How to fix the Senate?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Post asked former politicians and others to name one idea -- other than reforming the much-discussed filibuster -- that might get Congress moving. Below are contributions from Mack McClarty, Norman J. Ornstein, Mark J. Penn, Warren Rudman, Sarah Binder and Forrest Maltzman, Dana Perino, and Rob Richie.


Chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, 1993-94

In these times the American people need a government at the top of its game. Yet one year into the Obama administration, some 40 percent of appointed positions had yet to be filled. Dozens of nominees are still awaiting Senate confirmation votes. Dysfunctional, anyone?

That's why I'd abolish the anonymous hold on nominations. Beyond fixing the Senate, this would also strengthen the governance of our country by allowing the president to more expeditiously get his full team in place.

Under long-standing, informal practice, any senator can place an anonymous hold on any nomination. Senators of both parties have used holds against presidents of both parties. Holds are lodged, sometimes, to protest a candidate's credentials, but more often they are a cry for attention and for a negotiation over whatever is on the senator's mind. Before the last recess, one GOP senator put a hold on all 70 nominees awaiting floor action -- relenting only when his name was leaked. In the meantime, action on all 70 nominees was blocked, and the Senate faced the prospect of being ground to a halt -- again.

On Monday the Aspen Institute is convening a bipartisan Commission on Reforming the Federal Appointments Process, of which I am a co-chair. The anonymous hold will surely be on our list of items to examine.


Resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute

The problem with the Senate is much less the rules than the broader culture, leading to more polarization, less comity, more ideological division, less institutional identity. One way to change that is to alter the Senate schedule. Instead of coming in Tuesday afternoon and closing down Thursday afternoon, go to five days a week, from 9 a.m. Monday to 5 p.m. Friday, with three weeks on and one week off to go back home and maintain direct contact with constituents.

This would provide a major incentive for senators to bring their families to Washington. Before the mid-'90s, most lawmakers kept their families in the capital area and would see and interact with their colleagues much more frequently. It is much harder to demonize your colleagues if you stand next to them watching your kids play soccer on Saturdays.

It would also provide time to have a more deliberative process -- no longer would there be a need to cram five days' worth of work into 2 1/2 . That would mean more time with colleagues in the Capitol and more opportunities to build relationships and dialogue across the aisle.

Two more steps would be necessary. One, no fundraising during those 15 days a month when the Senate is in session. That stops people from scurrying out of the Capitol to "safe houses" to make strings of fundraising calls. Two, provide a generous housing allowance so that senators can actually afford to keep a residence in their state and have a home in Washington that is both close to good schools and in commuting distance to the Capitol.

Of course, I would like to see rules changes in the filibuster and other areas to expedite business. But the first goal is to create a better culture.


CEO of Burson-Marsteller; adviser to Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign; pollster and adviser to Bill Clinton from 1995 through 2000.

Ironically, one of the Senate's greatest issues today stems directly from a most-cherished principle: the separation of powers.

The doctrine was designed to promote checks and balances, so that each branch of government could operate without undue interference from the other. But perhaps one of the biggest problems with the Senate and the government is too much separation at a time when they need more engagement. In short, too much separation can lead to isolation. The health-care plan is a case in point: In 1994, it came from the executive branch; this time, from the legislative branch -- but the result is still the same. They needed to create a truly joint plan.

One way to break down these barriers is to have regular Question Time, American-style. Once a week let's have leaders of both parties in Congress throw questions at the president and have the executive branch respond with its own questions -- all on TV, of course. This regular discourse will also restore the Senate to the role it once held as the place where the big issues were discussed by the big thinkers.

Question Time would get our legislators out of their cocoons and force the kind of engagement that it takes to really solve problems.


Senator (R-N.H.) from 1980 to 1993; co-chair of Americans for Campaign Reform

Time and again, I hear from my former colleagues in the Senate that fundraising is life, and an unhappy one at that. The average senator raised nearly $10 million to run for office in the last election -- $30,000 each and every week of a six-year term. And last month's Supreme Court ruling permitting unlimited corporate spending in elections only made matters worse.

In practical terms, that means endless hours of call time with major donors, often out-of-state interests with business before the committees on which the senator serves. It means having to face the rampant cynicism of a public that overwhelmingly equates accepting money from private interests with compromises in personal and institutional integrity. It means time away from the real business of governing our country.

To restore the public's trust and put senators back to work, we need to end their reliance on special-interest money. The best solution I know is citizen-funded elections: a system of small donations from constituents and matching public funds for qualifying candidates who forgo large donations. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) has made a fine start with the Fair Elections Now Act, which caps donations at $100 apiece and provides competitive matching dollars out of a deficit-neutral fund raised through fees on large-scale government contracts. It would be a welcome change for senators and the American people.


Professors of political science at George Washington University

We would like to see a "fast track" for judicial nominations to fix the confirmation morass that plagues the Senate. The proposal might only unthaw one aspect of the Senate. But given lengthy delays for nominees, declining confirmation rates and long-empty seats on the federal bench, fixing how the Senate practices "advice and consent" is essential.

Our idea harnesses the president's interest in filling judgeships quickly and senators' interests in preserving their influence in selecting judges. First, senators would create bipartisan judicial selection commissions in their home states. The commissions would approve several candidates for vacant federal judgeships, offering those names for White House consideration. If the president chose a recommended nominee, that nominee would be fast-tracked to a confirmation vote.

The Senate could set in statute the length of the track to ensure adequate review and debate in committee and on the chamber floor, guaranteeing at a time certain an up-or-down confirmation vote. If the president opted to ignore the commission's recommendations, the nominee would face the usual vagaries of advice and consent -- a long, drawn-out process likely to be punctuated by secret holds, cloture motions and no guarantee of a vote.

Fast-track (which has already been used by the Senate for budget, trade and other matters) would eliminate hostage-taking by senators, fill vacant judgeships more swiftly and potentially bolster the legitimacy of an unelected bench. Who knows -- it might even help repair the badly frayed fabric of Senate trust.


White House press secretary to President George W. Bush

If we want to improve the Senate, let's elect more women. Women around the world are stepping into leadership roles in record numbers. Yet for all of our progress on gender equality, the United States isn't keeping pace. Of our 100 senators, only 17 are women (13 Democrats and 4 Republicans).

This inequity simply doesn't make sense. Women make up just under half of America's workforce. They decide about 85 percent of all household purchases. They make tough decisions about family finances and are used to making sacrifices. Congress could use more of their sensibility to resist new purchases in order to save or pay down debt.

Women tend to be team players and are frequently well-practiced at multitasking. And who wouldn't agree that the Sunday talk show circuit would benefit from some diversity?

But while more women are seeking state and local offices, not as many run for federal office because they don't want to put their families through the process or are daunted by the amount of money they'd have to raise. In a smart move, the GOP is fielding five women for the Senate in 2010. To increase the number of women in the Senate overall, we need to encourage them to run, instill confidence in them that they can succeed and that it's okay if they don't, donate to their campaigns, and call people out for personal attacks, especially those aimed at candidates' families.


Executive director of FairVote

Today's de facto 60-vote requirement for the Senate to pass legislation and approve nominations undercuts the democratic accountability that comes with elections having clear consequences. It also allows senators to shake down their leadership to serve parochial interests.

But fixing the Senate goes beyond reforming the filibuster rules to the broader question of what powers in a democracy are appropriate for an inherently undemocratic institution -- the only legislative body in the nation in which members do not represent generally equal numbers of people.

The answer comes from reviewing the filibuster's proper role. A minority of senators should not permanently block majorities; rather, the filibuster's power should be to promote greater deliberation and transparency through slowing attempts to rush legislation.

Similarly, the Senate itself should not have the power to trump the House of Representatives. As is the international norm for upper houses, the Senate should only be able to delay legislation, force reconsideration and propose amendments, not block final action.

Redefining Senate powers would require constitutional change, but it would not affect the right of states to equal suffrage in the Senate. Let's think big -- our Founders would want us to learn from our experience and the examples of other nations.

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