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Fixing Washington’s Political Gridlock

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine smiles on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012 after delivering her farewell speech to the Senate.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine smiles on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012 after delivering her farewell speech to the Senate.

Frustration over political polarization and gridlock in Washington has been on the rise for years. It’s well documented in a slew of public opinion polls that show how little faith Americans have in their leaders to be able to compromise and get things done.

A recent Bloomberg survey found only 30 percent of the public believes the U.S. is headed in the right direction, with 62 percent saying the country is on the wrong track. In the wake of last October’s shutdown of the federal government, a CNN-ORC poll found that 83 percent of Americans were dissatisfied with the way the nation is being governed. An ABC News-Washington Post survey from the same period found that 77 percent of those surveyed believe members of Congress are out for themselves, while only 20 percent thought that they had the country’s best interests in mind.

It is dismal poll results like that that recently brought together an impressive group from both major political parties for a discussion on how to end the gridlock. The groups included former congressional leaders, cabinet secretaries and White House chiefs of staff. The discussion was sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center and the USA Today newspaper and took place at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.

There are no easy solutions to the problem, but there was plenty of agreement within the group about the causes of the current political dysfunction in Washington. The two parties have verged away from the political center reflecting a polarized country. The public sees politicians as more interested in saving their own careers than doing what’s right for the country. And there is a general lack of civility among Washington’s political elite that sets the tone for endless political attacks and stalemate.

Former Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine decided not to seek re-election in 2012 because she was tired of the partisan gridlock. “It’s all about the next election. It isn’t about what we can do to craft the best policies to solve the problems. Absent in all of this is that they are not problem-solving anymore. It is always scoring political points.”

Josh Bolten, who served as President George W. Bush’s White House chief of staff, said it was important to break what he called a cycle of political attacks and recriminations. “Both sides need to overcome that short term instinct because what is going to happen is that the cycle of retaliation will just continue on and they need to put that aside.”

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Longtime observers of Washington politics note that members of Congress used to socialize more with each other and had more contact with the president, who would use social occasions and personal meetings to try and find compromise on major issues of the day. Today there is less interaction among lawmakers from different parties, something Victoria Kennedy would like to change. Kennedy was married to the late Senator Ted Kennedy, a Democrat, and is co-founder of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. “I think the people need to speak out and say this isn’t what we want of our government, this isn’t what we want of our elected representatives and we want you to break bread together”, she told the gathering.

But it goes beyond speaking to one another, says former Republican Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi. Lott was the Republican majority leader in the Senate during much of Bill Clinton’s presidency and recalls plenty of political battles. But Lott says politicians today are much more committed to their own views and less willing to compromise, which he says hurts the country. “It takes give and take. Having been in those positions where you have to make decisions, just hard-nosed partisanship where you say ‘it’s my way or the highway’ and we are not going to do anything unless we do it our way, it won’t work in a legislative body. You need to stand by your principles but you also have to be a pragmatist.”

Voters Must Play a Role

But in order to truly change the dysfunction in Washington, Americans need to get more engaged in elections and the political process, says former Republican Congressman Henry Bonilla of Texas. “You vote for these people, America. They reflect America’s attitude now, unfortunately. America really has to reflect upon itself now and how at the grassroots level they have helped create this situation in Washington and try to fix it.”

Some form of gridlock seems likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future. Democrats control the White House and the Senate while Republicans hold a firm majority in the House of Representatives. Americans will have their next chance to reshape Washington in congressional midterm elections in November when all 435 seats in the House of Representatives will be at stake along with 36 of the 100 seats in the Senate.
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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.