Rising above the Gridlock to Govern

This paper is part of an initiative from the Peterson Foundation to help illuminate and understand key fiscal and economic questions facing America. See more papers in the Expert Views: Bipartisan Policymaking under Divided Government series.

By Michael Steele

Feb 2, 2023

For decades, members of Congress have been spending less and less time in Washington, afraid of election opponents accusing them of becoming a part of the “Establishment” and losing touch with “regular people”. When Members are in D.C., their schedules push and pull them between legislative duties and spending time fundraising for re-election campaigns. There is little to no time left for getting to know colleagues and building the rapport and trust that are the basis of collaboration. Consequently, the ability to deliver on big and small policy goals — even writing new laws and repealing old ones — becomes more difficult to achieve; and the expectations of the voters sour to the point that the gap between all those promises and getting something done snaps the credibility of both Congress and the White House.

Historian Alexis de Tocqueville once noted “there’s nothing more dangerous than unmet expectations;” and it has been the unmet expectations of countless Americans, fueled by the growing and often zero-sum engagement of both political parties that have defined our current political landscape. The narcissism of Washington not only impedes the formulation of sound policy, it has also corroded our politics and turned once reasonable agendas into personal vendettas. A governing coalition that coalesces around personalities or hot political rhetoric rather than sound social and fiscal policies or even a new approach to old problems, is not just unsustainable, it’s debilitating and does not offer the American people the leadership it expects.

Policymakers can rise above gridlock by establishing the kinds of working relationships necessary to govern.

As the 118th Congress begins and the Biden Administration navigates working with a Republican controlled House, the country is left to wonder how does Congress get back to doing the people’s work; and will its members ever figure out how to work together? Despite the harangue of the political class, for many Americans “bipartisanship” is not a dirty word.

Indeed, there are tools to help facilitate this long overdue reproachment between Republicans and Democrats; and there are partners like the Bipartisan Policy Center (“BPC”) who can aide in utilizing such tools to facilitate a bipartisan culture in Congress. For example, the BPC’s American Congressional Exchange (“ACE”) have bipartisan pairs of members visit each other’s home district to learn about their communities’ needs and better understand what it is that motivates them and concerns them. It still amazes how little Members know about the communities outside their congressional districts (sometimes even within their own state) and what animates the policy priorities of the members who represent them. A shared experience based on close personal interaction can be what brings Members of Congress together to act on behalf of the American people. Since 2018, ACE has completed nearly 40 trips with 44 House members in 24 states. Small steps which need to grow with the encouragement of Leaders from both parties.

Other tools Congress can employ include bipartisan retreats, Congressional Delegations or “CODELS” and field hearings which offer opportunities to build relationships. As BPC President Jason Grumet told the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress: “People have talked about trips, CODELs, field hearings. I cannot overstate the importance of that at this moment. You know, it is during the 15-hour flight to Kazakhstan when you realize you both have hip pain, you love the show Succession, you root for hockey…Those are the threads of humanity that actually join regular people together.”

Recently, Senators Kirsten Sinema (I-AZ) and John Cornyn (R-TX) led a bipartisan delegation of senators to the U.S.-Mexico border in an effort to enact long overdue immigration reform. As Senator Cornyn noted, “Most of the time when you come to the border it’s kind of shirts vs. skins. It’s all Republicans and everybody’s sort of egging each other on but not actually trying to fix the problem. I’m encouraged because I think Sen. Sinema… and others who are here with us have a history of doing bipartisan things and solving problems. So, I think that’s a great place to start.” More Members and committees can and should follow their example.

White House meet Congress. Congress meet the White House.

While the legislative and policy drama in Washington often focuses on getting something through the House or Senate chamber, relationships further down Pennsylvania Avenue are as important as relationships under the dome of the Capitol. There is no question that congressional-presidential relationships have waned in recent decades. President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill had a famously productive relationship. President Bill Clinton and Speaker Gingrich often clashed publicly, and yet, still were known for finding common ground. Former Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle and Trent Lott, co-chairs of BPC’s Commission on Political Reform, had regular joint meetings with President George W. Bush to discuss the nation’s priorities.

Lately, these relationships have suffered; and consequently, so have any efforts to move thorny pieces of legislation — or to even spend time together socially. Former President Obama famously quipped, “Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?” when asked whether that might repair their strained relationship. Former President Trump had combative interactions with both parties’ congressional leaders, complete with schoolyard nicknames and taunts.

Now is a chance for a different path.

The expectation of most Americans is that at a certain point, the president and congressional leaders set aside the partisan squabbling and at least meet face-to-face as a part of the give-and-take of policymaking. Given that President Biden is well known for his relationship building abilities, and that he and Senate Minority Leader McConnell already have a good rapport, now is the moment to take a different approach to legislating and governing. Speaker McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, Leader McConnell, and President Biden should begin having regular joint meetings now about addressing our nation’s pressing challenges. The governing by crisis approach — e.g., a debt ceiling showdown or a government shutdown — is exhausting, often dangerous political theater and threatens the stability of our markets and the confidence of the American people.

Congress needs to foster incentives for members to be constructive participants in the legislative process, especially when it comes to keeping the government funded and operating. In the last Congress, with the bipartisan endorsement of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress Members reformed and restored congressionally directed spending, formerly known as earmarks.

Directed spending allows members of Congress to secure federal funding for priority projects in their communities under Congress’s Article I power of the purse. This brings their constituents’ local interests directly into the national policymaking debate in far-off Washington. But it also gives members, especially rank-and-file members, a way to participate in the legislative process at a time when such opportunities are rare. Much legislation today is drafted by party leaders and the amendment processes in the House and Senate are tightly controlled. Directed spending is an opportunity for members to personally get something done for their constituents and claim credit.

The old earmarks system had flaws and there were isolated instances of abuse, but the new directed spending system includes key transparency and accountability reforms, many of which were proposed by BPC, that make it more fiscally and ethically responsible and responsive to local needs. An overwhelming majority of the House Republican conference voted in December to keep this practice and they should hold strong against any attempts to reverse this positive development.

Congress needs to make good on the perennial promise of a more open legislative process that allows all members to participate and have their constituents’ voices represented.

The recent Speaker battle in the House surfaced the frustrations of many members that they do not have adequate influence over the legislative process. Speaker McCarthy pledged, in response, to run a more open process that allows members to offer more amendments to legislation on the floor and emphasized committees as the policymaking engines of Congress. These promises may sound familiar as they are similar to ones made by Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2019. And Speaker John Boehner in 2011. And Speaker Paul Ryan in 2015. And Speaker Newt Gingrich almost thirty years ago.

While the promise for reform by Congress is nothing new, many outside of government have also called for a more open legislative process in the House and Senate as a way to air good ideas from both parties and to allow opportunities for bipartisanship to germinate.

But process and politics were frequently at odds with those promises. The reason Speaker McCarthy’s predecessors ultimately fell short was the minority, often locked out of the legislative process, would offer amendments that attempted to peel off majority members by inserting divisive issues into the debate. To avoid vulnerable members having to take tough votes on amendments offered by the minority, such reforms would be abandoned.

A more open legislative process, where Republican and Democratic ideas are given consideration on the floor, can help navigate through the gridlock — if the Republican Majority can keep it and the Democrats don’t abuse it.

House Rules Shakeup Might Make for Unexpected Alliances.

The conservatives who held out for 15 ballots against voting for Speaker McCarthy gained a commitment to appoint three Freedom Caucus members to the powerful House Rules Committee, which controls what bills come to the floor and the terms of debate (e.g., will be there be amendments? Which amendments?). The Majority controls nine seats and the minority just four on the committee, which is usually a rubber stamp for the Speaker and the majority party’s wishes.

However, with three seats now held by Republicans willing to go against leadership in public ways, the conservatives could find themselves teaming up with the four Democrats on the panel to sink proposals backed by the Speaker and party mainstream. They can now swing votes on committee business 7−6. This threat will likely help them hold Speaker McCarthy to any promises he has made, like an open amendment process and deficit reductions.

This new dynamic holds promise not just for bipartisan opposition, but for bipartisan collaboration as well. Under the right circumstances, House Democrats might leverage their position to find mutual agreement with three Republicans on the panel. As they say, this could be the start of something big.

That’s hard work.

At times, our politics can be a bit like a rash: unsightly, irritating, and lacking in intellectual or ideological coherence. Bipartisanship is the ointment we put on that rash. Yes, bipartisanship is hard, messy at times and always unforgiving. Rising above the gridlock requires much of our elected officials, especially as more and more Americans have come to believe our government is at a standstill. That’s why we send them to our Nation’s Capital — to be the leaders who will forge bipartisan commitments to long-term strategies which will move our nation forward and are conducive to enhancing the security and prosperity of every citizen.

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About the Author

When elected Lt. Governor of Maryland in 2003, Michael Steele made history as the first African American elected to statewide office; and again with his subsequent chairmanship of the Republican National Committee in 2009.

The RNC broke fundraising records and won the biggest pickup of House seats since 1938. His commitment to grassroots organization and party building produced 12 governorships and the greatest share of state legislative seats since 1928.

As Lt. Governor, his priorities included reforming the state's Minority Business Enterprise program, improving the quality of the public education system, expanding economic development and fostering cooperation between government and faith-based organizations.

Steele is a political analyst for MSNBC and the host of the Michael Steele Podcast.

He is also a member of Bipartisan Policy Center’s Board of Directors.

Author of Right Now: A 12-Step Program for Defeating the Obama Agenda and co-author of The Recovering Politician’s Twelve Step Program to Survive Crisis.

Born at Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George’s County, Maryland, Steele was raised in Washington, DC. Upon graduating Johns Hopkins University, he entered the Order of St. Augustine where studied for the priesthood. He is a graduate of Georgetown Law Center, an Aspen Institute Rodel Fellow in Public Leadership and a University of Chicago Institute of Politics Fellow and currently a Senior Fellow at Brown University’s Institute for International and Public Affairs.

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