Keep the rules—change the culture

No one doubts that that public is almost universally disappointed with Washington. A recent poll found that 83 percent of Americans disapprove of Congress—and I’ve yet to meet the boosters who comprise the remainder. The electorate’s broad condemnation has driven many legislators to become acolytes of Groucho Marx, who famously said that he wouldn’t want to join any club that would have him as a member.

So that’s the political reality. Few brave souls want to be seen actively steering a ship of state when the vast majority of passengers are on the verge of open mutiny. And so, quite rationally, most members of Congress try to spend as little time in Washington as possible. It is rare today for newly elected senators to move their families to Washington. They don’t socialize with one another. They don’t eat, drink, pray, play or travel together. And as a result, many don’t really know one another.

Few would care much that the Senate has become less intimate and collegial if the institution was still working at a reasonable clip. But in this atmosphere of both external disdain and internal alienation, many leaders are hesitant to embrace solutions that drift even slightly from the orthodoxy of the party base. As BPC Senior Fellow and former Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) can testify, there are real penalties today for being seen as too “collaborative,” no matter how progressive or conservative your record may be.

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The last safe harbor for politically acceptable collaboration is crisis. When Washington is on the precipice of real or perceived disaster, the risk-benefit calculus shifts, giving members the license needed to solve problems. The same scenario has played out repeatedly when, over the last several years, the government threatened to default and when tax rates were set to increase. Last week, the privacy of the Old Senate Chamber provided a rare opportunity for frustrated leaders to get away with a little collaboration.  Although the agreement they reached only provides a temporary reprieve from future showdowns, everyone in that room understood that failure would have devastated the capacity for the Senate to legislate for months to come.

This latest act of brinksmanship demonstrates that our filibuster fixation confuses a symptom with a far deeper problem. While senators have chosen to hold up presidential appointments more frequently of late, the same basic rules were in place during decades when the Senate wasn’t nearly so gridlocked. What has changed is that the personal interactions that once enabled the Senate to function despite harsh ideological divides have become relics of another era. And so filibuster reform will only paper over the Senate’s need to develop a landscape that allows for honest deliberation.

Sens. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) have seized the initiative by urging the Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to conduct joint bipartisan activities on a more consistent basis. They note that during the meeting in the Old Senate Chamber, “senators from both sides of the aisle were able to have a respectful, yet frank and open discussion about issues that substantially impact the Rules that govern this Chamber.”

Sens. Reid and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) should seize this opportunity and schedule monthly senator-only meetings. Let them do what their predecessors used to do more regularly—deliberate privately over the issues of the day.  Surely some will complain about closed door meetings, but we must allow our leaders some room to govern.  Moreover, no conversation among 100 people in Washington stays secret for long.  

If that doesn’t get things moving again, the majority will almost inevitably consider more drastic reforms. Until we’ve taken steps to re-invigorate the culture of Senate collaboration, the Senate should holster the nuclear option and focus instead on incubating the collaborative discussions that were once a staple of Congress’ upper chamber.   

Grumet is president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.