Seven former members of Congress convened at George Washington’s Elliott School of International Affairs on Wednesday for the John Breaux Symposium, an annual event presented by the Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs and the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. The former senators and representatives discussed how to make Congress work better by encouraging bipartisanship.
Participants included Sen. John Breaux, D-La., who started the symposium in 2000; Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark; Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.; Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D.; Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss.; Rep. Norman Dicks, D-Wash.; and Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md. Rep. Mark Kennedy, director of GW’s Graduate School of Political Management and former member of Congress (R-Minn.) provided welcoming remarks and participated in several panel discussions.
The Breaux Symposium is held to explore areas in which little or no research has been conducted or to approach more widely discussed issues from a fresh perspective. Each year, the symposium explores two related questions: How well is the public being informed? What can be done to increase awareness and constructive debate? The 2013 symposium theme was “Making Congress Work: A Guide for Representatives, Senators and Citizens.”
Rep. Kennedy said he was happy that GW could host the symposium. “Our school [GSPM] is dedicated to the proposition that we need to make democracy work,” he said.
The former representatives and senators participating all have reputations for bipartisanship and all are members of the United States Association of Former Members of Congress, said Rep. Morella. The association, which was chartered by Congress, is dedicated to promoting public service and strengthening representative democracy by encouraging cooperation both domestically and internationally.
In a panel titled, “What’s the Matter with Congress: Views of Former Members,” moderated by Sen. Breaux, the former members discussed the factors hindering Congress from more effectively completing its work.
One problem, Sen. Daschle said, is that members now spend much less time in D.C. than in the past. As air travel has become more efficient, members increasingly remain in their districts and only travel to Washington for a few days at a time. Few move their families to the nation’s capital anymore, and as a result, informal relationships among senators and representatives suffer.
“If you’re not here, it’s pretty hard to build friendships and relationships and ultimately to accommodate the kind of legislative process that’s built on those relationships,” Sen. Daschle said.
Sen. Lott said Congress in recent years has become much less dedicated to “regular order”—the term for the legislative process that involves committee and subcommittee meetings, conferences, full floor debates and votes that’s spelled out in the Schoolhouse Rock “How a Bill Becomes a Law” ditty. Fast-tracking certain bills and using stopgap measures like the sequester aren’t as effective as the regular order process.
“That’s where the final work needs to be done, and I think it would help an awful lot,” he said.
Rep. Dicks recalled the Congress of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which he called the most productive Congress in recent memory. “Richard Nixon was president, and we passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, created the Environmental Protection Agency….and it was because every bill had a Democratic and a Republican sponsor.”
Sen. Lincoln, who was the youngest woman ever elected to the Senate, said members of Congress need to spend more time on relationship-building if they expect to accomplish their legislative goals.
“Find where you agree and move from that….Leadership doesn’t mean control. It means creating an environment where people feel comfortable looking for the answers,” she said.
The panel members also discussed the role filibusters should play in debate, how the 24-hour news cycle can negatively affect Congress members’ ability to do their jobs, and how redistricting and the decline in primary election participation have changed Congress.
“Because of low voter turnout in the primaries, it’s not hard to capture the majority, and so groups on the far left and far right are doing that with more frequency and success,” Sen. Daschle said. “And that elects a different type of person. The primary becomes the more important of the two elections. We’ve got to figure out ways to ensure the general election remains the more important of the two elections.”
Rep. Kennedy said redistricting is a topic of particular interest at GSPM, and he said several faculty members would like to study the issue and generate a list of best and worst redistricting practices.
Despite the clear problems in Congress, several panel members said that signs of hope exist.
“During the 2012 elections, a lot of constituents were telling us to go back to D.C. and compromise,” Rep. Dicks said. “That’s encouraging.”
Rep. Kennedy said the American people should let their leaders know that they desire bipartisan cooperation.
“We need to start with educating political leaders to talk more broadly to all of the people in the audience, not just the little sliver who they represent,” he said.