Washington dysfunction is damaging U.S. national security

This op-ed by fmr. Gov. Thomas Kean (R-NJ) and fmr. Rep. Tim Roemer (D-IN) originally appeared in The Hill.

This month, Americans should pause a moment to reflect: It has been 16 years since the devastating and tragic attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and in the 16 years since, there has not been another successful major terrorist attack on our homeland.

This significant accomplishment was made possible because of the 41 bipartisan recommendations passed into law, the service of countless men and women in our military, intelligence officials who personally sacrificed to make our country safer and the dedicated work of the families of that fateful day. These reforms were passed after nearly two years of work, when the 10 members of the 9/11 Commission set aside politics to strengthen American democracy and our national security.

As a result, we are no longer as vulnerable as we were on the morning of 9/11. Still, we face a plethora of difficult issues, including a rapidly spreading ISIS, cyberattacks, North Korean nuclear proliferation, Russian interference in Western elections and the invasion of Ukraine, an increasingly aggressive China, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Clearly, national security threats continue to challenge us.

Yet these outside threats are not the only dangers facing the United States. One of the greatest threats to our experiment in self-government is the growing division within our own country and the dysfunctional Congress. The so-called “enemy” in this scenario is the opposing party, and there are billions of dollars supporting this domestic arms race in our elections.

Cronyism and the influence of special interests in both our politics and policymaking contaminates our government. A majority of members of Congress spend too much time fundraising and not enough on their legislative responsibilities. Leadership roles on the most powerful congressional committees, which oversee critical areas of our economy like health care, energy and the financial sector, are awarded too often simply based on ideology and fundraising ability, not merit or expertise.

Access to the legislative process has a price tag that makes it accessible mostly to the richest citizens in our country. Every election cycle, special interests use legal loopholes to hide their political spending. The result, as Sen. Angus King, an Independent from Maine, said is that, “Campaigns are no longer fought out between the candidates, they are battles between outside money groups on both sides.” He added, “The candidates are almost a second thought.”

Polls show that Americans feel left out of the legislative process and say that their views are ignored. They believe lobbyists and special interests dominate our democracy and they are right. Too many elected leaders are putting fundraising, partisanship and re-election ahead of their country. Countless citizens and voters want more transparency, accountability, and reform in our government, not less. Perhaps no one has put this better than U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis during a hearing on Capitol Hill, when he said, “Congress as a whole has met the present challenge with lassitude, not leadership.”

The damage is real: The United States is ceding power and influence abroad to other countries due to political gridlock at home. In the budget and procurement process, this translates into the Pentagon being unable to buy the most advanced technology to combat our enemies abroad because the House and Senate cannot agree on a budget or long-term appropriations bills, for example.

We have confronted and conquered greater challenges in our country since our founding over 230 years ago, ranging from two world wars, the battle for women’s suffrage, civil rights and a severe global economic crisis. Those in office in our country must step forward and directly address this crisis. More than 180 former elected leaders like us — former ambassadors, governors, Cabinet secretaries — have joined together to find constitutional, bipartisan and pragmatic solutions to this dysfunction.

We adhere to the principles of increasing disclosure of campaign spending, enforcing current laws on the books, holding bad actors accountable and increasing participation in our democracy. We agree that raising money for re-election is an essential part of public office, but find it embarrassing that the Federal Election Commission, which is in charge of enforcing our laws, is permanently gridlocked.

We are united by a singular purpose to return government to the American people, not the deep-pocketed donors who have perfected a pay-to-play system. Now is the time to look to historical successes like the 9/11 Commission, when we achieved change together. After the September 2001 attacks, we flew flags, donated blood and volunteered in communities around the country. The American people stepped up to the challenge and improved our national security. That is what it will require to restore our trust in our great republic and treasured democracy.

Thomas Kean served as the 48th governor of New Jersey from 1982 to 1990. He was appointed chairman of the 9/11 Commission by President George W. Bush.

Timothy Roemer served as U.S. ambassador to India under President Obama. He was previously a congressman from Indiana and member of the 9/11 Commission.