Our opinion: Breaking through political gridlock


There are countless groups, scholars and political pundits out there with a plethora of criticisms against and solutions for the partisan gridlock that has plagued Congress these last few years.

Just this week the Bipartisan Policy Center's Commission on Political Reform unveiled dozens of recommendations to reduce that gridlock and government dysfunction. For example, a single primary date in June could help boost voter turnout, which is vital to ensure that elected officials represent broader views instead of the extremes, said former Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Republican who left office in 2012 and blamed political polarization and a lack of progress.

When Snowe left the Senate many were disheartened that Congress was losing yet another moderate who did not kowtow to extremists of either side and who was not afraid to reach across the political aisle in order to get things done. But rather than giving up, it's clear now that Snowe's withdrawal from the Senate was merely a strategic retreat. The following year she joined with the Bipartisan Policy Center, a group of 29 people that includes former state and federal officials, business and academic leaders.

On Tuesday, Snowe, who co-chairs the Commission on Political Reform, joined former Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, and Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, and others in Washington to unveil the group's ideas for resolving at least some of Washington's paralysis.

"The armies of gridlock are well-funded and well-organized. What we need is a counterweight to that extremism," said Snowe

The proposal calls for more states to hold open or semi-open primaries and to use independent commissions to draw electoral districts to prevent gerrymandering. Several recommendations involved congressional process, such as eliminating some filibusters and using a two-year budget-making process rather than an annual one. The report also lays out a plan for lawmakers to spend more time in Washington with three full workweeks followed by one-week recess when they can return to their districts.

Many of their goals -- like encouraging Americans ages 18 to 28 to choose a year of service, such as the military, public office or volunteering, are by their nature difficult to achieve, the Associated Press reports. And in several circumstances, the group is relying on states to act, which means change would be likely be piecemeal, at best.

Linda Killian, writing for the Wall Street Journal, was quick to point out some of the flaws in the group's efforts and its proposals. She said it should be "no surprise that a report from a Washington organization headed by former members of Congress would take a decidedly insider view of what needs to be done to reform our politics and would offer, by its own admission, only "incremental" reforms.

"The central problem with the commission's tepid recommendations is evident in the name of the report: a 'Bipartisan Blueprint to Strengthen Our Democracy.' That leaves out the 40 percent of voters who don't identify with either major party. A far more apt name for what's needed to reform our political process would be a Non-Partisan Agenda for Political Transformation."

Citing a quote from the report -- "a good redistricting process is one that has the support of the legislators and voters of both parties" -- Killian argues that "most voters would say a good redistricting process takes power away from partisan politicians interested in ensuring their own re-election and gives it to Republican, Democratic and independent voters. The successful California Citizens Redistricting Commission is an example of such an effort, adopted through a ballot initiative, not by the legislature."

Killian did have some good things to say about the report: "To be fair, the Bipartisan Policy Center has some good proposals, including adopting open primaries for all registered voters, eliminating caucuses and conventions to select candidates, expanding voter access through online voter registration, and extending early voting in all states."

She adds, however, that "in too many instances the recommendations exclude or dismiss the concerns of the very voters the project aimed to engage in the political process."

The group itself acknowledged that even if the changes are made, they won't cure all of the problems facing the country overnight.

"But taken together, they have the political potential to transform our nation's politics and civic life," Daschle said, "and the result in our view will be a stronger, more united country that is better equipped to meet all of the challenges of our time."

Christian Science Monitor concurred with that assessment: "While it doesn't address all the problems that keep Washington in a bind, it sets forth a number of practical and achievable steps that would begin to break up the logjam."

The challenge now, as the Monitor's editorial board notes, is to keep the topic in public thought beyond a single 24-hours news cycle. To this end commission members will lobby members of Congress and begin a grass-roots campaign called Citizens for Political Reform.

Reversing the political acrimony in Washington is an uphill task, to be sure, because it's been building for the last several years now. And as Snowe said, the extremists are well funded and very dedicated (some would say obsessed) with their own self interests. But at least this plan offers a starting point from which to begin.


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