February 26, 2020

A bipartisan group of seventy (that's seven-zero) former US Senators have strong words for the current state of the Senate. They published an open letter in The Washington Post on Tuesday.

GOP former Senator William Cohen spoke for them on CNN's "Newsroom" Wednesday. See if you can spot the dig at Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.

POPPY HARLOW (HOST): This morning, seventy, count them, seventy, former senators, republicans and democrats, are taking aim at the current Senate and calling for change.

JIM SCIUTTO (HOST): The bipartisan group stating in a letter that the Senate is not functioning as the framers of the Constitution intended. With us now is William Cohen of Maine. He served in the House, served as Secretary of Defense and signed this letter. Good to have you on the program as always.

I want to quote from this letter because it's a remarkable indictment of the Senate as it stands today. You and your colleagues wrote,

"The partisan gridlock that is all too routine in recent decades has led the executive branch to effectively legislate on its own terms. 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."

Tell us about your argument there and how you've seen that play out, not just in terms of legislation but the impeachment process.

FORMER SENATOR WILLIAM COHEN (R-ME): Well, we are surrendering the power of the Senate. The Senate is there to legislate, and that means to have bills introduced, bills referred to committees, subcommittees, open dialogue, challenge, debate, forming a consensus, bringing it to the floor and debating it in full display of the American people. That's the business of a legislator. That's not being done. There are some 200 bills sitting at the desk of the majority leader today, none of which are going to be taken of either out of deference to the political interests of the majority party or to that of the president. So basically they are not legislating, they're vegetating. What we wanting to see is a Senate be what it's supposed to be. It's supposed to be a body in which it works for the benefit of the people. It's been referred to as a legislative graveyard. To go back to another metaphor, i'd like to see it be a legislative garden, where the senators pull out the weeds of those things that are no longer relevant, trim the trees that build all the support for our great institutions, and make sure that we keep that in good repair.

That is not being done now, so I think the 70 members of the -- former members of the Senate have looked at that institution saying, look, things weren't all perfect when we were there, but we sat down with each other, we worked across the aisle, we ate dinners together, we traveled together, and we understood that we needed to do things for the American people. And so today that's not taking place and that's the reason why we felt compelled to send that open letter.

HARLOW: And you know, in most jobs across this country, if you don't do your job, you don't keep your job and certainly don't get paid for doing your job. Really there are not many repercussions from the American people, from the voters on a lack of willingness to act in a more bipartisan manner in that chamber. You remember what Jeff Flake said, Republican Senator of Arizona, when he was stepping down? There is no political benefit to being and acting in a bipartisan way. How did we get here and why?

COHEN: Well, it's taken some time. This is not unique to this president or this group of senators. It's been going on for at least a decade or longer. Some of it has to do with external pressures, that of social media, talk radio, specific channels that have a particular view and then hammer that view home to the constituents who then pressure the Members of Congress. But you have to ask yourself why are you a senator? Why are you there? Are you acting out of sheer fear that if you speak up and take a position that's controversial you'll be punished? If that's the reason you're in the Senate, to simply be safe and to play it safe, then you really -- you really are undercutting what the role of that Senate should be. You're losing respect. Twenty percent of the American people have respect for the Senate. And that number is going down. It's going down because people are not doing their job. As you point out, Poppy, in any private sector if you were not doing your job, you'd be out.

HARLOW: Totally.

COHEN: So what we're trying to do is build a caucus and have a bipartisan caucus to say what reforms need to be taken? What changes can we make? Why can't we stop the abuse of the filibuster? Why has everything come to a standstill in the Senate? Again, legislators, let's not be lemmings. Don't just follow whatever the president or your leader says. You're an individual, you're a sovereign entity in the Senate and you need to start exercising that power. You've given it away in terms of war-making. You've given it away in terms of international trade. You've given it away in terms of budgetary priorities. You're giving your power away. And so you're seeing the erosion of a great institution by nonaction.

HARLOW: Secretary Cohen, thank you very much for your time this morning.

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