The promise of government of, by, and for the people
© Greg Nash

Many of us who have served in the United States Senate share an idealism about our government’s ability to do good work on behalf of all Americans, and believe that the Senate is uniquely positioned to tackle the challenges facing our nation.

Our Founding Fathers created the Senate to be the world’s most deliberative body. For decades, women and men serving in the Senate have worked together to address the most critical issues affecting our democracy. But, one might ask whether the Founding Fathers would appreciate their efforts today.

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Last week, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate released the results of a poll on registered voters’ attitudes toward our nation’s leaders and current state of political affairs. It shows that the majority of American voters want their senators to serve as a check on the president, regardless of party; to work alongside the House of Representatives to pass legislation; and to oversee the actions of the Executive branch. But, how well has Congress been meeting these expectations when intolerance and hyperbole have come to dominate both sides of the aisle and led to partisan gridlock?

Voters who participated in the poll agree the Senate could work much better. The majority want senators to forge compromises to get things done – but, fewer than one in five thinks this happens. They want legislators to follow the will of the people they represent – but, eight in 10 believe self-interest and campaign contributors drive decisions instead.

Not only do Americans agree on how elected officials should govern, they are aligned on the issues they want politicians to prioritize. Democrats and Republicans alike cited health care as one of the most important issues influencing how they will vote in the upcoming mid-term elections. We might differ over how to fix our health care system, but we should be able to find common ground and answer Americans’ call for a solution. Sen. Ted Kennedy’s philosophy -- ‘don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good’ – led to the passage of many meaningful policies that changed people’s lives, and should be a cornerstone of legislating today.

Having spent a collective 48 years in the Senate, we understand that reaching across the aisle isn’t always easy. As senators from different parties, we disagreed on many policy issues. But there were times, particularly at critical moments, where we were able to work together despite our differences. Bipartisan passage of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) legislation to invest millions in financial institutions to stabilize the fragile banking industry in 2008 was such an example.

It’s imperative that Congress address the shared challenges facing Americans, require the president to uphold our nation’s values, and use their power to bring the country closer together. But at the same time, the democratic contract goes both ways.

Indeed, while the Kennedy Institute poll reflects Americans’ dissatisfaction with Congress, it also shows that we have reason to be dissatisfied with the American electorate.

Only three in five voters know each state has two U.S. senators, and nearly half are unaware of both of their own senators. A majority of voters don’t know that U.S. senators serve for six years. And, with midterm elections looming, only three in five voters can correctly answer whether there is a Senate race in their state at all.

These findings demonstrate the need for action on both sides. American voters are right to demand that policymakers be responsive to their interests, but they must be accountable themselves as informed and active citizens. Civic engagement is both a right and a responsibility in this country; if the events of the day dissatisfy you, it is up to you lean in, not opt out.

In the end, it is that sacred compact between the American electorate and their representatives that should power our nation’s democracy in the 21stcentury: the promise of government of, by, and for the people, with each of us doing our part. To fulfill that covenant, we all must do better.

Dodd and Gregg served in the United States Senate from 1981-2011 and 1993-2011 respectively. They serve on the board of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.