Say “exchange program,” and most people think of traveling teens.
That was true for Rep. Don Bacon, whose family hosted a German exchange student when he was 16. Mostly, the pair geeked out over American cars.
“In 1980, you know how big our cars were — he just freaked out at the size of our cars. For him, that was a big deal,” the Nebraska Republican said.
But this year the congressman proved that exchange programs aren’t just for high schoolers. He and Rep. Salud Carbajal, a California Democrat, visited each other’s districts for some wildfire education and a Cinco de Mayo feast.
The Bipartisan Policy Center, a D.C. think tank, approached him about finding a member across the aisle for a swap.
“They said, ‘Can you find a neighboring Democrat?’ And I said, ‘Well, there is none in Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa, Kansas,’” Bacon recalled. “I said, ‘Can I throw out a suggestion? … I’d love to go with Salud Carbajal.’”
The two freshman lawmakers met at orientation in 2016. “Frankly, Salud’s fun to be with. He’s easygoing, so we just bonded pretty quick,” Bacon said.
“First of all, Bacon’s a great guy,” Carbajal said.
And both are military veterans. “When you’re serving in the military, you don’t look to your left or your right and say, ‘Are you a Republican or a Democrat?’ It just doesn’t work that way,” Carbajal said. “It doesn’t matter the color of your skin, your ethnic background, whether you’re wealthy or poor — we all just work together.”
The idea was to trade views of their districts while building bipartisan goodwill. They did all that, and tasted some wine along the way.
Carbajal’s trip to Nebraska in May featured tours of the University of Nebraska, a Union Pacific railroad dispatch center and Offutt Air Force Base, where Bacon once served. They also swung by a Cinco de Mayo event, “where I introduced Mr. Bacon to some really good Mexico food,” Carbajal said.
“People are people no matter where you come, and I met so many really good people in Nebraska,” he added. “I was struck by how similar life in Omaha is to Santa Barbara.”
When Bacon made his own trek to the West Coast in August, the pair visited Vandenberg Air Force Base, a cyber forensics lab, a forest fire first responders unit, an olive grove and a winery. Bacon now buys the central California wine that he can find in Nebraska.
The Bipartisan Policy Center footed the bill for the visiting member but not for the one residing in the district, per House ethics rules.
It’s not the first time the duo have teamed up for a trip. They’ve been on congressional delegation trips to Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and the United Arab Emirates, to name a few. And when they get back to Washington, those excursions pay off.
“There’s some things that are partisan in nature, like tax reform and health care, but there’s so much more that’s not. I have a chance to hear from him on things that he thinks are important on the Arms Services Committee, for example,” Bacon said.
Sometimes you have to get off the Hill to get along on it.
“Members of Congress used to live here with their families, and kids went to some of the same schools — we don’t have too much of that. So we literally have to go out of our comfort zone,” Carbajal said.
“To Iraq and Afghanistan,” Bacon added.
The Republican helped Carbajal advance an amendment to this year’s defense authorization aimed at helping military personnel who immigrated to America legally know their rights and how they can become citizens.
“Any time you have Democrats and Republicans coming together in the committee, advocating for the same thing, it’s going to go off,” Bacon said.