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Tom Allen: Congress Through the Publishing Lens

Tom Allen has a fresh take on partisan bickering.

But instead of siding with those who long for the cozy weekends of bipartisan revelry in the nation’s capital, Allen believes it’s different worldviews, not weekend schedules, that divide the Ds from the Rs.

The former six-term congressman from Maine and a one-time Senate staffer for Sen. Edmund S. Muskie decided to put pen to paper after concluding that Republicans and Democrats perceive the world through dramatically different lenses. His book, “Dangerous Convictions: What’s Really Wrong With the U.S. Congress,” was published in January by Oxford University Press.

In the four years since he left public service, Allen says he can’t find one thing about Congress that has changed for the better. But he did take time from his schedule as CEO of the Association of American Publishers to do a Q & A with CQ Roll Call.

Q. Much has been written about partisan gridlock in Congress — open any newspaper, turn on cable TV and someone is opining on the subject. What does “Dangerous Convictions” bring to the discussion?

A. My argument is that political ideas, bundled into incompatible worldviews, are closer to the source of partisan gridlock than lack of civility, gerrymandering, manipulation of House and Senate rules or the fading of bipartisan socializing in D.C. on weekends. The Republican worldview is grounded in America’s quintessential virtue, self-reliance, but has become imbued with a fierce hostility to government that prevents Republicans from proposing constructive solutions to critical public issues like health care or climate change. The Democratic worldview is grounded in Americans’ characteristic instinct to cooperate on vital projects. Democrats see government as a vehicle to serve the common good, while Republicans believe government infringes on personal liberty and fosters dependency in the population. We don’t understand each other, and that creates a wall of distrust.

We cannot overcome congressional gridlock without understanding its deeper sources in the American psyche. That’s where I hope “Dangerous Convictions” can make a contribution.

Q. Congress is unpopular as an institution, yet individual members are well-liked and often re-elected back home. What do you think accounts for that discrepancy?

A. Personal contact. Members of Congress meet and talk with more people in their districts than anyone else. Those relationships allow them to build bridges to voters who might otherwise lean to the other party. In addition, incumbents enjoy advantages in fundraising, media attention and constituent services that challengers lack. It is also true that Americans are moving into states and areas where the prevailing culture fits their worldviews. Like gerrymandering, that contributes to more safe districts.

Q. Congress has been at gridlock for years, with many close calls, from the fiscal cliff to the government shutdown. Do you think Congress depends on dramatic threats such as those to get things done?

A. At the moment. But it is no way to make bipartisan, long-term strategic decisions, because moving from one “cliff” to another erodes public trust and undermines our economy. Republicans have been unable to persuade congressional Democrats or the broader public that additional tax cuts, severe reductions in public services and diminished entitlement benefits will strengthen the American economy, so they have sought to use whatever leverage they can to achieve their goals. The tactic has not served the country or the Republican Party well.

Q. Both sides of the aisle lament the death of bipartisanship, yet Congress has changed in many ways for the better: There is more diversity, more transparency and better ways to communicate with constituents. Do you see other ways in which Congress has changed for the better?

A. Not really. Two related trends overwhelm these positive changes. The ideological polarization and legislative gridlock frustrates members of Congress on both sides of the aisle as well as the public. Second, the Citizens United and SpeechNow court decisions have empowered outside groups to become stronger enforcers of group and ideological conformity. Congress as an institution is less respected here at home and around the world.

Q. So is it all downhill from here?

A. No. I believe that no trend of this kind continues forever; this era of hyperpartisanship will moderate over the next decade because the Republican Party will gradually adjust its positions that are in fundamental conflict with the demographic trends in this country. Both parties want to be competitive in presidential elections.

Q. Turn on C-SPAN and you see partisanship and rancor in many House floor speeches and committee hearings. Do you believe this to be a relatively new aspect to congressional debate, or has this always been present but taken a different form, particularly when Congress was not so readily broadcast across the country?

A. Incivility is a symptom, not the disease. We’ve always had partisan conflict in Congress, and we always will. Yet when I worked for a year (1970-71) on the staff of Sen. Ed Muskie of Maine, this was a different place, more collegial, more sensitive to data, more concerned about all of the American people. I think because the for-profit media prizes conflict above cooperation and sound bites above analysis, politicians have learned to adapt to those tendencies. Consequently, our public debates are dumbed down as our problems grow more complex.

Q. How has serving in Congress better prepared you for the world outside of Washington? Do you feel members of Congress understand the challenges in the workplace, or are they given an unrealistic idea of what day-to-day life is like for many people?

A. At the most basic level, leaving Congress means leaving staff that have provided constant support and structure to virtually every minute of the day. Some people may find that adjustment to private life difficult, although others, like me, welcome the additional freedom to spend more time (weekends!) with family and friends.

More broadly, serving in Congress is an unmatched opportunity to absorb the circumstances of others’ lives, which is helpful in whatever comes next. To meet people from all walks of life, with divergent interests and ideas, of varied backgrounds and experience, as members do, is a window on the amazing complexity of the world in which we live. However, Republicans and Democrats (with individual exceptions) perceive that world through dramatically different lenses, which shape our interpretations of what we see. It’s my interest in those lenses that led me to write the book.

Q. Your book is one of many that previous members of Congress have written. How do former members of Congress prove themselves in the writing world? What have you learned from the writing experience that you would use to advise others seeking to put pen to paper about their time in Congress?

A. Former members are a diverse group, and there is no one way to make a contribution with our writing. The discipline of writing what we think and then editing early drafts, and later ones, too, can be a good way to test whether or not our initial views make sense. Given the challenges America confronts today, and our inside perspective on government, I recommend trying to explain how we can escape the institution’s current unproductive gridlock and find a path to a more pragmatic politics inspired by a clearer conception of the common good. For me, that’s the goal that matters.

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