I spoke with former co-Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle and Trent Lott about their co-authored book, Crisis Point: Why We Must – and How We Can – Overcome Our Broken Politics in Washington and Across America. The book examines the political polarization that makes governing all but impossible in today’s political climate. In Crisis Point, Senators Daschle and Lott offer perspectives on legislating from opposing sides of the aisle, as well as solutions for moving beyond gridlock to jump-start productivity, the most important being relationship building.
Senator Daschle cites frequent, open communication as being virtually nonexistent in the federal government today. “That is one of the major problems we face. We have to find methods that allow us to build the kind relationships we had when Trent and I led the Senate.”
He says the largest obstacle to this is the current legislative schedule. “When you Leave on Thursday, come back on Tuesday, and try to run a country on Wednesday, that’s just impossible!” he said. “Not only do you not have time to address the legislative load you face, but you don’t get to know each other. If you don’t know each other, you can’t communicate. And if you can’t communicate, you can’t find the common ground necessary to run a complicated democratic republic like the United States.”
“The most important vote is the next one, and lawmakers are going to have to answer for their past behavior,” said Senator Lott, citing the necessity of rebuilding trust that has been broken between lawmakers. He suggests starting small with a focus on non-divisive, bipartisan issues. “You don’t always have to go for the big gulp. You can do something that’s important but not partisan – something like infrastructure, whether it be safe drinking water or broken roads and bridges.”
While the Senators agree that transparency in government is immensely important, they feel it can be a double-edged sword. “Some of the most important and historic decisions we made were when we brought the Senate together, Republicans and Democrats, in the chamber with no press,” said Lott. “We poured our hearts out on how to proceed together. You can’t have a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude – or you’ll have to leave it. You’ll lose!“
Neither side of the aisle has clean hands in the stalemate that has formed surrounding the SCOTUS seat vacated upon the passing of Justice Scalia. “What they do, they do at their own peril,” said Daschle. “There is no political advantage of not doing things.”
“Compromise is not a dirty word,” said Lott, noting that the Constitution requires the President to nominate and the Senate to deliberate. Neither Senator holds a tremendous amount of hope that there will be a confirmed Supreme Court Justice by the end of 2016. When asked if he had any advice for his colleagues, Lott stated plainly, “Do your job!”
Another issue attributing to the lack of productivity in Washington is that the focus is more on elections than governing. The few days per week during which lawmakers are in Washington, much of their time is spent in their offices making fundraising calls. Forces on the extreme right and left threaten primary challenges, and the Senators believe those forces are too strong – with their voices being further amplified by social media. To quell the incessant intrusive campaigning, the Senators suggest shorter campaign cycles with full financial transparency.
Daschle recommends forming joint Republican and Democratic caucuses, as well as creating more opportunities for Congress to have face-to-face interaction with the President. “Relationships have deteriorated to the point that we hardly have anyone talking to each other anymore. When that happens, you just can’t govern,” he said. “Leaders need to do less talking and more listening. The best way to persuade people is to be a good listener. Be inclusive!”
They both point to the upcoming “clean slate” at the beginning of 2017 with optimism. With a new president, new administration, and many new members in Congress, Washington lawmakers will have an opportunity to start anew building relationships across the aisle. (This interview was conducted before the election.)
Let’s hope the newcomers to Washington possess the same spirit of bipartisanship shared by these former Senate Majority Leaders. Gridlock has brought us to this “Crisis Point” in American politics, and Senators Daschle and Lott set a fine example for each statesman and stateswoman who will follow in their footsteps.
“Like in life, politics has amazing twists and turns,” said Lott. “Lord help us, we’d better get it right!”
Listen to the entire interview on iTunes.