Sen. Jack Danforth Among 70 Former Republican and Democrat U.S. Senators Behind Open Letter to the U.S. Senate

line drawing of three people talking, one with a micrphone, superimposed on a wall of newspaper clippings

70 Former Republican and Democrat U.S. Senators Call on the Senate to Create a Bipartisan Caucus to Protect and Restore Senate’s Constitutional and Legislative Powers, and Prevent Further Eroding of the Institution

In Open Letter, Bipartisan Group Warns Breakdown of Regular Order, Obstructionism, and Abuse of Procedure Are Diminishing Senate’s Constitutional Role

Today, a bipartisan group of 70 former United States Senators warned current members of the Senate that its constitutionally-endowed legislative powers are becoming increasingly diminished, and called for the creation of a new, bipartisan caucus of current senators “committed to making the Senate function as the Framers of the Constitution intended.” In an open letter published in the Washington Post (and below), the former senators argue that obstructionist tactics, abuse of legislative procedure, and the breakdown of “regular order” have created a Senate environment that’s become permanently gridlocked, undermining the system of checks and balances by ceding vast and unintended legislative powers to the executive branch.

“The partisan gridlock that is all too routine in recent decades has led the executive branch to effectively ‘legislate’ on its own terms by executive order and administrative regulation,” the letter states. “The Senate’s abdication of its legislative and oversight responsibilities erodes the checks and balances of the separate powers that are designed to protect the liberties on which our democracy depends.”

The bipartisan group of former senators argue that the biggest culprit for the Senate’s erosion is the breakdown of “regular order” – the long-respected processes allowing seemingly irreconcilable conflicts to be heard in bipartisan sub-committees and committees, marked up with amendments, debated amongst colleagues, and voted on by senators.

Former Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT), one of the 70 signers of the open letter, pointed out that, “Experience teaches that enlightened institutions improve their governance and performance by undertaking periodic self-evaluations of existing practices and procedures. Such evaluations are imperative for institutions that exist to serve the public and to earn its respect. The bipartisan senate caucus suggested in our letter should inaugurate that evaluation and help renew the U.S. Senate’s constitutional mandate—to legislate for the public interest.”

Former Senator Jack Danforth (R-MO), also one of the 70 bipartisan signers of the open letter, said “This breakdown in ‘regular order’ is not a new problem. For at least a decade, under both Democratic and Republican control, the Senate has been referred to as ‘the legislative graveyard.’ But by the yardstick of ‘public trust,’ which is the ultimate measure of the Senate’s stewardship, it has reached crisis levels and is not sustainable in a functioning democracy ‘of, by and for the people.’ It is time for our senators on both sides of the aisle to come together in good will to take corrective action for the country’s sake.”

The bipartisan group argues in the open letter that the deterioration of the institution isn’t only impacting the Senate’s ability to perform its constitutional functions, but is also impacting decisions of members running for reelection, citing that “the diminished state of the Senate has left them doubting if there is any point in continuing to serve, and it has caused potential candidates to question whether the reality of Senate membership is worth the considerable effort and expense of running for office.”

The bipartisan group cites a series of factors contributing to the breakdown of legislative process – from committees losing responsibility for writing legislation to abuse of the filibuster – and argue that a bipartisan caucus should be formed to restore the Senate’s constitutional integrity and safeguard it from becoming rendered inconsequential and unnecessary.

“We believe a bipartisan caucus of incumbent members that promotes a fair opportunity for senators to participate in meaningful committee work as well as on the Senate floor could help restore the Senate to its essential place in our constitutional system,” the letter states. “Its members would need to stand firm in the face of what could be strong opposition from partisans who prefer politicians who take intransigent positions over those who champion a legislative process that celebrates compromise.

Signers of the open letter said that despite the hyper-partisan climate in Washington, they’re optimistic that current Senators on both sides of the aisle will embrace the goals of the bipartisan caucus and find common ground through a long-celebrated Senate tradition centered around respecting compromise.

“Our late colleague, John McCain, in his farewell speech from the Senate floor stated with characteristic candor ‘We’re getting nothing done!’ Not much has changed in 18 months,” said former Senator Paul Kirk (D-MA), one of the signers of the letter. “It’s time to act! In today’s polarized environment the work of a bipartisan caucus will not be easy, but that’s exactly why it is needed. By example, the caucus can lead the senate from an era of abdication and obstruction back to its respected traditional order built on bi-partisan mutual respect for its duty to legislate in a collaborative manner befitting ‘the world’s most deliberative body.’”

“Oversight and public policy are responsibilities of the legislative branch,” said former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE), one of the signers of the open letter. “This is the Senate’s constitutional duty. Anything less is an abdication of its responsibilities.”

The group of former senators said efforts are underway to build momentum and support for the creation of the bipartisan caucus. This letter follows an open letter sent in December 2018 by a bipartisan group of former senators urging the Senate to put partisanship aside and defend democracy.

The full letter can be found on The Washington Post website (here).