Four years ago, members of Congress broke with tradition by crossing the aisle and showing that Republicans and Democrats could sit together during President Obama’s State of the Union address.
In 2015, the American people want them to do something more difficult: work together.
We think they can. But first, Democrats and Republicans should resolve for the New Year to give up the cycle of destructive politics that made recent Congresses among the least productive in history. They can start by fully adopting the attitude of problem solvers who are charged with making progress on the country’s urgent “to do” list.
Since the November midterms, the American public has made clear it is hungry for solutions from Congress. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed 63% of Americans want the 114th Congress to make deals across the aisle. The poll found that only 30% wanted their representatives to rigidly adhere to campaign promises.
As a centrist Democrat and a conservative Republican, we don’t agree on every issue. But we know from long experience that reasonable, workable, even landmark policies are forged out of debate and differences. That’s how our system is supposed to work. Many members of Congress know this too. They need to find the space and support to have a louder voice, and greater impact.
For this to happen, reaching across the aisle needs to be seen by both parties as it is by most Americans: as a sign of long-term strength rather than weakness. This flies in face of recent trends in campaign finance and redistricting, which reinforce partisanship. But it can be overcome with effective leadership that focuses on a change in tone, on building relationships and on measuring success by outcomes — by the fix, not the fight.
We shouldn’t underestimate the odds for success. As John Spratt, the wise former dean of the South Carolina Congressional delegation, recently told The New York Times, “Democrats are becoming more liberal; Republicans are becoming a lot more conservative and ideological. Instead of converging into a workable relationship, we are diverging, and Lord knows how we will come to a resolution.”
A new pragmatism can help sideline the personal rancor that infects politics. A common lament about Congress is that regular dinners and social interactions across party lines are relics of a bygone age. Lost with it are the trust, understanding and, yes, friendships that make politics work. In today’s climate, bi-partisan interactions should be planned with purpose. This is a crucial step towards building a new platform for cooperation, and breaking free from the tactics of “take it or leave it.”
Of course, attitude and good intentions are not enough. Serious discussions should begin on feasible, substantive policy questions. Today’s policy agenda is rife with issues where progress can be made if support that already exists within both parties is organized and led. These include energy security, job creation, trade, immigration and tax reform, to name just a few.
We believe that a lot of common ground is really just common sense put into practice. Most elected officials agree that Social Security and Medicare need to be made solvent, and that the federal budget needs to be better balanced than it has been in the past and that the number one priority for the country is creating good-paying middle class jobs. Lawmakers have collaborated across party lines issues ranging from deficit reduction to skills training to cybersecurity.
Incoming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell recently told The New York Times, “All of us from time to time make a point. But it is time now to make a difference.” We couldn’t agree more. McConnell was talking about some of his fellow Republicans. But the same applies to Democrats. In politics, principles alone are a bad excuse for chronic paralysis. Making a difference means moving towards each other, not just to trade seats but to exchange ideas and engage with strategic issues.
A vehicle for such a discussion already exists in No Labels, a bi-partisan group that is drawing up a blueprint for solving some of our biggest problems. We’ve joined some 90 lawmakers from both parties in moving this effort forward.
Another year of inaction and chaos on Capitol Hill would be ruinous for the country, and for the public’s faith in our governing institutions. As for Democrats and Republicans, the looming presidential campaign is an added incentive to demonstrate competence and commitment to producing results.
Our elected leaders should do the right thing for their country and constituents: embrace a new politics of problem solving. The American people are waiting, and watching.