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Former lawmakers have ideas on fixing Congress. Will anyone listen?

Their ideas ranged from a major rethinking of how the body works to symbolic changes that could be implemented next month if anyone had the willpower.

Eliminate partisan gerrymandering for House districts. Reshape campaign laws to give candidates almost full power over their own races. Make even modest tweaks to the legislative calendar to produce more days for committee work, and spread those meetings out so everyone can attend.

In one of the simplest yet more radical ideas of all: eliminate partisan seating in the Senate so that there is no more left-wing or right-wing construct.

These were just some of the ideas circulated among more than a dozen former members of the House and Senate who convened Thursday for a day-long session by the University of Pennsylvania’s Biden Center for Diplomacy & Global Engagement.

Seven Republicans and six Democrats spent hours brainstorming both the causes of — and how to fix — what all agreed has been an atrophying institution critical to national discourse. The most optimistic portions of the day came as the ex-lawmakers discussed how some minor changes that require no political risk could start to create better incentives for a more productive legislature.

The most pessimistic moments came as these retired politicians acknowledged that some outside forces, from the influence of money in elections to the polarized climate in which voters learn about Congress, are not going away anytime soon.

“I don’t think we can put the genie back in the bottle,” said Norm Coleman (Minn.), a former senator and onetime member of GOP leadership.

All of which leads to the depressing outlook they face when they try to encourage smart people to run for Congress. “When I try to recruit candidates, they look at me like I’m crazy,” said Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who served two stints in the House totaling 32 years.

The sessions, billed as Fixing Congress, served as therapy for some of these ex-lawmakers. They shared their biggest gripes with life on Capitol Hill and told once-private tales of battles within their own party.

Including Cooper, there were 10 former House members in attendance: Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), Tom Davis (R-Va.), Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.), Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), Andy Levin (D-Mich.), Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), Fred Upton (R-Mich.), and John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). Former senators Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) also attended.

The group skews heavily toward those types of lawmakers who had more centrist outlooks, came from swing districts or regularly served as bipartisan dealmakers even if they hailed from the more liberal or conservative flank of their caucuses.

The effort, which might grow to a session specifically on female lawmaker experiences and promises another session next year, came together through the work of Ezekiel Emanuel, a provost at Penn, and Steven Pearlstein, a George Mason University professor.

For the past few years, Emanuel, a former Obama administration health official, and Pearlstein, a former Washington Post columnist, have been teaching a course at Penn’s Capitol Hill offices titled How Washington Really Works.

Their most obvious discovery has been that, while the executive branch keeps on operating through new regulations and presidential orders, and the judicial branch slowly but surely processes the legal battles over those actions, Congress itself has been in sharp decline for more than a decade.

There have been spurts of legislative activity over the years, including a run of 2020-2022 bipartisan achievements on fighting the coronavirus pandemic, updating infrastructure, boosting semiconductor production, same-sex marriage and gun laws.

But that was preceded by a fallow decade of partisan brinkmanship that led to a few government shutdowns, hyperpartisan clashes over the Supreme Court and fruitless efforts on major issues like immigration.

The ex-lawmakers began their discussion with hopeful nods toward the House and Senate approving by massive margins the $95 billion national security package that had been stalled since the fall. Several hoped that maybe the “fever” had broken.

But Lance, a GOP moderate, snapped the room back to reality by noting those huge majorities had been there waiting six months to approve the aid, while House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) navigated the opposition of the small extreme right flank.

“I’ve seen much, too much congratulations,” Lance said, suggesting senior Republicans should have forced the speaker’s hand much quicker.

Two former chairmen of powerful committees told their stories of working across the aisle in ways that built trust. It started with Upton, who built support for a massive bill to battle diseases when he led the House Energy and Commerce Committee. If members had bipartisan support, they got special favors in consideration of their amendments.

The tone was clear, and the 21st Century Cures Act passed 51-0 out of Upton’s panel and went on to become law.

Dodd chaired the Senate Banking Committee in 2008 as the financial sector collapsed, leading to legislation to provide a $700 billion bailout to Wall Street — a treacherous vote to take just a month before the elections. He knew he had the votes to easily pass the plan, so Dodd told several senators facing tough elections from both parties that they could take a pass and vote no.

None of them took him up, he said. The bill passed 74-25.

Coleman voted yes and, as he explained Thursday, lost his race because of that vote as his margin shrank in conservative areas. A long recount ended with him losing by fewer than 350 votes.

Would he change his vote? No.

But those moments felt like ancient history in today’s Congress, which is on pace to be the least productive in many decades. One House speaker was booted from office in the fall, and Johnson is waiting to see whether his far-right antagonists force him out.

And this group isn’t perfectly pure when it comes to bipartisan pursuits. Coleman now chairs the main House GOP super PAC, which spent more than $350 million two years ago trying to beat Democrats in swing districts. Most of these retired members took jobs at law or lobbying firms, getting compensated for their access to current members.

The issue of Donald Trump’s presidency and the attack on the Capitol in a bid to overthrow Joe Biden’s victory barely came up, as only five of the attendees were serving in Congress in January 2021.

Most ex-lawmakers agreed with Dent, a moderate Republican who retired in 2018, who said the seeds of dysfunction sprouted well before Trump took office and suggested that he served as “an accelerant” on a political fire that was already burning.

The biggest issues showed the long-term difficulty in big structural changes. Davis, who served 14 years, including four overseeing the House GOP’s campaign operation, said ending the legislative filibuster in the Senate and other radical moves would create the type of top-down “parliamentary system” familiar to European democracies and strip away the power of centrists.

But Levin mocked the “gross inequities” of the Senate, where California and North Dakota get the same representation.

At one point, Levin suggested that it might take something like a nonpartisan presidential commission, similar to the ones that closed military bases after the Cold War ended, to come up with a large package of reforms to Congress. And, just like base closings, lawmakers would have to vote on the entire thing, up or down, no amending, for something really big to change.

In the afternoon session, Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) joined by video to discuss how to create better incentives for members of Congress to just work better.

Having spent four years leading a panel focused on modernizing Congress, Kilmer believes that the biggest problem comes from lawmakers’ breach of the decades- or centuries-long codes of finding mutual trust and respect.

This isn’t really a “rules problem,” Kilmer said. “I think we have a norms problem.”

The group found broad unity on some relatively simple fixes that would make things a little brighter. Upton believes the House committees skew much too high toward the majority party — Republicans hold almost 57 percent of the seats on his old committee, even though they make up 51 percent in the entire House.

Kilmer explained that Congress could change its bizarre schedule that requires a fly-in and flyout day each week of session. Lawmakers should have two straight weeks in Washington — starting at 9 a.m. Monday through 5 p.m. Friday — followed by two full weeks at home. That way, they would get more time to legislate in Washington and more time back home in their districts.

A fuller housing allowance would help lawmakers finance homes back in their districts and in Washington.

Several suggested the Senate’s assigned seating — putting Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other — further symbolized division and should be abandoned.

Ultimately, however, the biggest fix needs to come from voters who will search for serious people to run for office.

“The American people have chosen dysfunction,” Dorgan said.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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