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Congress’ Lost Art of Compromise

In honor of Roll Call’s upcoming 50th anniversary celebrations in June, today will mark the first in a series of essays by current and former Members, lobbyists, political consultants and other Washingtonians who have watched Capitol Hill evolve over the last five decades.

Back in the mid-1970s, then-Rep. Lindy Boggs (D-La.) approached the Speaker’s chair in the House of Representatives and whispered in the ear of Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.): “Honey dear, I need your help on my little appropriations amendment!” Tip said, “It’s done,” and it was.

Times change like the weather, and today’s Congress is quite stormy.

Rather than working together across party lines, it almost seems as if the ethics committee in the House has become a committee of original jurisdiction to settle issues and political disagreements.

Important policy debates that used to be settled between colleagues and friends have now sadly degenerated into a series of bitter and cynical stalemates. It is a situation in which many stubborn, close-minded partisans are refusing to compromise for the greater good for our citizens.

How did this happen? I can point to many reasons, but one that stands out is the lack of quality time available for Members to get to know each other personally.

If the only knowledge you have of “the other side of the aisle” is what you have read in an attack press release written by party operatives, you wouldn’t want to talk to them, and you certainly wouldn’t want to be friends. With the House barely in town three days a week and Members constantly rushing back to raise money and campaign, it leaves precious little time to “meet and greet” the folks you’re supposed to work with.

In the Senate, my predecessor, Russell Long (D), used to tell me how Republicans and Democrats used to regularly get together for lunch and both sides listened to each other’s viewpoints and reached legitimate compromises. Today Democrats lunch with themselves on one side of the Capitol, while at the same time Republicans dine with themselves. If each party only listens to echoes of themselves, you don’t get much disagreement — and far less opportunity to construct legislative compromise.

Another factor that has changed Congress is the carefully drawn districts in the House, so that today most districts are pretty much safe from any political threat from the other party. If you are in an increasingly safe political district, you never have to compromise. You don’t even have to speak to anyone in the other party and you still can be re-elected.

The pressure on Congressional leaders both from interests within the party and from outside groups is severe. Many would rather fight and lose, rather than reach out and find common ground. Congress should not be like the Super Bowl, in which one team always has to win and the other team inevitably loses.

There’s nothing wrong with reaching legitimate compromise and getting something done for the American people. If they did, then Members could still have their fights; it would just be over who actually gets the credit. Isn’t fighting over success better than arguing about who caused failure?

With margins as they are in the Senate, a small number of Senators from opposite parties can control what happens and what will not happen. Back in the late 1990s, then-Sen. John Chafee (R) of Rhode Island reached out to me and other Democrats to see if we could work together to create centrist coalitions that were able to reach compromises between the two parties.

We worked hard on budget issues and health care, to name just a few. Our leadership did encourage such meetings, but I always felt they were worried that each side would work too hard with the other, preventing a victory for their side.

Thus the “Chafee-Breaux” group became the Centrist Coalition that still exists today, with brave souls who dare meet across party lines continuing to search for moderate compromises.

Folks who participate in such efforts do so with some risk attached. They are forced to ask themselves: Do I ultimately have to leave my party? Do I run the risk of losing my valued committee seat or chairmanship? Do I become viewed as just a political rebel, or someone who craves the spotlight a little too much?

I’m not certain when, how, or why the word “dealmaker” became such a negative term, but unfortunately it has. The giants of the Senate — Russell Long, Everett Dirksen, Lyndon Johnson, to name just a few in recent times — were all dealmakers. They “did deals” on overseas CODELs, over drinks, at golf outings — wherever they gathered. They knew their purpose was to make government work for all the people they represented, not just for those in their party. I don’t think Congress was worse for their efforts and our country. Rather, it was a better place because of what they were able to do.

If we do not encourage our Representatives to be more willing to compromise and to listen to what the other side has to say, we will all continue to pay the price. We will have nothing left but an ineffective Congress and an unsatisfied citizenry.

After 32 years of serving in Congress. let me clearly say that I loved dearly the institution and the friends I made from both parties. For all its faults, it is still the best form of government that could ever be devised. I’m convinced that 50 years from now, people will look back and say, “It worked well. Not perfectly, but very very well.”

John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat, retired from the Senate earlier this year. He is now senior counsel at the law firm Patton Boggs.

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