The Washington Elders: Retired political leaders team up to tell D.C. to shape up

Jeff Zeleny, Richard Coolidge and Jordyn Phelps
Power Players

The Fine Print

A group of party elders say it's time to take a bite out of Washington gridlock.

“We see the two bodies, the House and Senate, they don't really communicate,” said former Sen. Trent Lott, R – Mississippi. “One body passes a bill, it goes nowhere; the other body passes a bill, it goes nowhere. So we reached a point, I think, the American people are really frustrated, they don't like what they're seeing, the lack of cooperation.”

Lott, along with former Sens. Tom Daschle, D –South Dakota, and Olympia Snowe, R – Maine, are co-chairs of the bipartisan “Commission on Political Reform” and sat down with “The Fine Print” to discuss their new report.

After years working in government themselves, this group of retired senators has their share of gripes with the Washington system.

Daschle pointed to Republicans’ “abuse of the filibuster” as his top complaint.

“I think Lyndon Johnson had one filibuster in the six years that he was majority leader. In the last six years, there have been 422 filibusters,” he said. “That's probably all you need to know about the abuse of the filibuster today.”

Lott, on the other hand, pointed to the inability for Republicans to debate and make amendments on many pieces of legislation in a Senate controlled by Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid.

“Allow senators of both parties to offer amendments, have debate, and vote,” Lott said. “That's what they've gotten away from. The committee process is broken down. A lot of bills in the House and Senate go from the leadership offices right on to the floor. Senators are not allowed to debate and offer these amendments … that leads to the filibuster and then one bad jest begets another one.”

One of the report’s principle suggestions is aimed at cutting down on the number of filibusters by allowing bills to proceed with a simple majority vote, while simultaneously protecting the minority party’s rights with a guaranteed minimum number of amendments.

Should the GOP take control of the Senate in the midterm elections, it’s an open question whether the Republican leader would adopt rules that would be advantageous to the Democrats as the new minority; but Lott said such a “good faith” measure would be beneficial to both parties in the end.

“We don't want continuation of what we now have, which is total gridlock. They're not passing hardly anything,” Lott said. “And so the next leader should start of by saying, ‘Look, we're gonna change the way we've been doing business; yes, I realize some of the tactics I used against the majority leader will be used against me, but I'm gonna start of by showing good faith and changing the way we do some things so that we can get a result.’”

And Snowe, who cited the gridlock as one of the reasons she chose not to seek reelection in 2012, said her frustrations with Washington grew so great that she felt it was impossible to correct the problem from her seat in the Senate.

“I became so frustrated from the standpoint, not so much about fighting for the change, but recognizing it wasn't going to change, unless that change occurred on the outside,” Snowe said.

That’s perhaps why Snowe is such a strong advocate for finding ways to increase voter turnout.

Snowe pointed out that voter participation in some Congressional primaries is as low as the single digits in discussing another of the report’s recommendations that calls for creating a national primary date.

“We’ve seen the attention that the Super Tuesday for presidential primaries has garnered in presidential elections and the same would be true in this instance,” she said. “These paltry numbers are suggesting that very few are dictating the destiny of this country.”

For more of the interview with Lott, Snowe, and Daschle, including their discussion on the responsibilities of the voting public, check out this episode of “The Fine Print.”

ABC News’ Alexandra Dukakis, DJ Amerson, Steve Bottorff, Tom D’Annibale, and Vicki Vennell contributed to this episode.