The new Congress can shed old habits

The midterm election left Capitol Hill more divided than before. Rather than gridlock, lawmakers must try to discern together the ideals that unite Americans.  

The Capitol Dome looms behind the Peace Monument statue in Washington.

America’s midterm election has left Democrats in control of the House and the GOP stronger in the Senate. According to past experience, a divided Capitol Hill could mean stalemate for the next two years, besides Senate Republicans loading up the federal bench. Will the new Congress be equally far from heaven as from hell?

Or will lawmakers, as founder James Madison sought in his purposeful design of gridlock, be forced to focus on ideals and purposes that unite Americans? Can they divine what is divine in the body politic?

Good politics is not merely aggregating the preferences of the majority or balancing competing interests or reaching compromises on difficult issues. The Constitution’s crucible of divided government calls for more than splitting differences or a Lincolnesque “team of rivals” approach. American voters may be as divided as ever today. Yet polls in 2018 show they are more and more satisfied with where the country is going. Instead of winner-take-all politicking, they may seek all-can-win practical results.

The easiest common ground for the incoming Congress is obvious. More money for infrastructure. Approval of better trade pacts. And perhaps, just perhaps, a fully bipartisan approach to health care after the whipsaw over the Affordable Care Act.

Elections can be a poor filter for defining the common good. Yet the good is there if discerned. The United States was founded on the idea of pre-political “natural law,” or that individual rights and liberties were as inherent as reciprocal social obligations, or what Thomas Jefferson called “the natural duty of contributing to the necessities of the society.”

Such higher law requires elected representatives to discern its meaning and apply it to new situations, such as climate change or mass migration. Power may be vested in the people but the people can express, through Congress, the power of fundamental rules and principles that promote the “general welfare.”

Politics that relies on the need for a villain is no better than the plot of a romance novel or a sci-fi movie. In the new Congress, Democrats and Republicans should not villainize each other in order to win in 2020. In an age of warring political creeds, peace in Washington lies in finding the good that’s within. As President Barack Obama said after the “shellacking” he took in 2010 with the GOP win of the House, “The American people always make me optimistic.”

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