In my over 50 years of public life, I have seen Washington at its best and Washington at its worst. The good news is that I have seen Washington work — Republicans and Democrats working together to achieve landmark legislation for the country.
In 1966, after my service in the Army, I went to Washington to become a legislative assistant to Senator Thomas Kuchel — a moderate Republican who was serving as minority whip under the Republican leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois. Dirksen and a number of moderate Republican Senators worked with President Johnson and a number of their Democratic colleagues on landmark legislation — from civil rights to education to Medicare to infrastructure, etc. Their success was based on mutual trust and respect, a consensus that legislative action was needed, a willingness to compromise, and a belief that achievement would be rewarded by the voters who lives were improved.
The same was true when I was elected to Congress in 1976. Speaker Tip O’Neill — a Democrat’s Democrat — had a close relationship with Bob Michel, the Republican leader from Illinois. Of course, they had political differences, but on big issues, they worked together. In the Reagan Administration, they passed Social Security reform, tax reform, budgets and immigration reform, etc. I was able to get things done for my constituents and was rewarded by their votes. Governing was good politics.
Why has that changed? The measure is no longer what you have achieved for your district and country, but whether you have been loyal to party and its base of support. Safe Republican and Democratic seats have given the extremes of both parties greater power. Fundraising, which used to be focused on district and state, is now focused largely on PAC money controlled by the party. Media and social media stress conflict more than compromise. Leadership which used to provide cover for tough votes now avoids offending the party base. The voting public, which is increasingly polarized, cares more about fighting over the problem than resolving the problem. For members who want to govern in this partisan trench warfare, they fear getting shot in the back if they wander into no man’s land to find compromise. This failure to govern will not change from the top. It will only change when newer members are elected who form a block of votes that care more about taking the risk to govern than appeasing their political party. The dysfunction in Washington has gone on for too long and will not be easy to change. But change can happen if both parties discover again that governing can be good politics.
I ran for office to make a difference and get things done, to make progress by building consensus and compromising. That’s being a legislator. There are very few members of Congress that hold this view today.
They worry about being challenged in a primary election if they aren’t conservative or liberal enough for the base of their party, or getting a “bad” score by a special interest group that will use a “bad” vote against them. They only will settle on getting 100 percent of everything on every issue or they are “caving” in to the other side.
Also, with a hyper activity of social media as a means of communication and news source for members, many members only practice “confirmation bias” and have viewpoints reinforced by their own beliefs. They aren’t willing to listen to new ideas or sources of information, or be willing to change their mind by learning something new.
It is discouraging to see a dynamic becoming more ingrained by the GOP and Dems leaders who directly tell the members of their conference: it’s not just about figuring out how to get a win for your side, but purposely ensuring that the other side is NOT able to claim a win. Members should be required to live in dorms so they can more easily build relationships and get to know each other – they will learn to respect each person and their ideas more.
On the fundraising side, somehow there should be changes so members only fundraise for their own campaigns and not be able to raise funds or contribute to the NRCC [National Republican Congressional Committee] or DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee]. These organizations require huge amounts of "dues" from their members which occupies too much time and reinforces the "us" vs "them" mentality at every level.
A divided Congress in the 1980s still found a way to conduct the nation’s business. A Democratic House, a Republican Senate and a Republican president enacted: Social Security reform, a major highway/infrastructure bill, tax reform and simplification (without adding to the deficit), Superfund/environmental legislation, immigration reform and more.
Today, with Congress and the White House similarly divided, gridlock and acrimony have replaced compromise and accomplishment.
What has gone wrong? There is no single, simple answer to that question.
Gerrymandered districts have created too many safe seats — driving politics to the further extremes where the primary election is tantamount to victory in November.
Outside campaign money — aided and abetted by the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court — has injected poison into our political discourse. Most candidates see their own campaign expenditures dwarfed by these so-called independent groups.
Social media has led too many Americans to garner their information from biased, typically inflammatory, sources.
Gerrymandering produces a Congress with too few moderates and too many ideologues — making common ground harder to find.
Outside money — mostly used to finance negative attack ads — makes it more difficult for winning candidates to take a “forgive and forget” attitude once in office.
Social media allows interest groups to quickly stir up a firestorm whenever legislators have the audacity to think for themselves.
These enervating factors are making it impossible to get the nation’s work done.
However, as individual voters, there is little we can do to address these factors. So, what can we do?
In short, as voters, we need to change our approach to voting — if we want to see a change for the better in Congress.
For example, most of us belong to some sort of special interest group — a union, the NRA, the Sierra Club, the AARP. We need to understand that these organizations — even if well-intended — are feeding us one-sided information. To be more discerning, we need to be more skeptical and questioning of this interest group propaganda.
In addition, most of us prefer certain news outlets and avoid others based on our own political leanings. Yet, sadly today, virtually all news organizations allow bias to enter into their reporting. We need to diversify our news sources, seeking sources that challenge our own opinions, not solely those that reinforce our opinions.
Finally, to avoid becoming part of the problem when it comes to political matters, stay off of social media! It only serves to amplify our differences and intensify our divide.
Fundamentally, most of us want Congress to address the most pressing issues of the day. That cannot happen unless we elect leaders who demonstrate genuine ability to work across the aisle. Candidates often claim they will work with the other side. But as voters, we need to look for evidence that they have actually done so. A simple test: If candidates have a 100 percent voting record with either liberal or conservative interest groups, they are NOT likely to be legislators who are seeking common ground.
The bottom line? A better Congress requires each of us to be better citizens. Vote wisely!
We have experienced a knife being thrust into the heart of our democratic political system. There is a poison and toxicity that threatens our government. People across the country are increasingly cynical about both political parties, they are deeply distrustful about our governing institutions, and generally believe the wealthy have unfair influence on politicians. Citizens see a plutocracy on top of our democracy. Americans are ready for a time of renewal, reform, and restoration of our republic. Good politics and good governing must be synonymous with a new generation of public servants and public service. The Republican and the Democratic parties are headed for stormy waters and should be prepared for serious reflection about their future leadership, policy ideas and candidate recruitment.
New solutions to America’s big problems, such as climate change, better jobs and a new modern workforce, racial and economic equity, addressing the trade and budget deficits, all require a government role. We must address our dysfunctional politics since a “House divided against itself cannot stand.”
We should encourage the creation of an office in the White House responsible for strengthening democratic institutions, reviving civic education, and sparking citizen conversations at the local level on issues of policy. The private sector, including businesses and corporations, should completely restructure contributions to political candidates, constructing a new set of principles, standards, and limits. We should create a national commission comprised of leading citizens to propose ideas to secure and protect our electoral system, prevent outside foreign interference, revive civic pride and education, propose new training for non-partisan and expert poll workers and judges, and initiate a patriotic national service program. And we must fix our campaign system so that ‘big money” and billionaires cannot buy a seat for office, dominate political influence, and degrade the American Dream. Alexis de Tocqueville would drown today in the Washington swamp.
Why does it seem good governing is no longer good politics? Gerrymandering, fundraising, and the siloing of the political parties. The first two can be addressed with courageous legal changes. The third is an issue we must address as a collective. Is the solution more political parties; non-partisan elections; require electeds to spend personal time with each other? Another issue, once elected, fundraising and pleasing a base become a reality, and the temptation to be re-elected becomes a primary driver.
Should there be term limits? Should all elections at a local level be non-partisan? Or does the lack of an identifier behind a person’s name reduce the amount of people who will vote? Open primaries allow an identifier behind a name, while all candidates run in the same election and the two leading vote getters then run off. Does this mean more moderate candidates will win? What about ranked choice voting?
Ultimately, an elected must believe the oath we take – that we are to serve all of the people. An elected must make difficult decisions. This requires courage and knowledge that doing the right thing may result in losing office. The paradox is we live in a democracy, but electeds’ responsibility is not binary. If electeds were not continuously exposed to outside forces (the Internet, trolling, and the impact of social media) and made determinations based on best facts, with predictions of best outcomes, and entered discussions in good faith with an eye to compromise, we would get better policy.
This is not solely an exercise for the electeds but for every citizen. Citizenship and voting are a privilege and a responsibility. The same discipline that we ask of an elected will not take effect until our citizenry abides by those same cultural norms.
Whether our economy and society succeed depends on whether we reestablish effective government. And yet, while there are movements to address specific issues, there is no large national movement to promote effective government.
The requisites of effective government are the willingness to engage in the give-and-take of principled compromise, to focus on facts and analysis in decision-making, and to make politically difficult decisions, especially when costs are shorter term and benefits longer term.
Many complain about our system’s deficiencies, but complaining is not a strategy. We each need to get involved. Among the many efforts already afoot are robust campaigns to accomplish reforms to incentivize candidates to move away from polarizing extremes and toward pragmatic agreement, such as ranked-choice voting, open primaries, and redistricting by bipartisan commissions. There are also potential (and controversial) congressional reforms, such as eliminating the Senate filibuster and restoring modest earmarking to facilitate the legislative process. And we can all interact with elected officials — through emails and other means — to insist they commit to making our system work.
One great hope I have is that someone will fund an effective, interactive social media campaign to persuade the American people to support candidates who believe in effective governance.
I think the odds are favorable that we get back on track. We have a dynamic society that could produce constructive, now-unforeseen changes; a history of political resilience; and politics can change rapidly in America. But there are no guarantees, and the process could be long and messy.
In the past, the premise was good governing and good politics were one and the same. But it’s always been an imperfect union. Minnesota elected a star wrestler as governor who couldn’t govern, California elected a movie star governor who couldn’t govern. It’s never been a perfect fit. Now, it seems even less perfect.
Where people get their information and their news has become completely disrupted and fractured. They look only to sources which reinforce their own points of view. Newspapers and broadcast news used to impart stories we wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. Now no one flips through a newspaper anymore. They want to hear ‘news’ with which they agree but this includes misinformation upon which election choices are made. This may get people elected but doesn’t mean those people can govern.
Gerrymandering has created very blue or very red districts wherein the popular red or blue candidate in those districts get elected. However, those are not necessarily the candidates who can best govern. The best public officials attempt to understand other points of view. Gerrymandering is a recipe for poor governance. It may be “good” politics, but does not create good governance.
The divide has never been wider. And while it’s never been perfect, it’s never been this bad. For too many, especially with Republicans, it is party over country.
People frequently say, “You're a politician, what is your …..” and I stop and correct them immediately. I was a "public servant," not a "politician." I make the distinction between one who solves problems in the public interest, and the politician who says what you want him or her to say - and always does whatever is politically expedient to get your vote or your money — with the highest priority being self-interest — staying in power.
With the emergence of Trump, Mitch McConnell, and their enablers, whether they be cabinet members, or staff, Republican Senators or Fox News — everything has been politicized — meaning re-framing messages or deflecting responsibility. To elaborate on my interpretation further, it’s "fake news" if it doesn’t flatter or support me. Unsupported blame is cast on the Democrats if a compromise isn’t reached by the majority Republican Senate on a relief bill. Essentially praise me for all that is good — blame the other (news source, Inspector General, Democrats, whistle blower, or anyone other than me). Today, politicians are unwilling to accept responsibility, to admit wrongdoing or, to compromise in the name of solving critical problems for the American people.
While in office, I always voted for what I thought was right, despite pressure from the leadership, the donors, or special interests. As a Republican, I will continue to vote for the person, not the party!
Does good governing make good politics? No, sadly money has seriously upended the process. Politicians are told by campaign managers they need to raise a certain sum of money each day to win. Consequently, much more of a politician’s time is spent raising campaign money than trying to understand the myriad of issues impacting government. Spoiler alert, few if any big donors give money for “good government,” but instead have special requests or favors for their donation!
Further, now that journalism is under such financial stress, few political leaders are covered very thoroughly by the press. So one’s real record and performance is a blank slate, and the money can be used to tell voters what they want to hear and how wonderful the politician is! Real Whoo-Whoo!
Bottom line, one is much more apt to have a successful career if they can raise a lot of money than if they are invested in making government work.
Partisanship and the potential for gridlock is not new to our nation’s political system, but it feels more intense than any of us remember. The reasons are multi-faceted.
First, the gerrymandering process has made red districts redder and blue districts bluer. Such highly divided districts make bipartisanship less likely. In Congress, I represented a classic swing-district. Experience taught me to seek solutions that could gain bipartisan support to achieve my goals. The answer is simple: independent, non-partisan commissions to design fair legislative districts at the state and federal levels.
It is also harder today to find common ground because political rhetoric decries compromise, and the president defies the norms of the presidency.
Yet, all is not lost. Even after two years of government turmoil, Congress and the Administration found a way to pass bipartisan legislation to keep hospitals open and families afloat early in this COVID-19 crisis. They modified rules to ensure access to health care and provided relief to people and businesses at risk during this pandemic.
Most heartening of all is the new activism by citizens of all ages, races, and geographies. From the largest women’s march ever to Black Lives Matter events in large and small towns across America, to a cry for civility and compassion — people are speaking out. Most critically, they are also voting — the most American of activities and the one that defines us as a democracy.
New engagement in the political process and my belief in the strength of our nation gives me hope.
I entered public service after a professional career in the private sector. I served as a political appointee to both President Obama and President Trump. I was twice confirmed by the US Senate with no objecting votes from either Democrats or Republicans. With Washington growing more partisan by the day, I tried to keep the VA out of political fights as much as possible. I pushed policy issues and visited members of Congress on Capitol Hill, without regard to political party. I felt strongly that an organization like VA, should be nonpartisan.
In my experience as secretary, however, the political appointees did not feel the same and were constantly trying to use veterans for political wins and to demonstrate partisan policy victories. In trying to stand for the principles that I believed would benefit our nation's veterans, my decisions often did not support the policy views of some of the political appointees. This caused some political appointees to attack me personally and sabotage my efforts as secretary to implement important policy. These actions directly shortened my term as secretary and made the experience of public service at times very difficult.
My government experience has led me to believe that agencies that offer direct services to citizens, such as VA, need a new model of governance. In the case of VA, I propose the agency would have its own board composed of healthcare experts, veterans, and business leaders. The agency would remain a government entity but with a structure that would allow it to develop strategies and make necessary changes, free of political influence. This new structure would end the influence of political appointees and allow for the continuity of leadership with term limits, rather than serving at the pleasure of the president. By the way, these are recommendations that were proposed by a 2016 bipartisan commission for restructuring VA and after my own experience in leading the organization I understood why these governance changes are necessary.
Good governance starts and ends with those who step forward to lead and serve. This includes nearly 24 million Americans, a little over 15% of the workforce, whom Brookings estimates are involved in government service today. That’s despite record low public trust: Pew found only 20% of Americans trust the federal government to simply “do the right thing.”
Our confidence in and support for government has everything to do with the respect we have for those who serve. When we hear phrases like “drain the swamp,” or we see family members and cronyism dominate, or we see scientists and other experts undermined, that confidence and support erode. Not so long ago, public service — whether in elected office, law enforcement, teaching, or just a public institution or agency — was seen as a high calling, a way to serve others in a rewarding career. Today, the public-sector workforce is aging, government technology has become outdated, and many of our best and brightest want nothing to do with the scrutiny and ridicule (or worse) that comes with public service.
But there is hope, and it lies in the optimistic, innovative, and courageous American people who have witnessed the best and worst examples of leadership in their recent lifetimes. We can help ensure good governing happens by supporting those willing to serve by expecting high standards, investing in government infrastructure, and honoring good service.
It seems that good governing is no longer good politics because in most places it no longer is good politics. Good governance requires compromise, and increasing numbers of voters apparently do not appreciate the need to compromise and reject those policymakers who do so. Those who decry compromise and champion more “purist” ideological views increasingly win primaries over “RINOs” or “DINOs.”
More important, I think, is that those who articulate the “purist” positions attract much more media attention, become nationally known, and raise huge amounts of money for their campaigns. Those who emphasize “good governing,” on the other hand, receive little media coverage, remain relatively obscure, and raise much less money for their political activities.
What has changed?
When the World War II generation dominated Congress and the body politic, there was a general consensus on certain core values. They believed in God. They believed that individuals were “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . .”
Belief in God is no longer a consensus view in the United States, and therefore that core premise of our governing system — that power and rights flow from God to the people and that the people then give certain power and responsibilities to government — is no longer common shared value.
The WWII generation also believed that the United States was a special and good nation, a “shining city on a hill,” that was a force for good in the world. Again, that is no longer a consensus view in the United States. The loss of consensus on these and other core values and principles makes it more difficult to find shared goals and objectives and achieve the compromises necessary for good governance.
Focusing on the federal government, the Congress is simply no longer fulfilling it’s three core legislative responsibilities: authorizing, appropriating, and overseeing. As a result, the other two branches of government — the executive and the judiciary — as well as other “independent” federal agencies are assuming more power/responsibility with less accountability. While there are many causes for this dynamic, I believe that the major problem is that members of Congress are simply not spending enough time in Washington fulfilling their legislative responsibilities.
As members spend less and less time on their legislative responsibilities, more power and responsibility is transferred to a handful of policymakers and staff. As a result, most important legislation is never subject to the give-and-take of legislative markups in subcommittee and committee and on the floor. Almost none is the subject of a working Senate-House conference committee. With little opportunity for most members to actively participate in the crafting of legislation and the need to find support for their positions, there is little reason to forge compromises to build a majority for an amendment or a bill.
What can we do about it?
I wish I had an answer to this question. Here are a few thoughts:
There have always been those in positions of power who put politics before governing. There is, however, no question that it seems that more politicians do that today than at any other time in my 30-year period of public service. It is unfortunate that the country is more divided today than at any other time since possibly the Civil War. The two party system has always had ideological differences. However, it feels that our elected officials are more stridently ideological, less pragmatic, and more regularly put party before country to a great detriment to our nation.
What has changed and what can we do about it?
There has always been, as I said previously, a level of partisanship and ideological differences, but it does seem that the level of vitriol is more visceral than at any time in recent memory. It used to be that civility and compromise were things that we valued in our leaders. There are too many that believe that compromise is a violation of principle, that civility is a weakness to be neither cherished nor respected, and statesmanship is a throwback to a forgone era. For far too many, winning is everything, no matter the cost to our social fabric.
We need leaders that can unite us. That respect their adversaries and are willing to do the hard work of forging common ground. We need to do a better job at educating young people about the role of citizenship, about the importance of civic action and involvement. About the need to hold our leaders to a higher standard and respect for our democracy. In a country where we are so divided and polarized, we should advocate for a radical center. Radical in its departure from the politics of personal destruction and polarization beyond the essence of our differences.
Radical as well in understanding that progress is inevitable and must be achieved as quickly as practical while painstakingly building the broad support that conveys respect for opposing views. Not all change is transformative nor overnight.
I always believed that good governance would be rewarded, as long as one was able to explain decisions to one’s constituencies. To do this, even following what I knew to be unpopular votes, I depended heavily on frequent town meetings (6-8 each month) from which I could hear concerns and gauge their seriousness. When town meetings became harder because a relatively small group of hard core conservatives learned how to disrupt and interrupt in meetings, I ceased holding them and never again felt as closely in touch with my constituents.
This was a real loss, and I was never again as good a representative; I never again enjoyed intense public discussions. This contributed to my decision not to run again, after seven close and difficult elections and eighteen years on the Hill. I have never forgiven the coarse, rude behaviors and dismissal of norms of politeness and exchange of ideas; this was probably the American West in early, more innocent citizen days, and maybe a unique situation.
With the downward spiral of the last 30 years and the ravages of online communication, it is hard for me to imagine what sort of learning for a public official - in this case me- can be created again. Some new form of civic dialogue is needed, and I do not know what it will be. But I am happy that a wave of new people are giving it a try and I certainly wish them well. The joy of good constituent communication is considerable, and I am very happy to have had the opportunity.
Historically, representative forms of government were the most effective way to manage societies. Political parties were the mechanism for candidates to represent their majority.
This has been challenged by instant public awareness of government actions, resulting in no ability for compromise, and complicated by both parties allowing small factions to dictate policy.
Good governing is no longer good politics. There is increased polarization in pursuit of immediate political wins. Missing is the leadership to actually solve problems rather than gain immediate political wins.
There’s no easy answer. Plato said: the penalty of wise men who decline to involve themselves in their governance will be to be ruled by unwise men.
President Ronald Reagan viewed good politics as a requirement for good governing, but his campaigns were always polite and respectful — even when he disagreed.
As President, he made governing easy — his priorities were to reduce marginal taxes, regulations, government spending, and inflation; strengthen Social Security and rebuild the military. He accomplished all of this without denigrating his opponents. He was strong, but always a gentleman.
He proved that you can accomplish many things without being nasty. During debates, he smiled rather than snarled.
We need another leader like this to get us back on track as a strong, kind nation.
Governing, unlike politics, has always been about compromise. It is essential that those responsible for getting things done be engaged in a certain amount of give and take, horse trading, and deal making in order to reach a conclusion that is acceptable to all, if unsatisfactory to many. It requires applying the old adage, “let not the perfect be the enemy of the good” or “half a loaf is better than none.”
Unfortunately, modern politics is driven by gerrymandered districts, controversy seeking media, and frenzied social media pundits, treats politics as a zero sum game. I win, you lose. To compromise is to sell out. Thus, many politicians ( and their voters) are satisfied simply with the rightness of their position and rhetoric, rather than having an urgency to legislate and get things done to improve the lives of our citizens. Redistricting reform would certainly help. Greater activism by bipartisan groups like the Problem Solvers Caucus and Third Way could also begin to change the discussion.
Finally, the establishment of a single six year term limit for president would give him/her the freedom to push the compromises necessary to get things done without worrying about his or her political fortunes.