WASHINGTON — On this, at least, there is no longer much partisan debate: The nation's increasingly bitter political divide has tied Congress in knots, embattled the White House and undermined many Americans' faith in their government.
A bipartisan group that includes former Senate majority leaders, Cabinet secretaries, governors, White House officials and others is releasing a 109-page report full of ideas large and small that the group says could help ease the friction that has contributed to fiscal cliffs, government shutdowns and a record low public approval rating for Congress.
The recommendations range from the nitty-gritty — such as limiting the use of filibusters in the Senate to block debate — to the aspirational. For instance, it calls on all Americans 18 to 28 years old to commit a year for some sort of service to their communities and the nation.
The Bipartisan Policy Center's Commission on Political Reform unanimously endorsed the proposals after 18 months of deliberations that included four national "town halls" — at the Reagan Library in California, Constitution Center in Philadelphia, John F. Kennedy Library in Massachusetts and Ohio State University — that were co-sponsored by USA TODAY.
To be sure, there's no shortage of academic studies and think-tank tomes on governmental gridlock that have failed to get much attention or make any apparent difference.
What the authors hope gives this report traction is the down-to-earth tenor of the recommendations and the high-powered résumés of the panelists, from a Democrat who served as Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, to a Republican who did the same, Trent Lott of Mississippi. Lott says he has broached the proposals with the current Senate GOP leader, Mitch McConnell, and others.
"I get a little criticism: 'You're buying a bit of the Democrat complaint' " in limiting filibusters, for instance, Lott says. "I'm really not; I'm trying to look at the bigger picture."
"We are all determined ... to make sure it doesn't gather dust, sitting in a bookcase," says former Maine senator Olympia Snowe, a Republican, outlining efforts to lobby members of Congress and launch a grass-roots group, Citizens for Political Reform. "There is no alternative if we want to change the political paralysis that's overtaking the political system. Otherwise, it'll become a permanent political way of life, and the country can't afford that."
Daschle says the moment may be right for change, especially as Congress elects leaders and adopts rules after the midterm elections in November. "The vast majority of people still want to get things done. We still want to worry about the quality of governance in this country. We still hold out the belief that a democratic republic is the best form of governance," he says. "We've got to demonstrate that."
Leaders of the commission include Democrat Dan Glickman, a former Agriculture secretary and Kansas congressman, and Republican Dirk Kempthorne, a former Interior secretary and Idaho governor and senator, as well as Daschle, Lott and Snowe.
Some of the recommendations unintentionally underscore the depth of Washington dysfunction — by the apparent need to propose that the House and Senate be in town at the same time, for instance, and that the president meet once a month with congressional leaders.
Among other proposals:
•Increase the role of voters in choosing congressional candidates. Move away from choosing candidates at party caucuses and conventions; set a national congressional primary day in June; and allow independents and/or members of the other party to vote in primaries.
The report sets a goal of increasing the turnout of eligible voters in party primaries, about 20%, to 30% by 2020 and 35% by 2026.
•Make Congress more productive. Have the House and Senate schedule five-day workweeks for three weeks, followed by a one-week recess. Limit the use of filibusters in the Senate to block debates on bills, but allow the minority in the Senate greater opportunity to offer amendments.
•Encourage public service. Presidents shouldn't "rule out entire classes of candidates" for appointment — as President Obama did in barring lobbyists — and restrictions on what political appointees can do after leaving office generally should last no longer than a year.
The report urges states to draw congressional districts in ways that command bipartisan support and avoid districts that are "oddly shaped" — a reference to gerrymandered boundaries often used to ensure a congressional district will be solidly Republican or solidly Democratic.
Snowe cites that as one of the most crucial proposals before the battles in 2020 over congressional reapportionment: "If we lose this opportunity now, we've lost it for another decade," she says, "and it solidifies this entrenchment."
"We really are in a more polarized situation, and we don't think that's going to go away," says commission director John Fortier. "We're really focused on the reality of our world this way: The parties have differences, but how can we make our institutions function?"