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Reforming Congress: A starting point

By Leigh Ann Caldwell, CNN
updated 6:57 PM EDT, Tue June 24, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Two former Senate leaders back a plan that would change the political system
  • Recommendations include a national primary day and altering redistricting
  • They say Congress is dysfunctional and changes are needed to make it work

(CNN) -- When Senators Trent Lott and Tom Daschle ran the Senate, partisan politics was nonexistent and the chamber ran with no hiccups.

Well, not exactly.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, they dealt with President Bill Clinton's impeachment, controversial tax cuts, and welfare reform just to name a few contentious issues.

But Tuesday, the two former majority leaders said that partisanship has gotten so extreme that things need to change.

"As we have seen throughout our careers, many political decision-makers increasingly favor partisan rancor over reasoned debate in discussing national policies," Daschle and Lott said in releasing a set of recommendations to turn things around in Washington.

Daschle was the top Democrat in the Senate from 1995-05 and Lott led Republicans from 95-02.

They served on a 29-member committee along with other former members of Congress, White House officials, business owners and academics formed to drum up solutions.

The Bipartisan Policy Center's Commission on Political Reform offered changes to the legislative system and the electoral process, recommendations that Daschle said are aimed at transforming Congress "into a high performing" entity.

Among the proposals:

* Senate only be allowed to change its rules at the start of a session. The Democratic-led Senate imposed controversial rule changes in the middle of the current session.

* Lawmakers return to a five-day work week. Currently, the House and Senate mainly work three-day weeks.

* Congress pass budgets every two years. Currently, annual budget fights exacerbate partisanship.

* Independent commissions oversee congressional redistricting every 10 years. Currently, redistricting is conducted by the states based on census shifts every decade, so the time frame wouldn't change. But gerrymandering has created districts loyal to individual parties, which critics say limit competition and exacerbate partisanship.

* Create a national primary day and ease access to voting and registration. Primaries are staggered nationally, and controversy has flared over Republican-led voter ID campaigns, which critics say disenfranchises minorities.

Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican who represented Maine in the Senate until 2012, said she decided not to run for reelection when she realized she could not invoke change within the system because "partisanship and politics would not diminish."

She said increasingly partisan congressional districts have resulted in a noncompetitive general election, giving primaries an "outsized and disproportionate role" in politics.

The low voter turnout in primaries results in a minority of people are determining who is elected to office, she said.

Writing the report is the easy part. Implementing it is not.

The political heavy hitters plan to use their heft to push the ideas in Congress and state legislatures.

Lott said that when he ran it by the current Senate leaders, Republican Mitch McConnell and Democrat Harry Reid, they were "both moderately not happy."

That's a good place to start, Lott said, grinning.

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