Breaking gridlock

By ERNEST F. HOLLINGS, former U. S. senator


JAN. 8, 2014 -- We ended 2013 lamenting the political gridlock in Washington: this morning's headline (1/6/14) in USA Today: "Election year finds Congress at War". All rush to fix results of the gridlock but we need to correct the cause. I saw it happen.

When I came to the U.S. Senate in 1966, six Republicans and six Democrats met every Wednesday night at alternate homes for dinner -- ties and coats off and giving each other the dickens. We became fast friends. In a legislative body it's important to work together.

Even if you don't care for a Senator, you never let on. You act friendly because you never know when you will need his or her vote. Senator Mansfield, the leader, had a rule never to go to a seated Senator's state without his or her ok. All trips abroad had to be bipartisan. Last week three Republican Senators were enunciating U.S. policy in Afghanistan. We hope it was the Administrations'. The Senate used to be a cohesive, courteous body. Today, it's open warfare.

It began with fundraising. In the '68 presidential race, Maurice Stans, the financial chairman for President Nixon, operated on "a cash and carry" basis. We wanted to get rid of the cash, corruption, and make sure one didn't have to buy the office.

In 1971, 1973 Republicans and Democrats joined in a bill to limit spending in elections. I can hear McClellan telling Fulbright as we voted: "No Joe Kennedy is going to buy my seat". In Buckley vs. Valeo the Supreme Court set aside the law and unlimited fundraising began. The Republican and Democrat Campaign Committees joined in and before long partisanship set in. I'll never forget a staffer telling me about a fundraiser for my opponent downtown. All the Republicans on my Commerce Committee were present except Senator Stevens. I remember feeling: "If they want to get rid of me, I want to get rid of them". Now we're calling fellow Senators "whacko" and President Obama "a liar".

With 12, 000 lobbyists in Washington, there's fundraising morning, noon and night. With five offices in state, Senators have breaks each month to fundraise. For example, we used to have a Junior Senator read Washington's "Farewell Address" on February 22nd and have votes later in the day. Now, we've merged Lincoln's Birthday, February 12th, with Washington's and Senators have a 10 day break to go home or Hollywood to raise money. Lobbyists have taken control of Congress. That's why the President and Congress can't get a vote on gun control, immigration, farm bill, unemployment benefits, appropriations, budget, etc.

This gridlock can easily be broken by limiting spending in elections like Congress did in 1973. A Constitutional Amendment is needed to get by the Supreme Court: "The Congress is empowered to limit or control spending in federal elections". I introduced such an amendment that received a bipartisan majority vote but not the necessary 2/3 required for a Joint Resolution amending the Constitution. The Governor's Conference called and asked that the states be added. No doubt the states would promptly approve limiting spending. Once spending is limited, fundraising is limited, partisanship is limited, gridlock is broken, lobbyists are limited and the people regain control of their government. But there's a catch.

In 2002, 2003, 2004, Republicans wanted to amend the Constitution with a flag burning amendment and asked that I hold up my Constitutional Amendment limiting spending. I had been waiting patiently to get a vote on my amendment so I couldn't agree. No Joint Resolution was called for consideration. Now, Senator Mark Udall of Colorado has introduced an amendment limiting spending with a dozen cosponsors but no vote for the past four years. Senators don't want to vote to limit spending and don't want to vote against it. They have six years to fundraise and don't want to lose their advantage. Gridlock continues.

Last year, a lady asked my advice to run for the Senate. I promptly queried: "Can you raise $5 million in South Carolina?" She exclaimed, "You're crazy!" I countered: "You have to raise at least $5 million to show Washington you are electable. The national committees will come in and help with the other $5 million for it will be a $10 million race."

We used to do a good job in office to be reelected. Now, with pollster politics and everyone in office being measured daily by the polls - the name of the game is stay out of trouble. Fundraise, but don't vote. That's why we don't vote on budgets. Just pass a Continuing Resolution for an agreed amount and let the White House allocate; take the wrap.

Only when the people are aroused by the cancer of money in politics will gridlock be broken.

Senator Hollings of South Carolina served 38 years in the United States Senate, and for many years was Chairman of the Commerce, Space, Science & Transportation Committee. He is the author of Making Government Work (University of South Carolina Press, 2008).

© 2014, Ernest F. Hollings. All rights reserved. Contact us for republication permission.

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Ernest F. Hollings served the public for 56 years -- 38 years in the United States Senate and as South Carolina's governor, lieutenant governor and a member of the S.C. House of Representatives.

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