The Senate majority's decision to exercise the "nuclear option" on presidential nominations is the clearest evidence yet of how much the Senate has changed in the years since we left office.
The two of us worked in Congress for, collectively, more than a half-century as Capitol Hill staff, members of the U.S. House and Senate, and Senate majority leaders. We believe in representative democracy as strongly today as we did on the first day we arrived in Washington.
Looking back, we know that many things could have been done better. Partisan battles prevented good people from being confirmed for public office or good legislation from being enacted. But in the 1990s, under Democratic and Republican administrations and Congresses, we ended the decade with balanced federal budgets and more than 22 million new jobs.
Telecommunications reform, welfare reform, safe drinking water, portability of insurance, tax cuts, education reform and hundreds of other bills were enacted despite sometimes bitter political disputes, evenly divided party caucuses and a constitutional crisis involving the impeachment of a president.
In recent years, Washington has become deeply polarized and far less civil. Dysfunction has become the status quo. So, what changed?
First, there used to be a shared determination to get things done. When we were in Congress, we had active lines of communication and, for the most part, members were friends. Members spent more time in Washington with their families. There were many occasions to socialize across party lines.
In many ways, the polarization rampant in Washington today reflects the fact that, on matters involving government's role in society, the American people are deeply divided.
A core challenge for every member of Congress is knowing when to stand one's ground and when to find common ground. Politicians generally get elected because of their ideological beliefs and the effectiveness with which they articulate positions.
Understandably, legislators want to defend their positions during debates. In recent years, however, many lawmakers have taken that tendency to new heights, even pledging that they will never compromise.
The problem with standing one's ground exclusively is that it assumes that a majority in the House, a super-majority in the Senate and the president of the United States all share that same fervent position. Without compromise, there is no common ground. With no common ground, efforts to address national problems cannot succeed.
This dysfunction is compounded by the fact that members of Congress spend less and less time in Washington. With fewer legislative days, there are fewer opportunities for dialogue and negotiation. It is not uncommon for legislators to leave Washington on Thursdays, return on Tuesdays and attempt to govern on Wednesdays. The Senate calendar expects three weeks of work in Washington and then one week for state work.
The House calendar calls for two weeks here and two weeks of district work. Less time in town means fewer opportunities to get to know one another. Less familiarity leads to less trust, which leads to less cooperation, which often leads to less consensus and, ultimately, fewer accomplishments.