Political polarization in the U.S. Congress has probably never been worse in modern times than it is now. It is so bad that Senate and House can seldom find consensus about anything. They would have a hard time agreeing on the time of day.
Besides party leaders cracking the whip, another reason for this is that there is a tribal mentality in which “we” have the answers and “you” do not. This results in a mindset in which “we” don’t want to even hear your ideas because “you” are wrong, period.
Congress was not always this way. According to former Rep. Charlie Stenholm of Texas, when Democrats controlled the House in 1980, Tip O’Neill, was speaker and could have insisted that any bill coming out of his chamber have a majority of Democrats supporting it. Instead, he told the new President Ronald Reagan “We will cooperate in every way.”
There was a tone of civility because legislators and their families lived in Washington in those days and mingled and socialized on weekends. They got to know each other as living, breathing human beings and saw members from the other party as people, not as they do today, as enemies.
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How can that be changed? There are short-range and longer-range ideas that might greatly improve the situation.
For Democrats and Republicans to see each other as people, not enemies, they need to get to know each other through personal interactions. One short-range idea is to employ communal dinners. A top Republican such as John McCain and a top Democrat such as Nancy Pelosi could plan a series of dinners each night that the Congress is in session. Each communal dinner would consist of about eight to 10 round tables, eight people at a table, four D’s and four R’s, selected at random. In this way, 40 D’s and 40 R’s could each spend quality time with at least four people of the other party and hopefully find that they are decent people. Through communal dinners, over the period of a year, each member of congress would be able to spend some time with four or more opposite party members. As a nod to bipartisanship, President Trump might even fund these dinners at his Washington D.C. Trump Hotel.
Another short-range idea is to plan gala cocktail parties every three months. All members of Congress and their spouses would be invited to a mammoth party, in which legislators would be allowed to use their travel budgets to bring their spouses to Washington to attend these parties. Not only legislators, but Supreme Court justices, Cabinet members and White House staffers would also be invited for dinner and entertainment. Each party could be sponsored by a lobbyist or political donor.
Longer-range projects would require more time. One idea is to change the legislative work schedule. Since legislators now work in Washington Tuesdays through Thursdays and go home on weekends, there is almost no opportunity for after-hour get-togethers and parties as there were in the past. But if the work schedule were changed to Monday through Friday, they could socialize and party on weekends and get to know each other much easier. But since salaries are insufficient to afford both a home in the legislator’s district and a home in Washington, legislators would need to receive a housing allowance sufficient to rent a home in D.C. year around.
Another idea is to implement term limits. It seems that too frequently good people with honorable goals and objectives are elected, come to Washington, but soon become tainted with the Washington fever of “anything-to-get-re-elected.” It creates a mentality that too often tilts the objective from doing the best for constituents to something else.
And finally, each state could implement bipartisan redistricting panels to redraw congressional districts every ten years to reduce the detrimental effects of convoluted gerrymandering.
After all of this, maybe they will be able to at least agree on the time of day.
Marty Solomon is a retired University of Kentucky professor and can be reached at email@example.com