The challenges of managing a divided government became clear after last fall's midterm election and soon will be clearer still. Concern about the nastiness of our politics multiplied after the awful attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and many politicians pledged to do something about it.
While there's been more talk of bipartisan cooperation in Washington lately, and even two short-term budget agreements, showdowns loom over the debt ceiling and a budget deal for the remainder of the federal fiscal year.
Much of the talk suggests that bipartisanship is just a matter of making nice – more a matter of style than substance. If members of Congress see it that way, it won't have much staying power. In fact, bipartisanship and the civility it requires are a political, and even moral, necessity. Let me explain.
The argument flows from the philosophical foundation of the Republic and its constitutional architecture.
Equality demands mutual respect
Thomas Jefferson stated the core principles in the Declaration of Independence: We are all created equal, endowed with certain unalienable rights. Government exists to protect those rights, and the legitimacy of government – its "just powers" – depends on the consent of the governed.
The Constitution elaborates on these principles, starting with its aspirational Preamble. It requires the consent of the governed be exercised through representative institutions, the essence of a republic (see Federalist 10). It then constrains those institutions with a system of checks and balances (see Federalist 51).
Even as it sets out other powers and responsibilities needed for effective national government, the Constitution makes the exercise of power cumbersome, in order to ensure that it is deliberative. This constitutional scheme itself tends to drive policy to the center. We do not have a parliamentary system in which a party wins a majority of seats and is entitled to govern. In our system, the necessity for compromise springs from our constitutional DNA.
Now, consider the political profile of the country. As the last two elections confirmed, we are a politically centrist people, split pretty much down the middle. The country's political makeup should also counsel bipartisan cooperation.
It's one thing to make a constitutional and political case for bipartisanship and civility. It's quite another to encourage and sustain it. Like all of us, members of Congress respond to ideas and to incentives. The good news is that our founding principles furnish the ideas, and political realities should help with the incentives.
America's leading idea was and is that we're all created equal. To keep faith with that principle, our representatives need to act out of the mutual respect that equality demands. As elected representatives of constituencies of civic equals, they are obliged to treat one another civilly.
Out of this flows an imperative for civility as a matter of political morality. That is, if compromise is a political and constitutional necessity, and if mutual respect is a moral requirement of our founding principles, then developing a politics of civility is essential. This civility stuff is worthy enough in its own right. It makes the business of politics more pleasant. However, it is also the means needed to reach the goal of bipartisan compromise.
That gets us to a human dimension, where psychology, sociology, and politics mix.
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.