for dollars. That not only takes them away from legislating, keeps them away from building the relationships you need, but I think there’s an increasingly onerous tone to all of that.”
Two days a week in senate is not enough time, Daschle says, to fix the country. It’s also not enough time to build vital relationships. “You’ve got over 50 members of congress who sleep on their sofas,” he said. “That’s a new form of public housing.”
Lott and Daschle represented different parties and worked for very different goals, but Daschle says they had something that’s missing from the current system: trust. “One of the reasons Trent and I were able to accomplish some things is because we had a relationship, we trusted each other, we could communicate,” Daschle said. “There are so many aspects of the legislative process that requires that relationship-building, that communication, that trust.”
To begin rebuilding trust, restoring relationships, and getting things done, Crisis Point suggests a few alternative methods. “We recommend that [senators] work five days a week,” Lott said. “I used to have what I called bed-check mode, so on Monday, get everybody back in town, and I used to say on Thursday night, ‘look, if we finish this highway bill, this drinking water bill, we’ll go out tonight, Thursday night, otherwise we’ll be here tomorrow, Friday.’ It’s amazing what you can get done. We do recommend that they do five days a week three days a week and then a week out.”
To solve the money issue, Lott and Daschle recommend a shorter campaign, and only one primary before a general election. “This presidential campaign has been going on for months, and it could very well go on all of this year, we may not know the Republican nominee until April, maybe July,” Lott said. “We think that a single primary, one day, where Democrats elect their nominee, Republicans select theirs, or at least, say, five regional primaries, where you focus it. We also could maybe say, you can’t spend funds in your campaign until 90 days before the general election. The purpose would be to shorten time, don’t bore the people, reduce the negativity, and maybe get a better turnout by the people.”
To hear more from Former Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle and Trent Lott’s interview with Boston Public Radio, click on the audio link above.