At his inauguration a few weeks ago, President Joe Biden stressed the need for unity, and how important it is to work together to overcome the many challenges our nation faces. It was a refreshing message after years of political division.
Having represented Kansas in Congress and served as U.S. secretary of agriculture, I know from experience that our federal government can get back to functioning properly and serving the American people. It’s why I’ve joined with my three co-authors here — two of us from each party — to get the word out on how we can move forward and rebuild faith in our democratic institutions.
In a recent report from the group FixUS, several former lawmakers and appointed officials tried to diagnose the many problems plaguing our governing institutions and how to move past them. While we all have some role to play, leadership starts at the top, and the president and Congress need to set the tone and revamp our governing institutions so they can once again function.
For the legislative branch, it’s long past time to reassert its role as the maker of laws. Too often, Congress has deferred to the executive branch out of convenience or an inability to move legislation. The president provides a vision and helps set the agenda, but lawmakers need to reclaim their part in the governing process.
One way to empower rank-and-file members and tone down the party-over-public dynamic is to rediscover the importance of bipartisan policymaking through regular order. That means following the same lessons of how a bill becomes a law that you were taught in grade school. First, a bill is introduced and assigned to the relevant committee. That committee then holds public hearings and reviews amendments to the bill. If the committee approves of the legislation, it moves to the floor for a full vote.
Using regular order and seeking bipartisanship won’t prevent disagreements and divided votes, but legislating is not designed to be unanimous. It should involve hearing different viewpoints and bringing together different constituencies to achieve a majority.
This sounds like it should be standard, but lawmakers are instead becoming more reliant on a process called budget reconciliation to adopt their big legislative priorities. This is an expedited process that allows lawmakers to pass budget-related legislation with a simple majority in the Senate, rather than having to meet the 60-vote filibuster threshold. Reconciliation can typically only be used once a session and ought to be more of a fail-safe. Policymaking that comes from regular order can better stand the test of time and attract a broader coalition of support.
Once Congress rediscovers the basic process for legislating, it’s also important to rebuild the personal relationships that used to transcend political views. Being civil to each other won’t, by itself, bridge the ideological divides we’re seeing now. But talking about family, spending time together on and off Capitol Hill in a casual setting, or chatting on the phone are all basic courtesies that could improve communication in the political arena and restore some much-needed civility.
By doing this, lawmakers may also finally pull back from the recent habit of resorting to finger-pointing and calling the other side names in partisan media outlets. Instead of celebrating insults and snarky headlines, politicians should celebrate good values, respect and hard work. Pursuing compromise and reaching across the aisle is a strength, not a weakness.
Having served in Congress representing diverse interests from Kansas, North Dakota, New York and Texas, we know the task at hand is daunting. These recent troubles can serve as a force for positive change and a return to real governing on behalf of all the American people. But only if our elected leaders take advantage of this opportunity and advocate for good governance.
Democrat Dan Glickman is a former U.S. representative from Kansas. Democrat Heidi Heitkamp is a former U.S. senator from North Dakota. Republican Susan Molinari is a former U.S. representative from New York. Republican Steve Bartlett is a former U.S. representative from Dallas and a former Dallas mayor.