In a polarized era, efforts to boost bipartisanship in Congress

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Dysfunctional. Hyper-partisan. Unproductive.

Those are among the words now most commonly used to describe Congress. What was once considered a revered branch of the federal government has become a place of enormous bitterness and friction. Public approval of Congress now hovers just above 10 percent, a huge drop from nearly 50 percent less than 20 years ago.

In recent years, the number of laws passed by Congress has declined substantially, and congressional life has changed radically as time needed for fundraising has soared. Party-line voting and partisan rancor have surged, with relationships between Republicans and Democrats at historic lows.

An often chaotic, acrimonious national campaign is reaching its climax in November as voters choose a president, one-third of the Senate and every member of the House of Representatives.  After the newly elected members of Congress take their oaths in January, will they have resolve to work together more effectively, or will take-no-prisoners gridlock continue?

The negative ramifications of Congress’ extreme partisanship have added urgency to efforts to improve the situation. Against the prevailing trends, the Hewlett Foundation’s Madison Initiative is supporting a variety of projects to create better conditions for deliberation, negotiation and compromise in Congress. Increasing bipartisan relationships is one area showing promise.

Richard Lugar, left, and Sam Nunn, worked collaboratively on legislation when they served in the U.S. Senate.
Richard Lugar, left, and Sam Nunn, worked together on legislation when they served in the U.S. Senate. (Credit: Terry Ashe/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Bipartisanship in Congress used to be highly appreciated, such as the collaborative work of Sen. Richard Lugar, a Republican, and Sen. Sam Nunn, a Democrat, in the 1990s and 2000s to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet states. However, that synergistic system has shattered over the course of the last 30 years, especially in the last decade. Compromise has been devalued and its use seen as a lost art. Failure to confirm presidential nominees, pass budgets or individual appropriations bills, or even shutting down the government, are no longer out of the ordinary.

For Lee Zeldin, a Republican member of Congress from New York, a turning point came in 2012 when he was a state senator and received a two-year Rodel leadership development fellowship. He said he started having “free-spirited” conversations with both Republican and Democratic members and that “it helped me gain a better ability to work with colleagues from both sides of the aisle.” He said the fellowship taught him how to have deeper conversations with people with different political views, and raised his effectiveness.

Veteran congressman Sam Farr, a Democrat from California who is retiring in January after 23 years, knew that even he needed more aid from Republican colleagues to pass legislation about oceans that was so important to him. But how to get that help in Washington?  “The only way to get out of the grind of Washington is to camp out somewhere,” Farr said. “There is no opportunity to do this in Washington. Washington is a treadmill.”

Farr found his help at the Aspen Institute’s Congressional Program, which runs high-level conferences around the world. About 20 members of Congress of both parties, along with their spouses, meet with guest scholars about specific issues while getting to know each other. It was at some of these gatherings, where Republicans and Democrats are carefully mixed even at dinners, that Farr said he not only learned about ocean-related subject matter but also became better acquainted with Republicans who later collaborated with him on legislation.

Making government work again        

Efforts to revive bipartisanship have been met with obstacles and skepticism. Attempts such as having Republicans and Democrats spend more time together, or do leadership training, are sometimes dismissed as window-dressing. But individuals leading these efforts — including Capitol Hill veterans — see it as an important step in the right direction toward making Congress more effective.

“Most political scientists and most citizens think the Congress isn’t working,” Richard Lugar, who served in the Senate for 36 years, said on C-Span earlier this year. “The partisanship has become so intense that it’s impossible for most people to pass legislation.” He said the reasons include the need to raise more money, greater power of interest groups that keep members “looking over their shoulders,” and more “safe” districts where a small number of primary voters determine election results.

Engagement scale based on voting frequency, campaign volunteerism and/or contributions. Survey was conducted between March and May, 2016. (Pew Research Center)

Now head of The Lugar Center in Washington, Lugar joined forces with Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy to develop the Bipartisan Index, a non-partisan ranking of how often each member of Congress works across party lines, based on bill co-sponsorship. When members start collaborating with those in the other party, “government starts to work again,” Lugar said.

A common thread in many efforts to build new bipartisan relationships is the idea that bringing congressional members and staffers from opposing political parties together for educational, informational and social events will lead to more familiarity, better working relationships and ultimately more productive lawmaking.

The Aspen Institute’s Rodel Fellowships in Public Leadership program chooses 24 Rodel fellows each year — split evenly between Republicans and Democrats — seeking rising stars in elective office who have shown ability to work across party and ideological lines, for a two-year leadership development program.

“The idea on the national level is turning Republicans and Democrats into Americans, thinking at a different level about what we have in common instead of what divides us,” said Mickey Edwards, a Republican congressman from Oklahoma for 16 years and now director of the program. “Rodel is about changing attitudes. They are introducing a collaborative style.”

Krysten Sinema, a former Rodel fellow, moved from the Arizona legislature to Congress in 2013. She said she was ready to stay true to her bipartisan nature, in spite of Congress’ fractured state, because she already had close Republican and Democratic friends she had made through the fellowship. Sinema, a Democrat, said, “Rodel gave us the ability to build long-term bipartisan relationships.”

With the Hewlett Foundation’s support, new activities have started for alumni, including gatherings for former fellows and a website to encourage cross-class interaction.  With the alumni network Edwards explained, “We want to transform this from a series of smaller groups into a larger national cohort.”

The Aspen Institute’s Congressional Program also brings members together at weekly Capitol Hill breakfasts.  Executive director Dan Glickman, a former Democratic House member and secretary of agriculture under President Bill Clinton, doesn’t soft-pedal the obstacles.  “The problem is we have a very tribal atmosphere now in Congress,” he said. “But underlying is a desire to do something productive.”

At the breakfasts, Aspen invites outside experts to discuss issues such as energy, transportation and foreign policy. The goal, as with the international conferences, is to have members learn more about policy and spend time with colleagues from both political parties. “You’d be surprised how many members don’t know each other,” even within their own party, Glickman said.

Another group that fosters congressional bipartisanship is The Faith and Politics Institute.

For a number of years, it has taken members of Congress on civil rights pilgrimage to Selma, Alabama, and other sites. In spring of 2016, Republican Sen. Tim Scott and Democratic Rep. James Clyburn led a trip with more than a dozen members, which explored the civil rights history of South Carolina, including a visit to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, where nine black parishioners and clergy were slain in 2015. Sen. Scott told the Associated Press about the trip,  “The responsibility and the onus is on every single one of us, but especially those of us who have stepped forward as leaders, to present a case of a peaceful, constructive way to protest those things that you disagree with and look for ways to move forward collectively.”

Members of Congress, left to right: Will Hurd, James Clyburn, Chris Coons, Barbara Lee, Steny Hoyer, Tim Scott, Sheldon Whitehouse, John Lewis and Bradley Byrne.
In March 2016, The Faith and Politics Institute held a three-day civil rights pilgrimage to South Carolina. Members of Congress on the trip, from left to right: Will Hurd (R-TX), James Clyburn (D-SC), Chris Coons (D-DE), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Tim Scott (R-SC), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), John Lewis (D-GA) and Bradley Byrne (R-AL). (Credit: The Faith and Politics Institute)

While there has been much attention paid to the factionalism among members of Congress, the important role of their staff has sometimes been overlooked, something a number of organizations are striving to change.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, for 12 years, has given senators’ chiefs of staff a chance to meet and learn together. Aided by the Hewlett Foundation and the Democracy Fund, the outreach has been expanded to include chiefs of staff for House members.

“We think we’re filling a void,” said Tamera Luzzatto, senior vice president of government relations for Pew. In her previous job as chief of staff for Sen. Hillary Clinton, she saw senators spending less and less time with those across the aisle because of pressures such as more fund-raising.

As part of the new Pew effort, 130 House chiefs have attended at least one event, with a virtually even split among Republican and Democrats. While it is early to judge the results of the House effort, the Senate chiefs program has led to many collaborations on legislation and administrative issues, according to Luzzatto.

Meanwhile, three organizations are collaborating to help congressional staff learn the techniques of bipartisan government oversight.  The Project on Government Oversight, working in the field since 1981, is sharing its expertise with two newer groups, The Lugar Center and the Levin Center at Wayne State University Law School.

Linda Gustitus, interim co-director of the Levin Center, which is named for longtime Michigan senator and oversight champion Carl Levin, said congressional staff “have a dream of working in a good government” but heightened partisanship has left them working almost exclusively within their own party. She recalled one staffer at a workshop saying, “I’ve never worked with the opposing party before.”

Millennials are fed up with dysfunction

Another idea to spur bipartisanship is focusing on those under age 45.

The Millennial Action Project (MAP) aims to build nonpartisan common ground on issues among the most promising leaders of the next generation. Steven Olikara, co-founder and president said, “We’re rejecting the partisan divide. Millennials are not apathetic. They are just reacting to a system that has become dysfunctional. We want to change the narrative.”

The organization’s Congressional Future Caucus consists of 26 Democratic and Republican members who meet formally and informally, such as on morning runs, and look for issues on which to work together. MAP is also organizing and supporting similar caucuses in 15 state legislatures. Trying to boost bipartisanship from a different angle is the National Institute for Civil Discourse, bringing together state legislators in a program on building trust. More than 475 lawmakers from 12 states have participated in the half-day workshop, which helps them develop skills to work together better.

As so many state legislators go on to serve in Congress, institute executive director Carolyn Lukensmeyer is confident that the training, along with future work in Congress, will be useful. “The goal is for people to reconnect with the root spirit that made them want to go in public service in the first place,” she said. “They wanted to make a difference. It has been transformative for many legislators.”

Impressions of increasing bipartisanship are one thing. But is there evidence?

Dan Diller, director of policy for The Lugar Center, considers one sign of success  is how often Congress members with favorable scores on The Bipartisanship Index have used that in press releases, social media and campaign ads – in more than 30 states so far. Diller said, “If we can get a few members to think more about bipartisanship because of the index, we’ve moved the needle.”

Despite all the efforts, making Congress work better remains an uphill struggle. This year alone Senate Republicans declined to schedule hearings on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee and in the House a close vote ended with a loud screaming match.

“We have a lot of important work to do, but we also need to be patient with how long that can take and keep at it. We need to look for places where the parties can work together — start small and build success,” said Jean Bordewich, who spent more than two decades as a congressional staffer and now works on the Madison Initiative at the Hewlett Foundation.

Forces that have led to intense partisanship persist. Yet the need for – and the road to – progress seems clear to many congressional members.

Michigan Republican Fred Upton, a 30-year House veteran and chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce who has participated in some of Aspen Institute’s bipartisanship programs, had this to say, “To me, being bipartisan simply means finding areas of common ground where we can come together, Republicans and Democrats, to get important things done. I am one who has long believed that most folks really don’t care if you’re a Republican or Democrat—they just want the job done.”


Editor’s note: Noel Rubinton is a freelance journalist who has covered politics and government for many years. He was an award-winning reporter and editor at Newsday, where he expanded the paper’s opinion section.    

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