WASHINGTON — Bob Kerrey has a prescription for what ails Congress: a nonpartisan model similar to the Nebraska Legislature.
Kerrey says it's the only effective solution for a body that has become incapable of addressing even routine matters.
Skeptics say you might as well replace the U.S. Capitol dome's Statue of Freedom with Nebraska's sower for all the good it would do.
Kerrey, a Democrat, is running for Nebraska's open Senate seat.
In debates and on the campaign trail, Kerrey has criticized the partisanship in Congress and touted his “Norris Amendment” to the U.S. Constitution.
It's named for former Sen. George Norris, the father of Nebraska's nonpartisan, unicameral Legislature.
Kerrey's proposed amendment would require Congress to organize itself in a nonpartisan fashion, place a 12-year limit on service in Congress and create a basis for limiting spending on elections, both by individual campaigns and outside groups.
Kerrey says he doesn't think it would be difficult to convince most Americans that Congress is overly partisan and dominated by special-interest money.
Still, there's no question getting a constitutional amendment passed is a tall order.
Just proposing a constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and the Senate — or a constitutional convention called for by two-thirds of state legislatures. A proposed amendment is not ratified until approved by three-fourths of the states.
After the ratification of the first 10 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, only 17 other amendments have been approved over the past 220 years.
Kerrey's opponent, Republican State Sen. Deb Fischer, has questioned the feasibility of Kerrey's proposals.
Even assuming that the amendment were ratified, it's not clear what the impact would be.
Term limits and campaign finance reform have been much discussed and attempted in different forms, but the idea of a nonpartisan Congress is something new.
Kerrey acknowledged that he hadn't heard of anyone else pushing that approach.
“(That's) in some ways understandable, because it's very much a Nebraska idea,” Kerrey said.
Since Nebraska went to its nonpartisan unicameral system in 1937, no other states have followed suit.
Kerrey's proposal has a couple of doubters in Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution.
The pair co-wrote the book “It's Even Worse Than It Looks,” which characterized today's Congress as paralyzed by political extremism.
Ornstein said that he agrees with the need to change Senate rules and that he has a lot of sympathy for campaign finance proposals, but he says term limits have produced “dismal” results where they've been enacted.
And he said Kerrey has been unsuccessful in trying to convince him of the wisdom of his nonpartisan Congress proposal.
“It's a great sentiment with some real obstacles to making it work,” Ornstein said. “I don't think we're going to be able to make it happen.”
Mann was more blunt in his assessment of the proposal. Asked what chance it has of success, he said: “Zero.”
“It just doesn't fit anything,” Mann said. “It doesn't fit our politics. It doesn't acknowledge the reality that parties play a central role in every democracy in the world.”
Ornstein said one reason he's skeptical is it's not clear that Nebraska's model has removed parties from the equation.
“Everybody knows who the Republicans and the Democrats are,” he said.
Ornstein said eliminating party-based organization could allow lawmakers to engage in obstruction without being held accountable as a party.
“The ability to hold them accountable as a party for obstruction would be much less, so the incentive to do it would be that much greater,” he said.
Ornstein suggested that other approaches could be more successful.
As one example, he has proposed changing the congressional schedule to three consecutive weeks in session, five days a week, with one week back home meeting with constituents. Under the current schedule, many lawmakers jet in for a couple of days in the middle of the week and take off the second that votes are finished. Ornstein said keeping them in Washington would give them more time to socialize with one another.
“If you're on the soccer field next to a group of people from the other party with their spouses while your kids are playing with or against each other, your willingness to demonize them is going to be considerably less than if you don't know them,” he said.
Kerrey says research shows that Nebraska has one of the least partisan statehouses in the country.
While he has read Ornstein and Mann's book, Kerrey doesn't think their solutions would get the job done. Instead, he stands by his own proposal.
“I've never heard any other remedy that I think would even come close to working,” he said.
Kerrey knows something about party organization on Capitol Hill. He was chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee back in the mid-1990s.
His proposal did earn plaudits from Mark McKinnon, co-founder of the group No Labels, which seeks to promote bipartisanship.
“We commend Senator Kerrey for offering an innovative idea designed to reduce the hyper partisanship that is paralyzing our system,” McKinnon said in a statement.
And Ornstein said that even if he doubts the specifics of Kerrey's plan, he has to give him credit for trying to solve the problem in a bold way.
“Thank God somebody's thinking outside the box,” he said.
Contact the writer: