President’s Letter

We live in an ideologically sorted and polarized nation. But despite deep rifts, most Americans agree: Washington isn’t working. To address this, the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) began 2014 with a mission: to develop actionable ideas to help Congress function better and to support policymakers with the fortitude and imagination necessary to tackle major challenges. America’s greatest leaders were all fierce partisans who compromised out of necessity, not desire. Nostalgia for a gentler time isn’t useful, but a return to productive partisanship is. And while the headwinds remain strong, there are promising dynamics at work: a Republican-controlled Congress and Democratic administration means greater accountability; the improving economy creates a sense of possibility and diminishes the anger that undermines collaboration; and exhaustion from prolonged gridlock is generating more constructive dialogue.
Spend more time in Washington. Though it is impossible to re-create an era of members spending weekends together watching Little League, much can be done to relieve the alienation that rewards rigidity and discourages collaboration. Simple ideas such as a five-day workweek and a better alignment of the Senate and House calendars are a good start.

Restore committees. Committees used to be a place where members made alliances and gained issue expertise while crafting national policy. In recent years, partisan leadership made the decisions outside the committee process. Members should serve on fewer committees, devote more time to the committees they do serve, and focus on developing real knowledge. Congressional leadership, meanwhile, should guarantee floor time for committee-passed legislation.

Build bonds. Personal relationships should be allowed to flourish without constant public scrutiny. Often the imperative for deliberation trumps the need for access. Last year, the Senate met in private for a few hours and worked through challenging disagreements. Regular sessions away from news cameras could yield more legislative compromises. Similarly, members forge bonds by traveling together or sharing meals. But in a culture of disdain, official congressional fact-finding trips or seated lunches at policy discussions are too easily dismissed as taxpayer boondoggles or “gateway graft.” If we have so little trust in Congress, how can we expect those in Congress to trust one another?

Increase election access. Only one of five Americans participates in primaries, which further divides the nation. There are myriad ways to increase public engagement that, over time, will incentivize less-rigid leaders, including automatic and online registration, a national primary day, increased early voting, and allowing independents to vote in primaries—as well as bolder ideas, like primary experiments in California and Washington, where candidates from all parties face off at once and the top two advance to the state’s general election.

 

It is certainly true that toxic partisanship is a cause of legislative dysfunction. But it is also true that legislative dysfunction feeds toxic partisanship. Rather than wishing for national cohesion, bemoaning the media, or aspiring to a new Constitutional Convention, BPC envisions a virtuous cycle in which small accomplishments enhance Congress’s capacity to once again be both partisan and productive.

We will always live in an ideologically divided nation. Instead of lamenting the challenges, it is our responsibility to provide a place at the negotiation table both for collaboration and for partisanship. As the nation heads toward the 2016 presidential election, BPC’s continued belief in the collaborative power of partisanship will carry unique importance in 2015.