Why Washington is Broken
September 19, 2014
Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican senator who asked the Discovery Channel to film him and a Democratic colleague last month as they subsisted on an uninhabited Pacific island, came home with a sunburn, a 10-pound weight loss — and a desire to see Senate leaders put through the same ordeal.
“To see Sen. Reid and Sen. McConnell,” Flake said Thursday, “I will level that challenge right now. If they would spend six days and nights on an island, we could move legislation forward here.”
Flake paused, then smiled. “And if they didn’t survive, we could still move legislation here,” he added.
Talk about win-win.
There may be easier ways to improve Washington’s dysfunction than to force Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to swim in shark-infested waters, eat nothing but coconut water and hunks of raw clam for a week, and fight off the world’s largest crabs — although that would make for excellent TV.
But Flake has a point: If others went through the sort of trial Flake and Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, just put themselves through, they would learn to regard each other as partners rather than foes. There’s something about building a shelter together from palm fronds as rain and darkness approach that makes the latest filibuster seem frivolous.
The problem in Washington is less about ideology than the fact that lawmakers “don’t trust each other enough to work together,” reasoned Heinrich, who like Flake is a former House member in his first Senate term. “A lot of our predecessors were from very different ideological places but they had a personal trust so that they could negotiate in good faith.” The absence of such ties “is really caustic to the functionality of this place.”
Flake shared his fellow castaway’s view. “We don’t need to be in the same place philosophically,” he said, “but the trust level has to be there and it isn’t right now.”
The folks at Discovery, no doubt, would be delighted to continue the “Rival Survival” series with leaders in need of trust-building: John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.); President Obama and John McCain (R-Ariz.); Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and everyone. That’s not about to happen.
But the Marshall Islands adventure Flake and Heinrich took is more evidence of lawmakers coming to the (correct) conclusion that Washington is broken because personal bonds have unraveled. A few years ago, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), persuaded some Republicans and Democrats to sit side by side at the State of the Union address. At the time, Udall also hoped to organize bipartisan Outward Bound retreats. Nothing much seems to have come of that, perhaps because each side feared the other would loosen their anchors during the rappel.
A more recent effort, undertaken by Democratic fundraiser Nancy Jacobson and backed by former Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, has made some progress. The group “No Labels” now claims a “Problem Solver” caucus of 75 House members and eight senators. On Wednesday, No Labels held a gathering in Washington to refine an unobjectionable platform the group hopes to inject into the 2016 presidential race: create 25 million jobs over 10 years, secure Medicare and Social Security for 75 years, balance the federal budget by 2030 and make America energy secure by 2024.
If that’s going to get done, something will also have to be done about an election system in which the most extreme elements dominate primaries and punish lawmakers who compromise. “The American people are going to have to start rewarding a different type of behavior,” Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) told the No Labels crowd, “where members of Congress come together.”
It was this spirit that sent Flake and Heinrich to the Pacific. During a Senate vote months ago, the two discovered they shared the hobby of spear fishing, which led them to pitch Discovery, which finally landed them at the National Press Club, where they sat on a stage Thursday with ferns, wooden spears, moss — and Saratoga mineral water.
Flake, in person and in the clips that Discovery screened, tried the predictable jokes (“It was my first night sleeping with a Democrat”). This could explain why Senate colleagues, according to Heinrich, still seem to think the adventure was a fabrication by The Onion.
Based on the Discovery teasers, the whole adventure actually seemed to be about dehydration, gross food and frustration – such as when the two senators tried unsuccessfully to make a fire by rubbing wood.
“It’s a lot like Congress: a lot of friction, no fire,” Flake observed.
But if they keep at it, sooner or later there will be a spark.