When Barack Obama was a senator back in 2006, he once said “America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better.” If past is prologue, we begin another administration with just as much partisanship and gridlock blocking the path ahead of us toward solving these two problems. The Republican House will feel like they must stop the excesses of the Obama administration, the Democratic Senate will want to advance the president’s agenda and the president will want to spend on his preferred programs. It is seemingly a recipe for disaster, but it can be avoided. It will take leadership, and leadership begins with the president.
This is not to say that leadership, as an entire concept, has gone missing. We have it in the form of iron wills, party loyalty, vision setting, unflinching principles—all of which can be leadership traits. But legislative leadership is the hallmark skill needed to make it in Washington. Without it, and a willingness from both parties to engage in negotiation, don’t expect results to differ from those of the past two years.
For more than 40 years I have closely watched Washington, D.C.—four years as a Democratic staff member, 16 years as a Republican House member and 19 years as a senator. One thing I have witnessed is that when one party controls all the levers of our nation’s capital, from the presidency to the House of Representatives to the Senate, they generally have overplayed their hand. It takes years to repair the damage.
Divided government has, in fact, worked on many occasions. President Reagan always had a House of Representatives controlled by Democrats, while President Clinton had six of his eight years controlled by Republicans. However, in order to work, the president has to have a love for the bargain.
From where I sit, President Obama really does not like the messy work of legislating, which is the key to unlocking a divided government. The give and take of “the deal” has never appealed to him nor, quite frankly, to many in Congress of both parties. Yet now reelected, the president needs to find a way to embrace this particular leadership skill.
First, he must stop running the government by executive order. He should start by listening carefully and developing legislative recommendations based on consensus. He should then clarify his agenda and set a schedule for action. He needs to concede that, in this case, effective leadership requires masterfully steering rather than dictating Congressional action.
Then the Congressional leaders will need to step up to the task. They should begin by staying in session more, and greater communication with each other would help. Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle and I talked all the time, and by doing so were able to work through difficult and complex issues.
The House and Senate also need to return to regular order, beginning with subcommittees and committees doing their work as a matter of routine. Have hearings and oversight meetings. Mark up the bills. Have votes on amendments and then move bills to the floor for consideration. Have robust debate and votes on amendments by members of both parties, in the best traditions of the Senate. Defeat bills or pass them, but take final action, and go to conference with conferees from both bodies. Vote on final passage and send it to the president to sign or veto.
Can this be done in the current atmosphere? We have no choice. I can assure you, it was not easy when Bill Clinton was president, Newt Gingrich was speaker of the House and I was the Senate majority leader. We had issues to deal with—welfare reform, tax cuts, spending controls, safe drinking water, portability of insurance, improved pay for our military men and women. Congressional leaders had some pretty animated discussions with the administration, and President Clinton was directly involved. We shared the goal of a better future for our country, and knew both sides had to give some in order to get to a deal that could pass.
In order to achieve that, Republicans had to make some concessions to President Clinton (and vice versa), but we were jointly successful. It began then, as it should today, with honest dialogue between our leaders and an eagerness to dive into the sty that is negotiation. The attitude shared by all of us was simple: We had a lot of work to get done. And the leadership attribute we all shared was we loved even the messy work of doing it.
On Leadership invited former senators George J. Mitchell and Trent Lott to reflect on the challenge of bipartisanship, from either side of the aisle. Lott is a former Republican senator from Mississippi and has served as Senate majority leader. He is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Read Sen. George Mitchell’s piece: