Neal is federal government affairs manager and Peterson is vice president of public affairs at R Street Institute, a nonpartisan and pro-free-market public policy research organization.
Rodney King's famous lament sums up our collective feelings and frustrations about society today.
Passions are at a fever pitch. Our heated political debates have led family members to stop speaking to one another, individuals to live only around like-minded people, religious adherents to seek out worship spaces that only attract those whose political views match their own, and even people to only eat at restaurants or purchase items from brands that share their ideology.
The dysfunction in Congress mirrors these trends in our culture, its members having circled their wagons and given up even trying to get along.
Fortunately, Congress' greatest problem is also a solvable one and members don't have to be in leadership to help make it happen.
We are veterans of Capitol Hill. One of us spent three recent years (2015 to 2018) as a congressional aide, coming of professional age to the beat of the modern, deadlocked drum. She witnessed sharp partisan divides firsthand and experienced limited interactions with staff from across the aisle. In her time they never found a solution to the biggest challenges facing the country, on immigration, health care, crumbling infrastructure, a broken budget process and skyrocketing deficits. The only "accomplishment" of note was a tax cut bill enacted on straight party lines.
The other author was a chief of staff in the House of Representatives from 1992 to 2009. He looks back fondly on the bipartisan friendships made and legislative feats accomplished, successes predicated on collaboration and support from both Democrats and Republicans.
In reflecting together on our experiences, we realize we operated in completely different universes.
The mid '90s were not without partisanship, of course — think Newt Gingrich and Rahm Emanuel, arguably the sharpest and most effective bare-knuckle partisans of the last half century. And yet, members from both parties made a concerted effort to get along, work together and pass common-sense legislation.
One of our bosses was Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad of Minnesota. His top legislative accomplishment happened in 2008 because he took the time to get to know personally, and work closely with, a member from across the party aisle: a law expanding access to treatments for substance abuse for millions.
His partner was Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island. The two would not have gotten to know one another had they not developed a personal connection. After Kennedy confirmed his addictions in 2006, Ramstad started accompanying Kennedy to recovery meetings.
The collaborative bipartisanship went deeper than their friendship. The Senate sponsors, Democrat Ted Kennedy (Patrick's father), and Republican Pete Domenici, were also united by personal experiences. And the president who signed the bill? George W. Bush, a Republican.
When members reach out to one another, and commit to recognizing one another not as enemies but as fellow human beings, they can get important things done.
Sadly, the news today is peppered with stories illustrating increased animosity, constant personal attacks and unfiltered Twitter-bashing. It's no surprise that in this environment, members' personal relationships are at a low, resulting in decreased civility, bipartisanship and productivity.
The simple solution harkens back to lessons learned on the elementary school playground: Be kind to one another, make friends and treat others the way you want to be treated. But these lessons don't always come to fruition on their own. They need a push to help them along.
Just as all Americans are more collaborative if they participate in team retreats or other outside-of-work functions, past Congresses have fostered partnerships and productivity by encouraging members to get to know one another.
In 1999, for example, just months after the end of President Bill Clinton's bitterly contested impeachment, members of the House and their families took a three-hour train ride to a retreat in Hershey, Pa. Democrats and Republicans rode in the same cars, with no assigned seating. The three-day trip was essential to providing the House with "a brief timeout from the legislative process, allowing members to replenish the reservoir of respect that might smooth the edges of their increasingly polarized institution," as scholar Paul Light wrote at the time.
Events like that — and current opportunities such as various congressional sports games, nonsectarian prayer groups, dinner clubs, book clubs and even fact-finding trips overseas — set the stage for members to form close relationships.
Thankfully, several current members recognize how the lack of such intraparty relationships is contributing to hostile partisanship and plummeting legislative productivity. In search of a solution, the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, recently held a hearing on increasing civility and member collaboration to force themselves and their colleagues to discuss this issue.
Several promising proposals were offered, including reviving the bipartisan members' retreat, altering the legislative calendar to encourage members to spend weekends together in Washington, restricting fundraising days to allow "open" evenings for members to attend or plan other functions, encouraging members-only travel, even simply instituting seating without regard to party at the State of the Union.
We live in complicated times. Unfortunately, a congressional culture cognizant of the "golden rule" can sometimes seem little more than a pipe dream — a relic from a bygone, happier era.
The big issues we face are also complicated. But the solution to the legislative stalemate is not. Bipartisanship and kindness are not signs of weakness or betrayal — they are signs of strength; the strength to ignite the institutional reform Congress needs. And an act as simple as one member reaching out to communicate with a colleague from across the aisle can help loosen the partisan deadlock.
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Neal is federal government affairs manager at R Street Institute, a nonpartisan and pro-free-market public policy research organization.
The term "democratic norms" has become a misnomer over the last year. America's governing institutions are undermined by elected officials who dishonor their offices and each other. Standards of behavior and "normal" processes of governance seem to be relics of a simpler time. Our democracy has survived thus far, but the wounds are many.
Free speech and free press have been the White House's two consistent whipping posts. Comments such as "I think it is embarrassing for the country to allow protestors" and constant attacks on press credibility showcase President Trump's disdain for the pillars of democracy. Traditional interactions between the administration and the press are no longer taken for granted. Demeaning, toxic criticisms have become so common that they're being ignored. As the administration revokes critics' press passes and daily briefings are canceled, normalcy in this arena is sorely missed.
Meanwhile, the president spouts daily outrages over Twitter and legislators race to the bottom with their own pronouncements. Most notably, the president recently suggested that several congresswomen — all American citizens — "go back and fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came." That the president's tweets count as Official White House Statements demonstrates that this is becoming "acceptable" language from a public official, only underscoring how far civility in political discourse has declined.
Equally concerning is the deterioration of America's institutional balance of powers. In February, Trump made clear in his State of the Union address that he would stonewall the legislative process if members of Congress don't play ball. "If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn't work that way," he said.
That threat materialized in February, when the president declared a national emergency to fund construction of his border wall, making good on his promise to "do it if I want." Congress attempted to respond to Trump's abuse of emergency powers, but gridlock prevented any success, signaling the first branch's own institutional decay.
While the White House continually breaks precedents, Congress fails to maintain its own institutional processes. The 116th Congress began with the longest government shutdown in history and has yet to pass a budget for fiscal 2020, essentially abdicating its power of the purse. Recently, the American Institutions Network noted with concern that 64 percent of our representatives and senators have never participated in a regular-order budget process, which hasn't been completed successfully since 1996.
In terms of other "normal" responsibilities, the Senate struggles to maintain even regular floor procedure. In July, the Senate set a record for the least number of amendment votes taken before August recess — only four roll call votes had been recorded since January.
All this dysfunction has had collateral effects on the third branch of our government. The judiciary has been saddled with divisive issues, from gun control to detention of immigrants, giving the appearance that the court is picking sides in a political war.
Public perception of the judiciary is the most politicized in decades, and talk of "fixing" (read: packing) the court has become fashionable. The notion that jurists rise above the political fray is being discarded, leaving room for an image of the court as a political weapon for majorities.
The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once warned of "defining deviancy down" by dismissing the abnormal as typical. This idea resonates here. Recent changes to America's political fabric are substantial. Congress' legislative accomplishments seem paltry in the face of the administration's actions. Democratic norms have been broken across all three branches of government, and our system of checks and balances has lost its teeth.
As 2020 approaches, concerned citizens should use their votes to encourage candidates to restore normalcy in governance. In the meantime, we should continue to call out violations of democratic norms and fight for their reinstatement.
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