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Work in Progress

The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Here's to Horse Trading and Dogs Not Barking 

June 26, 2014 — By Daniel Stid

Which democracy-enhancing reforms stand a chance of being enacted and sustained in the current political environment? This is a notoriously vexing question for reformers, but one to which we received a compelling answer this week in “Governing in a Polarized America: A Bipartisan Blueprint to Strengthen Our Democracy,” the summary report of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform.

We were pleased to help support the work of the Commission. It was a diverse, carefully balanced, bipartisan group comprised of former members of Congress (including Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle and Trent Lott), officials who served at the highest levels of the Clinton and Bush administrations, former state and local government officials, journalists, academics, and leaders from business and civil society.

Through a series of public town halls and private discussions over the past 18 months, the Commission developed 65 recommendations on a wide array of topics, covering campaign and election reforms, changes in how Congress operates, and ways to engage more citizens in public service.

I plan to take up the specifics of the report in future posts. What I do want to do here is to acknowledge—and respond to, if not pre-empt—any frustration on the part of those idealists who, after scanning the report, might be inclined to think it falls short of the sweeping changes that would seem to be necessary if we are going to quell the political convulsions in Washington.

As Tom Daschle observed in introducing the report at an event in Washington this week, “our goal from the very beginning was to take the ideal and the practical and to strike the best balance that we could between them.” The practical end of the spectrum was defined by what experienced leaders from across the political spectrum could and would agree upon. Hence some of the zoology that can be observed in the report—some dogs not barking, some horses being traded, perhaps even an ostrich or two putting its head in the sand.

Welcome to politics. This is a deeply and evenly divided country. Control over our government institutions is continually and intensely contested. The electoral and institutional processes that are the landscape for this contest inevitably become caught up in it. Any changes that stand a chance of being enacted and sustained have to work for both parties. Those of us who are partisans on one side or the other may not like that reality, but we need to accept it or we can expect to accomplish nothing.

Others may object to the report for a different reason: namely, that for all of the apparent compromises embodied in the recommendations, many of them still face very long odds of being realized. Here too we need to temper our expectations.  The recommendations in this report have the sturdy and practical virtues characteristic of hard-won agreements. Success on even a few of them would amount to real progress. Let’s say only a third of the recommendations get translated into actual changes. In political reform, as in baseball, hitting .333, failing twice as often as you succeed, is a still very good batting average. Those looking for better odds need to take up a different game.