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Can Members Of Congress Work Together Better?

Ever since my stint as a John C. Stennis Center Congressional staff fellow in the 104th Congress, I have been struck by the consistency in staff views about what ails Congress, spanning a 10-year period from our predecessor Stennis’ class to the most recent class in the 107th Congress (1993-2002).

Put quite simply, that view is, “Why can’t our bosses act more like we have done in this program — checking our partisan guns at the door, engaging in civil discourse about major problems confronting Congress and the nation, and arriving at some consensus conclusions?”

By way of explanation, the Stennis Congressional Staff Fellows Program brings together about two dozen senior staffers in each Congress, equally divided between the two chambers and parties. Over a 15-month period, they choose their own topics for inquiry, bring in leading experts on those subjects, and then engage in extended discussions that build toward a synthesis of findings and recommendations.

When I recently received a copy of the final report of the 107th Congress’ Stennis fellows, I was not surprised by their findings. But, as with previous classes, their report provided fresh insights and perspectives on a common problem identified by other classes.

At the heart of the 107th class findings is the belief that while debate and advocacy are essential to the governing process, effective governance also requires a shared framework of trust and understanding that is built and renewed through dialogue. And yet, current trends in Congress and our society, such as reduced time for reflection, and increasing social fragmentation and political conflict, make it more difficult to balance debate with dialogue.

A brighter future, however, can be achieved through coordinated efforts such as the Stennis Fellowship.

Obviously, there are a lot of reasons Members of Congress cannot work together in the same way their staff does in the Stennis fellowship program. The most glaring difference is that Members are only in Washington two or three full days a week when Congress is in session. During that compressed time frame they do not have the luxury of getting to know each other well enough as individuals, let alone reflecting on and discussing with each other some of the larger problems Congress should be addressing.

Instead, they are caught up in the minutiae of legislative drafting; visits with staff, constituents and lobbyists; endless committee meetings, hearings and party caucuses; and, at the end of the day, a multitude of receptions and fundraisers. In short, the D.C. legislative week is more than metaphorically like careening through a bustling, boisterous airport between flights. The goal is to get from one gate to the other on time, with most of your composure and dignity still intact. In actuality, it’s not unusual for a Member to come onto the House floor for the first vote of the week at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday and ask the party Whip or a floor staffer, “What time can I plan on catching a flight home on Thursday?” House work is what you rush to complete between flights.

The biennial, bipartisan House civility retreat is not a quick fix for this problem. But it can be a critical beginning in an ongoing process of Members getting to know other Members on a more personal basis and of building on those relationships to achieve more bipartisan comity, cooperation and consensus.

Partisanship is here to stay because the two parties do have legitimate ideological and policy differences. These cannot be glossed over by simple appeals to “rise above it all for the common good,” since defining the common good and how to achieve it are at the heart of those differences. Nevertheless, partisanship need not be poisonous and personal, and differences over the common good need not stand in the way of finding common ground. Members familiar with their institution’s history know that partisanship has flourished in the past in a more collegial setting of trust and interpersonal respect and friendships. If there are ways to recapture that spirit of comity and trust in today’s helter-skelter rat race around the Hill, Members and staff should pursue them as if the institution depended on it — because it does.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former House staff member.

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