When the stakes are this high, Congress has a civic obligation to address and fix the dysfunctions in our institutions. Civility and bipartisanship are crucial to governing a divided nation that, too often, is defined by partisanship and strong party affiliation above the national interests. Over time, the culture of working together across the aisle has eroded away; instead of joining forces to better our institutions and governance, we have fed into a toxic culture of “us vs. them.”
As the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress works to make Congress more efficient and transparent, it presents an opportunity to reignite civility and collaboration within the institution—not only for the benefit of members of Congress but for the millions of constituents they represent and serve. The committee exemplified the importance—and timeliness—of its work at its tenth hearing on September 26th. On that day, the House announced the launch of an impeachment inquiry—a deeply divisive process—the committee explored ways to promote civility and build a more collaborative Congress to benefit all Americans. As BPC President Jason Grumet, one of the four witnesses, stated in his opening remarks, “There is an overarching question we have to engage: Are we facing a crisis in a democracy that is durable, capable, and up to the task, or are we actually facing a crisis of democracy in an institution that is strained, brittle, and at risk?” Stressing the critical nature of the committee’s work in a time where our nation’s institutions will be tested, Grumet emphasized that Congress is much more resilient than some might think.
Three other experts joined Grumet in providing recommendations on how Congress can effectively approach this task: Dr. Jennifer N. Victor, Professor of Political Science at George Mason University; Dr. Keith Allred, Executive Director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse; and The Honorable Ray LaHood, Senior Policy Advisor at DLA Piper and former U.S. Representative from Illinois. Here are three takeaways on how Congress can improve civility and encourage collaboration across the aisle:
In the past, new member and party retreats, member trips, and other events have been particularly effective in fostering a healthy work environment for all participants involved. Usually situated outside of Washington, these retreats typically invite speakers and hold workshops. Members also have opportunities to take congressional delegation trips to locations in other countries. The key? Ensuring these retreats, trips, and other events are to allow opportunities for members to interact with colleagues on the other side of the aisle and who they may not typically have the chance to get to know. This approach can be further applied to new member orientation, biennial committee retreats, and caucuses.
Over the years, there have been plenty of well-intentioned policies to make Congress more transparent and ethical. However, some of these policies tend to excessively restrict members of Congress and neglect practical implications. These policies may be well-intentioned but at times put burdensome limitations in place. For example, the gift restriction could be modestly adjusted to encourage members of Congress and their staff members to attend policy dinners, receptions, and other gatherings. These would encourage interactions with offices on the other side of the aisle and open new avenues for productive dialogue.
We have become accustomed to showcasing acts of bipartisanship as if it is something extraordinary and unexpected. However, Congress must establish it as the norm, starting from the first day in session. Various steps could be taken to humanize members of the other party. Encouraging traveling in bipartisan groups will help members connect on common experiences and foster personal relationships. This idea can also be applied to congressional staffers: For example, training and workshops can be conducted in a bipartisan fashion, committee staff directors from both the minority and majority party should be required to meet and share ideas on a regular basis, and staff should have bipartisan organizations to facilitate communication and events between them. Another key place to build bipartisanship is on the committee level: Committees are the legislative engines of Congress. Committees should be structured in a way that encourages bipartisan bridge-building that enable policies that unite ideas from both sides of the aisle and across the political spectrum.
Like every relationship, congressional relationships work best when they are based on trust and mutual respect. Former Rep. LaHood encompassed this sentiment when he remarked, “Congress [should not be] a contest to see who can shout the loudest or who can throw the most accusations at the other party. We should rationally attempt to address, discuss, and solve problems on behalf of the citizens we represent.” While today’s partisan government presents many obstacles to this goal, promoting civility and collaboration across the aisle is the easiest, most logical way to move forward and foster an environment that works best for the American people.
Miss the hearing? Catch it here!