Opinion | How the Senate Can Serve as a Model for America

As veterans of decades of political campaigns and legislative battles, we, both Democrats and Republicans, share the question Americans have been asking for too long: What will it take to end the hyperpartisan polarization that has spurred so much hostility and distrust in the public square and has effectively paralyzed legislative action?

The recent election provided some hopeful signs. A majority of voters sent a strong message by overwhelmingly responding to the patriotic call for national healing, civility and an end to political division and obstruction.

Following his victory, President-elect Joe Biden explained his call in plain and simple terms: The “refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another,” he said, isn’t “some mysterious force beyond our control. It’s a decision, a choice we make. And if we can decide not to cooperate, then we can decide to cooperate.” He’s right.

This is why we salute members of the House and the Senate from both parties who collaborated to enact legislation that provides partial, stopgap relief to Americans suffering from a confluence of national crises. This bipartisan group stepped up to overcome leadership’s intransigence, which delayed desperately needed assistance for months. More relief is needed, but their contributions — both from a public emergency standpoint and for setting an example of what a bipartisan legislative working model looks like — cannot be overstated.

This week, Georgia voters will decide which party will control the 117th Senate. Pundits are speculating that the vote will decide whether we see a Republican majority’s obstructionism or a Democratic majority’s opportunity for political payback — as if those are the only options. But we believe that the bipartisan effort that coalesced around emergency relief foreshadows a more hopeful alternative.

Regardless of which party controls the Senate, bipartisan efforts rooted in mutual respect, collegiality and compromise would propel the Senate toward re-establishing functional governance, restoring respect for the institution and renewing the public’s waning trust.

Bipartisanship shouldn’t be rare or ad hoc. What is needed now in the Senate is a return to “regular order.”

The Senate’s traditional system of “regular order,” in effect for generations, was designed to advance and encourage bipartisanship. This is best illuminated by the Senate’s committee structure, where Republicans and Democrats regularly worked together on scheduled legislation, in public hearings and in private discussions. Senators exchanged ideas and deliberated candidly through regular order, which strengthened and improved legislation, and fostered increased understanding of (and respect among) members of both parties.

Regular order permits “senators to be senators,” with more equal voices in the legislative process. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen recently, when legislation is proposed by edict of party leadership — without the benefit of committee work and interparty conversations — party lines become entrenched and partisan gridlock follows.

Returning to regular order would also eliminate the recent requirement of a 60-vote “supermajority” for each procedural and substantive motion and vote for final passage. Under regular order, the 60-vote threshold would be reserved as originally intended — for closing extended debate of a real filibuster, not the mere threat of a faux filibuster.

Role models are respected for leading by example, and institutional role models are respected for engaging in self-evaluation as part of their commitment to refresh and improve their performance and accountability. Because it is the American public to which the Senate is accountable, a self-evaluation is imperative.

Last February, a group of 70 former senators, of which we were a part, publicly encouraged our successors to establish a bipartisan caucus that would examine and reform the current practices, procedures, norms and schedule of the Senate, in an effort to address the symptoms that have led to its abdication of core responsibilities and its obstructionist dysfunction.

In addition, a thorough self-evaluation would include consideration of ideas that enhance a culture of understanding and respect across the aisle and help set a tone of cooperation for the incoming 117th Senate. The experiences of our bipartisan group of 70 could be sources of recommendations, as could the suggestions contained in the Association of Former Members of Congress’s recent study, “Congress at a Crossroads.”

America’s public trust — the indispensable element of democracy’s survival — is shrinking. We urge the Senate of 2021 to step back from the dangerous scorched-earth partisanship of recent years and to step forward as an enlightened role model helping to lead America toward a more civil and respectful society and, thus, “a more perfect union.”

Jack Danforth, a Republican, represented Missouri in the Senate from 1976 to 1995. Chris Dodd, a Democrat, represented Connecticut in the Senate from 1981 to 2011. Chuck Hagel, a Republican, represented Nebraska in the Senate from 1997 to 2009. Paul Kirk, a Democrat, represented Massachusetts in the Senate from 2009 to 2010.

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