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Paul G. Kirk Jr.

How to fix Congress

Public suffers as media invective, endless fund-raising fuel zero-sum politics.

By Paul G. Kirk Jr.
June 27, 2010

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DURING MY brief tenure in the Senate, I argued repeatedly that the health care debate should not be about one party reaching 60 votes but rather about 100 senators reaching out to one another to improve a system that would better reflect our character as a nation. After all, collaborative bipartisanship can unite a country and give its citizens trust and confidence in the individuals and institutions entrusted with the governance of their public affairs. But bipartisan cooperation was not to be. Regrettably, given the current political polarization, attaining a “supermajority’’ of 60 votes (required to invoke cloture and, thus, to prevent filibusters designed solely to delay progress) has become the necessary norm to accomplish the most routine procedural step in the Senate.

Here’s an illustration of the climate as I observed it. In the week before Christmas, the majority leader willingly agreed to a minority proposal to vote on the defense appropriations measure prior to a vote on health reform. When the defense measure was introduced, GOP senators promptly threatened a filibuster, not because they opposed it or felt the need to debate it, but because a filibuster would further delay action on the health bill. The Democrats responded by successfully invoking cloture, denying extended debate. In hindsight, we should have let the minority proceed with its contrived filibuster, forcing Republican senators to explain to the American people why, as we headed toward Christmas, they were delaying necessary funding for our brave men and women in the armed forces. Calling the opposition’s bluff and exposing the partisan abuse of Senate parliamentary maneuvers might have taught a public lesson and improved the process in the short run.

Of course, I am not opposed to partisanship. As a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, I held one of the most partisan jobs in American politics. Philosophical differences between political parties provide for a vibrant democracy. Partisanship can bring a passion to politics. It can increase citizen engagement in our political system. A civil and honest clash of ideas between the parties can lead to ultimate compromise and, often, to a more enlightened public policy that may better serve the larger national interests. That’s how the system was meant to work. But, today’s legislative process is different. It is raw and scorched-earth partisan politics, pure and simple. It has become a zero sum game in which if one party (or its president) appeals for bipartisan cooperation, the other party says “no’’ because if we cooperate, you win. The people deserve better, and the polls reflect it.

Changing the Senate rules requires 67 votes. That number won’t be attained anytime soon, but it’s worth examining two other factors that are corroding the comity and civility so essential for a cooperative, functioning legislature — money and the “partisan new media.’’

The amount of money needed to compete in congressional elections, particularly to purchase TV time, dissuades many talented citizens from seeking federal office. Meanwhile, incumbents are engaged in a frenetic, time-consuming, never-ending, money-raising marathon. It distracts them from the job they were elected to perform and from building constructive relationships and essential comity with members of the opposition party with whom they serve. Wealthy contributors assume a dominant voice at the expense of average citizens who, consequently, become disgusted with a system that they know should belong to them.

The incumbent’s campaign funds are used, first, to psychologically deter potential challengers from entering the race. If that fails, they are spent on costly negative TV attack ads written to demonize the challenger before (s)he demonizes the incumbent. The process escalates. Bare-knuckled campaign attitudes harden and carry over to infect legislative strategy and dealings. They encourage legislators, in anticipation of the next election or the constant news cycle, to use divisive campaign rhetoric during legislative debate often at the expense of collaborative bipartisanship and meaningful legislative progress. The Supreme Court’s recent twisted view in the Citizens United case expanding the role of special interest money points our system of campaign financing in the wrong direction and will make matters worse.

It is time to get serious about public financing of all federal elections and to grant equal free TV time to general election candidates who agree to funding limits. This would reduce the influence of special interest money; bring the people back into their process; level the campaign playing field; encourage candidates to reach beyond party-base donors and activists and appeal to independent, centrists or crossover voters thus reducing polarization; and afford incumbent legislators more time to build bridges with legislative colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

Another factor compounding the polarization problem is the increasingly partisan edge of the so-called “new media’’ and its threatening influence on legislative debate. A responsible press, trusted for its objectivity and independence, can be a resource for building consensus when the nation’s complex problems cry out for leaders of good will to come together to find serious and thoughtful solutions.

Conversely, polarization and division are exacerbated by the emerging partisan press that includes trash talk radio, hyper-partisan cable TV, and the proliferation of new multi-media websites and blogs that deliberately disparage and irresponsibly distort in a never ending news cycle. This approach to “journalism’’ is becoming a profitable cottage industry at the very time that independent newspapers are struggling to survive economically.

Listeners and viewers gravitate toward those on-air advocates who espouse or shape their partisan points of view. Positions harden; the divide widens; and polarization reigns.

This rising level of incivility, invective, hyperbole, and disregard for truth designed to increase airwave or website audiences and to inflame an active left or right wing political base cannot be permitted to become the acceptable tone and convenient talking points for debate on the floor of the House or Senate.

We should at least consider whether an alliance of responsible institutes of public affairs, schools of journalism, civic groups, respected media critics, and thoughtful citizens should insist that the professional norms and standards of traditional journalism be applied to the growing partisan new media.

President Kennedy admonished that “democracy is never a final achievement; it is a call to an untiring effort.’’ An “untiring effort’’ to improve our democracy and the conduct of our public affairs is, in the end, up to us.

Paul G. Kirk Jr., a Democrat, served as interim US senator from September to February.

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