Cooperation in Congress? It's in our constitutional DNA.
We often assume bipartisanship is about making nice. Actually, it's a political and moral necessity.
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That gets us to a human dimension, where psychology, sociology, and politics mix.Skip to next paragraph
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We're most likely to feel able to compromise with people we trust. We're only likely to trust those we've gotten to know. People are not likely to get well acquainted with colleagues who do not treat them decently. We usually look for some minimal show of goodwill from others – especially if they are from another tribe (party).
It follows that civil and respectful behavior among our representatives is essential for them to develop the trust that in turn enables the bipartisan compromises that are needed for contemporary American politics to function.
Being nicer to one another won't get the job done by itself. Democratic and Republican representatives of goodwill must still do the heavy lifting of working out the compromises needed to solve our problems. But if they choose not to behave well toward one another, progress will almost certainly remain elusive. (And sometimes you wonder whether a certain level of hostility isn't a convenient excuse for avoiding the hard work of compromise.)
Practical, fruitful steps
If you spend any time talking with members of Congress about their workplace and job satisfaction, you quickly learn that they don't enjoy being in the state of affairs at the Capitol any more than we enjoy watching it. So, can we anticipate some change in behavior?
In Congess's internally conflicted environment, an infusion of collegiality will help. So, give Speaker John Boehner credit. By lengthening the House workweek, members will have more time in D.C. to do their work on a less frenzied schedule and more time to get acquainted with colleagues "across the aisle."
His plan to give more responsibility to House committees and to make more bills open to amendment and full debate in the House may also help. While arcane, these procedural changes give representatives a greater opportunity to spend time together working things out and being exposed to one another's points of view. That may help improve personal relationships.
There has even been mention of reviving the bipartisan retreats the House carried out from 1997 to 2003 in an effort to improve collegial relations and civility. The retreats included congressional families (a moderating influence now largely absent from Washington) and enabled these people simply to get to know one another in a friendly setting. It was nice to see what can happen when political adversaries meet holding their 4-year-olds in their arms – and appreciate what they have in common as parents.
In the end, it all depends on how these men and women choose to view their responsibility to the country and to one another. Let's hope they see the moral and practical imperative for bipartisan cooperation.
David E. Skaggs, a Colorado Democrat, served in the House of Representatives from 1987 to 1999. He and then Rep. (now Transportation Secretary) Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican, were the founding chairs of the House Bipartisan Retreats.