A recent telephone conversation with former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey evoked images of an old educational film on how government works. If you are of a certain age you may recall the cartoon’s narrator, an animated version of the United States Constitution standing on the Capitol steps, neatly summing things up just before the credits rolled with “And that’s how a bill becomes law.”
To Kerrey, who will face off against the Sarah Palin-backed Republican Nebraska State Senator Deb Fischer to replace retiring U.S. Senator Ben Nelson in a battle that has profound implications on the balance of power in that legislative body and Congress as a whole, how bills become laws has become a sad symbol of America’s balkanization, the nation’s partisan divide of perhaps historic proportions.
“It is very disturbing for me to see that only 20% of Americans have confidence in Congress,” said the man who represented Nebraska in the Senate from 1989 to 2001, “But Congress simply reflects where we are as a country. That’s what we’ve become. We’re completely polarized and it’s hard to get things done in that sort of climate.”
Kerrey points to legislative rules themselves, the very machinery of government at the federal level, as being a major stumbling block in its own right. He pointed to the caucus and conference committee systems along with the filibuster process as particularly obstructionist initiative-killers.
“We need to change the rules,” he said. “We may even need to look at — and I’m very serious about this — a discussion of changing Article 1 of the Constitution” that gives each house of Congress a wide berth in determining their own rules. “When I was Governor (1983 – 1987) we got things done. We got things done because the Nebraska Unicameral is non-partisan.”
The Republicans have a problem. Increasingly a “small tent” constituency of older white voters, they seem almost hell-bent on turning the party of Lincoln into a still smaller “pup tent” party. Constrictive loyalty pledges of all stripes (think taxes and gay marriage), an icily draconian reaction to the ever-growing divide between the haves and the have-nots and even the gleeful resurgence of tin foil hat birtherism seems an odd way to attract anything but the fringiest of voters.
The price of a divided America, Kerrey said, can often be measured in the loss of respected public servants, people who got just plain fed up with the inability to retain any independence of will.
“I think both caucuses – the Democratic and Republican caucuses – really have to examine their behavior,” Kerrey said. “The caucuses themselves have become a problem because of their ability to punish members. So many people go to Washington only to find that they can’t do what they told the people they would do if elected. They can’t because their caucuses won’t let them. So what happens then? You’re Olympia Snowe and you leave. You’re Chuck Hagel and you leave. You’re Ben Nelson and you leave.”
Kerrey took his trademark pragmatism when it come to compromise — now the dirtiest of words in the parlance of Republican politics — when he went to Washington D.C. as Senator.
“I supported George H.W. Bush’s budget in 1990 and, by the way, he gets far too little credit for balancing that budget. I later worked with Bill Clinton at the same time that I was working with Newt Gingrich. We found a way to get things done.”
The former president of New York City’s The New School may have left office 11 years ago, but he’s often had a very active and public front row seat in observing the deterioration of bi-partisanship in government and public discourse.
“I saw this, this erosion of values — and that’s what this is, it’s about the most fundamental values of character — when I was on the 9/11 Commission in 2003 and 2004,” he said. “We were five good Democrats and five good Republicans, but there was tremendous pressure on all of us to reach conclusions that were partisan. The pressure on both sides was intense. Blame it all on the other side, the other party.”
Asked about how Nebraska and it’s needs have changed over the past decade, Kerrey turned the question upside down to make what he thought was a more telling point, one that perhaps speaks to how America can move forward again.
“One thing that hasn’t changed is that Nebraskans have very good values,” he said. “We care about our families. We care about our communities. We support nonprofits through volunteering and through financial contributions. That’s the Nebraska way. I’ve had several people come up to me and say ‘You know, I’m not going to vote for you but I’m glad to see you here. Welcome back.’ I was welcomed home that same way in 1969 when I returned from Viet Nam,” said the Medal of Honor winner, “and now I’m being welcomed home again.”