For our democracy’s sake, senators should seize the John McCain moment

For our democracy’s sake, senators should seize the John McCain moment
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In Saturday’s final salute to our colleague John Mc Cain, all of us were powerfully moved by the inspirational music, the timeless admonitions of scripture and the unifying words of bipartisan respect for John and the values by which he lived. All of this brought all of us — regardless of party — closer together.

Before the message of that majestic ceremony is lost in the busy days ahead, let’s be mindful that John planned his own service not just as a moving farewell to himself but, more importantly, as a moving bipartisan call to all of us who care about the strength and stature of America’s democracy.

In reflecting on how to best answer that call, I ask my former Senate colleagues to consider this.


The essential ingredient of a vibrant democracy — the public’s “trust” in its House and Senate — hovers at an embarrassing 25 percent. That lack of trust is attributable to the truth John told with characteristic impatience in his final speech to his colleagues. “We’re getting nothing done!” The gridlock and deliberate obstructionism impeding legislative progress are symptoms of systemic causes poisoning our politics and polarizing the citizenry for the last several years.

While that list is too long to recite here, change must come. In the meantime, the clear, present danger is that society is reluctantly resigning to the “new normal” because it believes no public institution or leader seems to care or know what to do about it. American democracy deserves better.

Under current circumstances, the institution best equipped to begin turning that current tide is the United States Senate. That turn can begin by its members adopting the simplest practice of a traditional American community — getting to know, understand and trust one’s neighbors.

For over two decades, little time, interest or encouragement has been devoted to getting to know colleagues of the other party. Committee work has been throttled. Once a venue for informal bipartisan conversation and collaboration, the “Senators Only” Dining Room sits empty. The demanding and demeaning chore of fund raising has become priority No. 1. Weekly party caucuses are governed more as political action committees vying for short term partisan one-upmanship than as substantive policy huddles to discuss options for advancing a bipartisan legislative agenda for the public good.

Having chaired one of our country’s two major political parties, I know that an obsession with partisanship and political competition is acceptable on the campaign trail. As a U.S. senator and now a private citizen, I also know that same obsession is not appropriate in the daily governance of our legislative institutions.

United State senators are elected role models. By tone and example, working together under “regular order” to educate and enlighten each other in civil debate on their views of substantive public policy, they can better serve the institution and the body politic. If competing ideas lead to reasonable compromise, the Senate’s job is well done and the public is well served.

Experience teaches that an exercise of periodic self-evaluation is a healthy “best practice” of governance to improve performance, effectiveness and accountability particularly for entities that exist to serve the public.

I encourage senators to form a bipartisan governance task force of current and former members empowered to evaluate the Senate rules, procedures, norms, schedules and opportunities for social and cultural interaction and propose ways to improve the Senate’s conduct, effectiveness and respect.

As a simple example, it would help to schedule periodic dinners for senators and spouses where a few selected members of each party offer informal remarks on his/her personal background, the most meaningful event of their lives, why they chose public service, and the public policy concerns about which they are most passionate.

Getting to know of shared interests and values will help instill the norm of mutual trust so essential to demonstrating that Democrats and Republicans can, indeed, work together to improve the Senate’s performance — and, importantly, to restore the public’s trust.

Last Saturday, we were reminded that John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain to produce 'Don't Sweat the Small Stuff' Lifetime movie starring Heather Locklear An August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done Meghan McCain on Pelosi, McCarthy fight: 'I think they're all bad' MORE’s impatience for positive action was reflected by his favorite quote from Ernest Hemingway:

“Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today,”

I believe Senator McCain would observe, as I do, that continuing improvement of our “more perfect union” can depend on what senators do today.

Paul G. Kirk, Jr.  is a former U.S. senator (D-Mass.) and a former chairman of the Democratic Party of the U.S.