Tom Daschle: How to govern in a deeply divided Congress

By Tom Daschle
Sunday, November 7, 2010;

On the night I lost my Senate reelection race in 2004, I thought about a quote that my friend, former senator Max Cleland of Georgia, often used to reflect on life's setbacks. "The world breaks everyone," Ernest Hemingway wrote, "and afterward, many are strong in the broken places."

I had enjoyed some lucky breaks throughout my political career, but that evening, my luck ran out. As the last returns came in, I realized that I could not make up my 4,000-vote deficit. In the middle of the night, I picked up the phone and called my opponent, John Thune, to congratulate him on his victory.

It was the only time in my life I had to make such a call. I felt that the world had broken me, too.

I imagine that some former Democratic colleagues of mine who lost their seats in Tuesday's midterm elections are feeling much as I did six years ago. In the House, our party has been swept out of power. And the Democrats who did win - along with those in the Senate who weren't up for reelection - will be part of smaller caucuses next year. They are all facing the challenge of divided government.

So far, the president and congressional leaders from both parties have been pledging to find ways to work together. They're mostly saying the right things. President Obama has invited the congressional leaders from both parties - Republicans Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, and Democrats Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi - to the White House for a meeting next week. He said it will be more than a photo op - it will be a chance to begin working jointly on the problems facing our nation.

I am counting on their success, even though I know that divided government can be difficult, complicated and frustrating. Sometimes it feels like you're running into brick walls all day.

But there are ways it can work, and you don't need to go too far back in time to find them. In my 26 years in public life, and in my decade as either minority or majority leader of the Senate, I saw how we were able to make things happen. So here are some lessons for both parties, but especially for Democrats, who are looking for ways to dust themselves off and get back to work.

Sometimes it takes an anthrax attack - but it shouldn't.

In the 10 years that I served as a party leader in the Senate, I dealt with three severe crises: the impeachment of a president, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the anthrax attack on my office merely a month later.

During all three, conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats were thrown together in closed rooms to work through rattled nerves and prove to the world that our government would go on. And in each instance, we overcame our differences.

On the impeachment, we were battling enormous disagreements, but we were determined to adopt Senate procedures that were fair and reflected the gravity of the moment. At one point, during a meeting in the historic Old Senate Chamber, it was Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) - not exactly ideological soul mates - who offered a procedural compromise that provided a breakthrough in preventing a constitutional crisis.

On Sept. 11, 2001, I stood on the east steps of the Capitol late in the day, shoulder to shoulder with my political adversaries, as an eerie silence replaced the chaos of the day. We declared that afternoon that we were no longer Democrats or Republicans, but Americans, and I announced that Congress would continue its business as usual on Sept. 12. And then, spontaneously, we began singing "God Bless America." I doubt that those who were there will ever forget it.

In the aftermath of the anthrax attack, every senator with an office in the Hart building was forced to evacuate for more than six months. Those in the other two Senate office buildings offered these "refugees" and their staffs space, equipment and supplies.

Lawmakers ought to consider why it takes a crisis to reach - even briefly - a greater degree of political harmony. It would be worth real soul-searching, especially now, after a deeply divisive and negative campaign season, to determine how we can extend that collaborative spirit to the other enormous challenges that our country faces.

Don't hold partisan pep rallies. Hold actual meetings.

In those challenging moments and many others, Senate Republican leaders Trent Lott, Bill Frist and I found that by meeting together, we created a far more hospitable environment for compromise and trust. Occasionally, the two leadership teams met to talk about our circumstances, our agenda or a particular problem. In other cases, we called the two caucuses together for meetings in either the Senate Dining Room or the Old Senate Chamber. In both settings, senators mingled, instead of separating along party lines.

Today's twice-weekly party caucus meetings have become political pep rallies. The idea is to instill as much peer pressure and emotional fervor as a Senate leader can muster to bring about the greatest possible degree of party unity. And unfortunately, this has further polarized our politics.

This may not be the most popular idea, but I believe the Senate would benefit from one joint caucus meeting each week. The senators could discuss a particular issue - such as national security or the future of health care - and ways to reach compromise, not how to ramp up the rancor.

The relationship between the Senate and the House is strained as well. The two bodies never meet, either as Democrats and Republicans with their respective caucuses or as members of Congress as a whole. The level of distrust and even dislike between many in the House and the Senate at times rivals that between Republicans and Democrats. Joint meetings, either formal or informal, between the Senate and the House should take place at least once a month. Only then will a greater level of understanding and, ultimately, improved relationships and depolarization, be possible.

Talk to the president. (And listen, too.)

It surprises me how little opportunity there is for congressional leaders to talk privately with the president. They need him and he needs them, but you would never know it from the distance they keep.

In the time I served as a Senate leader, there was only one short period where this kind of meeting happened regularly. It was right after Sept. 11, when President George W. Bush invited us to a weekly breakfast in the White House to share information, compare notes and make plans. Those weeks proved to be extremely productive and even somewhat harmonious. Unfortunately, after a couple of months, the breakfasts ceased. (So did the harmony and productivity.)

Obama should renew that practice. Negotiation between opposite sides requires familiarity, a comfortable relationship and trust. These can only occur with regular contact. Maybe he could even invite congressional leaders to Camp David. These weekends would allow participants to explore issues, as well as socialize and build stronger relationships.

Rep. John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leaders, must reciprocate such goodwill gestures. Both, however, have made statements that indicate they prefer to fight, not cooperate.

Throw a dinner party.

In the old days, senators from opposite parties sometimes carpooled to work. Late-afternoon drinks and card games were part of Senate life. Weekend dinners were frequent, and senators and their spouses often became lifetime friends. Consider Dan Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). They came from opposite parties, philosophies and climates, but they had an incredible bond.

Much has changed since those days, decades ago. Most important, most members fly home every week, usually leaving Washington on Thursday night and returning Tuesday morning. That leaves little time for bonding with colleagues.

Today, most families of new senators stay in their home states, putting even more pressure on lawmakers to spend less time in Washington.

Yes, contact with constituents is vital, but limiting lawmakers' time in the nation's capital means they are less able to respond to the issues that their constituents care about.

Throw in the hyperbolic blogs and cable shows, the unending money chase, the pressure from the extreme left and the extreme right not to compromise, and we're left with less trust, more polarization and greater political paralysis.

The Senate needs more, not less, socializing and relationship-building. We need more family outings, dinners with spouses, congressional delegation trips abroad and quiet nights spent in our beautiful Capitol building.

Critics will say that tough economic times do not allow such luxuries. But in this legislative environment, these practices are not a luxury - they're a necessity.

Ease up on the committees, but bring back the bipartisan task force.

Committee membership is out of control. Today, it is not uncommon for a senator to be on 10 committees and subcommittees. The appeal is understandable: Each committee grants lawmakers enormous responsibility over policy and affords them the chance to become a subcommittee or committee chairman. Each committee also has a political and financial constituency.

The problem is that most senators are overextended and cannot do justice to the responsibilities they have been given.

Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who won reelection last week, seems to agree that committees aren't worth the time they take up. He wrote in an Election Day opinion piece that new conservatives in the Senate should avoid them. His read is a bit more cynical than mine, but the point stands: We should reform committee jurisdiction and membership.

We have confused meetings, hearings and speechmaking with productivity. They're far from the same thing. One entity that really can be productive, however, is the bipartisan task force. I realize that proposing a task force sounds like an excuse to hold more meetings, but such groups are important tools to solve serious problems. One of the ways to end polarization is to ensure that both sides feel invested in the obligations of governing, and these days, the minority party feels less and less a part of it.

There are many examples of bipartisan task forces leading lawmakers toward consensus. One of my favorites is the National Commission on Social Security Reform, which was created early in the Reagan administration. Bob Dole, Pat Moynihan, Claude Pepper and Alan Greenspan - leaders with significant political standing and a wide range of political views - were asked to find solutions to one of the greatest financial crises to face the system to date.

After tremendous amounts of negotiation and great political courage on the part of all the members, a compromise was reached, and the system averted disaster. It was a clear illustration of how political leaders, removed from the pressure of the daily maneuvering on Capitol Hill, can join forces and come up with solutions.

In subsequent years, some have tried - and failed - to reprise that good work. I was especially disappointed with the failure of Congress to launch a bipartisan deficit commission many months ago, though the president deserves credit for creating one.

With a Democratic president, a Republican House and a closely divided Senate, it may seem nearly impossible to take on the challenges of this moment, from the deficit to energy independence, climate change and entitlement reform. But it's not.

I have often talked about the need for health-care providers to adopt best practices and evidence-based approaches to ensure the delivery of better care. The same could be said of the Obama administration and Congress. We know what the best practices are. We just need to use them.

Tom Daschle, a former senator from South Dakota, is a senior policy adviser to the law firm DLA Piper. He is the author of "Getting It Done: How Obama and Congress Finally Broke the Stalemate to Make Way for Health Care Reform."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company