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Shuffle The Deck: Repubs and Dems Working Together For Meaningful Public Policy

Background

The degeneration of personal relations between Democrats and Republicans in Congress, combined with the increasing intransigence and intensity of their ideological convictions and agendas, has turned Federal legislation into a bloodsport in recent years. While there has been a gradual evolution in this direction over a period of decades due to a combination of factors, the trend has accelerated since the early-1990s. Especially in the House, the manifestations are plentiful, from the lack of communications between the leadership of both sides in the 1990s and early 2000s to the overt epithets, catcalls, and shouting that occurred during a floor vote on a post-Hurricane Katrina bill bolstering gasoline production in 2005.

The adverse consequences beyond a simple lack of civility are numerous, including a lack of collaboration toward achieving optimal legislative outcomes, establishment of a national tenor of fractiousness, and, ultimately, legislative gridlock. Some legislation has been powered through on a partisan basis and sent to the President without the full hearing process or an opportunity to offer amendments during open debate.

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These bills lack the moral high ground of being a product of consensus and the full and fair deliberative process. The feeling of losing a legislative battle in this way, combined with the substantive content of the laws that are enacted in this way, are not the same as the feeling of having lost a fair fight. Instead, animosities become even more entrenched, professional courtesies continue to disintegrate, and progress is further impeded.

The biggest losers from this trend are the American people, who have a strong interest in a fully functional, effective, rational government.

Ideas / Solutions

Reversing this trend should be among the top priorities of our leaders. The elections that have produced a bipartisan government have provided an opportunity to do so. This should be demanded of our leaders who have long been in office, as well as newly elected officials, and any new candidate who seeks election. Less burdened by past battles than long-time Members, newly elected officials should have a special responsibility for preventing the further drift of the tectonic plates that are our political parties, before the conflict passes the point of no return.

But we cannot wait for a new generation to reverse the trend. It should be recognized that, with less contact between opposing forces, there is less opportunity to create understanding and positive working relations. As often occurs in life, isolation breeds unfamiliarity, unfamiliarity breeds skepticism, and skepticism can breed non-cooperation and contempt. The results are a lack of trust and an incessant drive toward partisan advantage in every action. If the trend toward disaffection continues its downward spiral, Congress's future may well be marred by an inability to function effectively, yielding disastrous consequences.

Instead, there are initiatives that can be embraced to begin to heal the wounds.The first idea toward this objective is for Congress to institutionalize a system of informal working groups to which Members of different philosophies would be assigned. The objective would be to bring together Members who don't already have close relations and might otherwise have no reason to initiate them.

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They could meet weekly, perhaps off-site for dinner, to discuss issues of the day, as well as to reach consensus on a particular divisive issue that had been assigned to the group by the leadership. Ideally, cross-party friendships would evolve, in keeping with the primary objective of the groups: to better understand each other's positions and the personal experiences that led to them.

Second, to further promote an appreciation for the circumstances, concerns, and needs of each other's districts that impact legislative decision-making, a program should be established to encourage legislators to team up with legislators from the other party for reciprocal tours of each other's districts. These district exchanges could occur during Congressional recesses, and the Members would take turns hosting each other to showcase "a day in the life" as the Representative from their district, including participation in meetings with community groups, business interests, and others who impact their process. Pairings should ideally be made between Members from distant districts, rather than those which are adjacent or nearby, because existing biases about an area that is already very familiar might mitigate the value of the exchange. By proverbially "walking a mile in each others' shoes", elected officials could develop a better understanding and respect for the pressures that are faced by those who hold different viewpoints.

Third, more attention must be given to crafting public policy with an eye toward the long-term best interests of Americans, rather than viewing choices with short-term interests. Short-term interests are much more likely to run into head-on collisions with other short-term interests because of the narrow timetable for action and results. Long-term issues and policies are much more likely to be ripe for negotiation and compromise because additional factors, which facilitate compromise, could be injected into the process, due to the extended time horizon. A long-term view would also mitigate the knee-jerk inclination to interpret every bill, every amendment, every floor statement, and every cosponsorship through the lens of partisan advantage, i.e., lining up positions for the next election cycle which may be a full year or two later.

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For example, when Congress debated health care reform in 1993 and 1994, the focus should have been on the health care system of 2010 or 2020. There would have been more room for agreement on what type of system we should have by that time than by 1995. There were simply too many financial repercussions of making such a major shift in such a short amount of time. If the time horizon were lengthened, allowing for a longer transition period toward a commonly shared vision, adjustments could have been made, more elements could have been adjusted, and impacts could have been cushioned. The long-term approach would also benefit bills to build highways, regulate water supply, expand medical research, set policy for international trade, and enhance energy efficiency and supply.

To distinguish between short-term oriented and long-term oriented legislation, Congress could set up two categories of bills, and different rules or procedures for each. Long-term oriented bills could receive priority. Alternatively, bill analyses could be expected, either formally or informally, to evaluate the short-term and long-term impacts and implications, to encourage Members of Congress to deflate hot-button political issues and mollify tensions.

Fourth, at the onset of each new Congressional session, Members of Congress could be asked to take a comprehensive seminar on mediation and dispute resolution skills. Although these tools usually apply to other professions, the skills honed through these processes could be valuable for non-confrontationally resolving legislative and other professional disputes. At a minimum, it would set the tone for cooperation, collaboration, and creatively working out differences.

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True, it would be tough to get elected officials to go to class. But if their leadership requires it, with consequences for failure to comply, and the voters expect it, then most could be expected to participate.

Additional means for building bridges between Members of Congress from traditionally opposing factions should, naturally, also be explored and developed in an effort to foster mutual understanding, more tolerance, and a more cooperative working environment between Members. Failure to improve the climate has consequences that extend far beyond the Capitol.

 
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