On the latest Facing the Future, I was joined by Concord Coalition Executive Director, Bob Bixby, and former U.S. Senators Bob Kerrey (D-NE) and Jack Danforth (R-MO). We discussed bipartisanship, leadership, and rebuilding the economy in a fiscally responsible manner after the nation brings the COVID-19 pandemic to an end.
[Note: Portions of this week's Facing the Future can be seen in the video clip posted below.]
Because both Kerrey and Danforth served in the Senate for extended periods of time, we discussed the state of the Senate now, especially with a 50-50 party split, and how it could be used to help improve governance.
“I think that the key to the Senate is to return to what we called ‘regular order,’ and that’s what kids learn when they’re in school about how a bill becomes a law,” Danforth said. “That’s not the way legislation is written anymore.”
“Instead of being able to work through problems, and reach compromises on issues, it’s ‘take it or leave it’ when bills are presented, and the system just doesn’t work,” he added. “And it leads to the polarization that we have in our country now, where here’s one side, here’s another side, and never the twain shall meet.”
“Well, the regular order is a system where having the twain meet; that’s the way it works, and it’s not working today,” Danforth said.
Kerrey said, “I would love to see 6 or 8 Senators who said, ‘we’re going to caucus as independents.’ ”
“In a 50-50 Senate, a half dozen to eight members of that Senate could say, ‘we’re going to come together and we’re going to get immigration done, we’re going to come together and get trade done, we’re going to come together and deal with entitlements,’ ” he added.
“They can do things that are exceptionally difficult for the Republican or the Democratic leadership to do,” Kerrey said.
Danforth agreed, saying, “It has worked, a group of 8 working on stimulus and all kinds of things in the past.”
“There has been something of a tradition of doing that,” Danforth said. “And I think having a standing group of 8 would be absolutely terrific.”
“Now, the members of that group would be under intense pressure from their leadership to go along with the leadership and break from the group,” he added. “And there would be efforts to pick them off one at a time, and they would really have to hang in there, but it is the best thing that we could do to have a working political system at the national level - to create just such a group that is committed not to some particular policy end, but is committed simply to making the Senate work.”
Senator Kerrey also encouraged the American people to focus on rulemaking in the Senate to ensure things like the filibuster are used better and fundraising committees are not a hindrance to policymaking and bipartisanship.
“I was Chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for four years; I’d abolish all four of those committees,” Kerrey said. “I think they make it really difficult for Republicans and Democrats to work together, especially if you know that the person you’re working with is out raising money to try and defeat you in the next election.”
Danforth interjected, “They say that the legislative process is sausage making, and that’s the way it should be.”
“Political ideas aren’t perfect, and they work their way out in legislation, but now we have a dysfunctional system where it’s just two sides taking opposite positions on almost every issue, and that has created the log jam that we have right now,” he said.
Kerrey agreed, and said, “We as citizens, because that’s what I am now, I am a private sector citizen who’s registered as a Democrat; I have to support Republicans who do the right thing.”
“I can’t just say, which is unfortunately often times the case, ‘well, I can’t support that person, they’re a Republican,’” Kerrey added. “And that’s what polarization has produced.”
Danforth said, “I think what members of Congress fear now is not being defeated in the general election, they fear being Primaried.”
“And the fear of Primaries, particularly in safe House districts, but also in the Senate, drives members of Congress, and people who aspire to be members of Congress, more and more to the extremes of the two parties,” he added. “They’re very concerned about feet moving behind them.”
Kerrey explained, for those who do not watch football, “listening to feet behind you” is what is said when a wide receiver drops a pass that is right in their hands because they are afraid they are going to get hit.
“There’s way too many Republicans and Democrats that are afraid they’re going to get hit in a Primary,” Kerrey added.
Danforth said, “The great challenge of America has always been to hold ourselves together as one nation.”
“I think we’ve lost that sense,” he said. “I think it’s almost a cultural rebirth that we need as a country to understand that it’s really not ‘us against them’ it’s a common enterprise for all of us.”
The conversation with the Senators also focused on pushing forward in recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and providing economic relief.
“Challenge number one is going to be to maintain the interest and support of the American people because this has been going on for about a year,” Danforth said. “The vaccines are now getting to be available, but apparently there’s some problem in getting them actually administered.”
Senator Kerrey said, “I think you really have to use the resources of the Department of Defense to distribute and do this vaccination program … no one should doubt the logistical capacity of our military … and I think it will be enormously helpful to accelerate the process.”
As the Senators turned to the economy, they discussed ongoing and upcoming challenges.
Senator Danforth said, “We’ve got the immediate issue of getting money out to people, getting through an emergency, the next stimulus package, how big it should, how it should be designed, and then there’s the long-term problem … in what’s the long-term consequence of this on the economy and is the national debt going to continue to grow and grow and grow.”
“Does anybody really care about deficits and debt anymore?” he asked. “And I hope the answer to that is ‘yes;’ it’s much easier for government to dish money out than to focus on the long-term consequences.”
Senator Kerrey said, “I agree with that; first off, to get the economy growing again, you have to have a combination of relief … and you’ve got to begin to face some of these terrible budget realities.”
“The total U.S. debt has gone up $7.8 trillion during the four years of President Trump, it went up almost $9 trillion under the Presidency of Barack Obama; we’ve gotten used to it, and now the total public debt exceeds GDP,” Kerrey said. “And we’re staring down the barrel of the hardest one of all … Social Security and Medicare.”
“Politically, there’s no easy way to solve this problem,” he added.
Danforth mentioned a bipartisan commission on entitlement and tax reform that was appointed by then-President Clinton in 1994 - Danforth and Kerrey were the co-chairs.
“We couldn’t find more than about six people, on a commission of 32 or 33 people, who would agree on doing anything,” Danforth said. “Everybody recognized the problem, but when it came to solutions, nobody wanted to sign on. Now, it seems nobody is even recognizing the problem.”
Kerrey added, “The people that are going to get hosed are the people under the age of 40; we can’t keep the promises that we have on the table for Social Security.”
Hear more on Facing the Future. I host the program each week on WKXL, NHTalkRadio.com (N.H.), and it is also available via podcast. Join me and my guests as we discuss issues relating to national fiscal policy with budget experts, industry leaders, and elected officials. Past broadcasts are available here. You can subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher or with an RSS feed. Follow Facing the Future on Facebook, and watch videos from past episodes on The Concord Coalition YouTube channel.