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Pragmatic problem solvers can find fertile ground in today’s post-pandemic Congress

The 118th Congress could be more effective than the productive 117th

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, left, shown with ranking member Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., was honored for his work with Democrats.
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, left, shown with ranking member Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., was honored for his work with Democrats. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Most Americans think of Capitol Hill as a dysfunctional mess paralyzed by extreme partisanship. High wire acts with last-minute saves like raising the debt limit reinforce that impression. Yet, legislatively, the last Congress was one of the most productive in history, even though personal relationships and party agendas struggled in the aftermath of the 2020 election and the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.

The Washington Post called it a “highly significant Congress” that delivered “robust policy achievements” on a range of issues including infrastructure, domestic semiconductor production, gun laws, same-sex marriage protection and more. But it wasn’t only successful legislation that signified functionality.

The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress wrapped up its four-year mandate with 202 bipartisan recommendations to improve the way the House operates, hires and develops staff, communicates with constituents, adapts to new technology, and more; 65 percent of these bipartisan recommendations have already been fully or partially implemented, and more are underway.

Even the select committee’s proposal to reinstate so-called “earmarks” was adopted as “congressionally directed spending” and became a tool to promote legislative compromise and strengthen ties to constituents. 

In the Senate, the engine behind the Electoral Count Reform Act of 2022, historic legislation to prevent a future electoral college crisis, was an informal group of Republican and Democratic senators who hammer out bipartisan solutions to important problems. They had successfully coalesced previously around bills to end surprise medical billing and promote infrastructure improvements. No doubt they will find another issue to dig into in this Congress.

The Washington Post columnist chalked up the 117th Congress’ wins to changes in political incentives that conspired to produce bipartisan deals. But it takes more than just the right political landscape. It takes people inside the institution, members and staff who grind away to accomplish something lasting.

In today’s Senate, narrow majorities and filibuster threats make working across the aisle mandatory. Sens. John Cornyn and Kirsten Gillibrand and Reps. Michael McCaul and Ami Bera received the 2023 Statesmanship Award from the Former Members of Congress Association in May, largely for their bipartisan accomplishments. “If you don’t want to work on a bipartisan basis you will never get anything done in the Senate,” Cornyn said at the award ceremony. “People with fundamentally different beliefs can find common ground.”  

This can pose a conundrum, however, especially for staff new to Congress. How can you reach across the ideological spectrum and work with those who represent very different constituencies? What does it take to find pragmatic solutions together? Here are a few suggestions:

Begin with agreeing on the problem, not the policy outcome you desire. Treat those you seek to work with as partners from the beginning. You rarely can develop a policy and then bring a partner on board at the 11th hour.

Build relationships with potential partners before you need them. The first time you approach a potential partner to introduce yourself should not be when you need something from them.

Break with tradition. The Select Committee on Modernization physically altered the way members and staff worked together. It used a roundtable format for hearings, seated Democrats and Republicans next to each other, alternated questions between them, and suspended the five-minute rule to allow more in-depth questioning of witnesses. The select committee also held a bipartisan retreat for members and staff to get to know each other and plan their agenda together.

Furthermore, its recommendations had to be agreed to by a supermajority of committee members, not a simple majority. The House Administration Subcommittee on Modernization, established this year to continue modernizing the House, has adopted similar hearing procedures. If more congressional hearings were run this way, members of Congress and those in the audience would learn more about the issues and get to know each other better in the process. 

Know your audience and what matters most to them.  Understand what is possible for them to do and what is not. Understand what is in their interest and what is not. Familiarize yourself with the district or state constituency they represent.

Know what is most important for your boss. Be open to giving on points that are not.  Develop a relationship in which you can communicate this to your colleagues, so they know where you stand and where the parameters for negotiation lie.

Burnish your negotiating skills. Consider formal training in bipartisan legislating. For example, the Program on Legislative Negotiation at American University studies techniques that produce better legislative outcomes and offers training for congressional committees and staff.

Start early. Passing legislation is hard; an idea can take a decade or more to become law. But when the political moment does arrive, lawmakers often start with what’s already “on the shelf.” Make sure you have a well-researched, vetted text ready to go.

Making Congress a better place to work and enhancing legislative productivity aren’t easy. But we sense a growing inclination to build on the progress of the last Congress. Receptions on Capitol Hill are once again full of staff getting together on a bipartisan basis. Chiefs of staff and even members are looking for opportunities to meet each other and work together. 

We believe there’s a subtle shift underway that portends even more progress. There could be many reasons —the return from pandemic distancing, narrow majorities, the larger-than-expected number of members in “purple” seats who need cross-partisan support to win reelection, the re-emergence of earmarks, or the simple desire to get things done. A truly functional Congress requires the development of relationships across ideological lines, deep knowledge of issues, negotiating skill, and investment of time.

The people of the 118th Congress may well be on track to make the first branch of government stronger and even more effective than the last one.

Jean Parvin Bordewich worked more than 20 years for four Democratic members of the Senate and House in various staff roles. She served as staff director of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration and chief of staff to a Democratic representative. 

Betsy Wright Hawkings was a chief of staff over 25 years to four Republican members of Congress who represented majority Democratic districts, helping build coalitions to pass bipartisan legislation including the Congressional Accountability Act, the 9-11 Commission and legislation to implement its recommendations. She now leads her own consulting firm, Article 1 Advisors, LLC.

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