WASHINGTON -- Fix The Debt has a problem. The bipartisan lobby group has set out to work on big, compromise legislation -- but what's it supposed to do when the political system seems incapable of passing even little bits and pieces of it?
Through a series of high-level meetings with allied centrist organizations in Washington, Fix The Debt is coming to the conclusion that it must also fix Congress. Last month, the nonpartisan group convened the first of these meetings at its office here, and sources present described the discussion as one on how to maintain influence on Capitol Hill in an environment where lawmakers seldom even debate legislation, let alone pass it.
"That's a problem for every policy shop in Washington. It really doesn't matter much anymore what you're advocating, it's probably not going to happen," said Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who attended the meeting.
Norm Ornstein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, also took part. "What's become clear, obviously, to everybody, is that all the usual things you might have tried in the past to move the policy process along don't work, so what's going on [in Congress] almost becomes a parallel discussion, if not a predicate" to any large group's central mission, Ornstein said. "It was one of a series of sessions they're going to do to try to figure out if there's anything they can do about it."
Rauch, one of three presenters at the meeting, said he discussed an upcoming project of his that challenges the notion that Washington needs new leadership. Rauch's hypothesis is that the crisis is one of followership -- that even the most seasoned politicians can't muster enough support to vote on legislation, due to open primaries, unlimited dark money, and national parties losing their influence over the election process.
John Fortier, director of the Democracy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said the meeting was "relatively simple" and just an opportunity for individuals who want to try to improve the institution to talk about and present ideas. "We at the BPC, and more specifically our Commission on Political Reform, have spent the last couple of years hammering out some compromise reforms that we think have some possibility of getting done," Fortier told HuffPost.
Fortier said he presented a report the BPC put out in June, "Governing in a Polarized America." Recommendations included filibuster reform, the adoption of a biennial budget process, increasing workweeks on Capitol Hill to five, synchronizing days in both chambers, and scheduling monthly meetings between the president and congressional leaders. The commission that drafted the report also suggested reforming the electoral process and public engagement.
For decades, corporate strategy in Washington depended on bipartisan compromise to push through policies unpopular with the public. With bipartisan cover, lawmakers felt comfortable taking tough votes to cut spending or raise taxes.
For opponents of what's known as a "grand bargain" -- a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts -- the recent gridlock is seen as a boon. Social Security is protected as long as Democrats and Republicans can't find a way to come together to cut it. But despite the immediate advantage, the recognition on the part of the centrist groups as to just how broken Congress is raises real questions about how the American government can go about governing. If political patterns continue unbroken, Republicans are likely to hold on to at least the House of Representatives for the foreseeable future, while Democrats are predicted to hold the White House.
Ornstein, while he participated in the discussion, said he thinks that the centrist, bipartisan groups ultimately will fail to get to a sound analysis of the roots of the dysfunction, because their models don't allow them to pin blame on one party over the other. Ornstein, a conservative, has become widely known as an outspoken critic of the more hard-line GOP.
"I have mixed feelings about the Fix The Debt effort, mostly because, like so many of these things, the dilemma we have is when you try and do everything in a completely bipartisan way it means you water it down, and to some degree you justify unjustifiable things," he said, adding that at the meeting, the Bipartisan Policy Center presented ideas he had come up with years ago when he had more hope bipartisanship was possible. "The kinds of things you can do now aren't likely to make a big difference. So I think highlighting some of the problems with the debt, continuing to focus on what we can do with the longer term problems, convening people together, all of those are very positive things. But if you just keep saying everybody's the problem, then it turns out nobody's the problem. How you grapple with that is something they haven't really done yet."