Over the last year, various commentators have suggested that the United States Congress is dysfunctional, that the major political parties are largely incapable of finding common ground and working together.
Do the men and women elected to Congress agree with that judgment? If so, what do they think are the causes? What solutions do they recommend?
I recently submitted those questions to several Members of Congress with constituents in the St. Louis area. Of the four who responded, all of them cited examples of how they have tried to work with members of the opposite party. Unfortunately, these cases of cooperation are too often ignored, according to Congressman John Shimkus, a Republican from Collinsville.
Echoing his concern was Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat. She believes the bickering in Washington receives more airtime than it should, because it draws a bigger audience than reasonable discussions about different approaches to public policy. Even so, she acknowledged that, when it comes to bipartisan collaboration, Congress does have room for improvement. Part of the problem, she argued, is that many Members of Congress think their first priority is to keep their jobs, and it’s easier to do that by saying “no” than by seeking compromise.
A similar point was made by McCaskill’s fellow Democrat, Congressman Russ Carnahan. His district includes parts of South St. Louis City and County. He wrote that some of his colleagues spend more time attempting to one-up their political opponents than they do seeking solutions to the issues affecting our country.
Voicing the same concern was the Republican Senator from Missouri, Kit Bond. He suggested his colleagues should keep in mind the context in which political debates occur. Quote:
“In a world today where enemies are real – the kind who in their hate-filled rage set [off] a bomb in a crowded, busy street – it is important to remember there is a lot of real estate between a political opponent and a true enemy.”
In similar vein, Congressman Shimkus touted the value of nurturing relationships with opposite-party colleagues. Congressman Carnahan wrote about respecting the opinions of others and identifying, quote, “the common ground that bridges the divide between us.” And despite setbacks, Senator McCaskill stressed the importance of Members of Congress continuing their efforts to work together, especially those Members whose principles reside close to the center of the political spectrum.
Considering these words, I’m tempted to believe there’s hope for Congress. At the same time, it’s hard to be optimistic. It’s hard to be optimistic because Congress, in many ways, is a reflection of voters – and voters now seem less inclined to have rationale discussions than they once were. Maybe I’m blinded by nostalgia, but I distinctly remember days when citizens – left, right, and center – mustered the will to lower their voices, check their blood pressure, put aside their differences, and recognize the truth in another point made by Senator Bond, namely that compromise is not a “dirty word.” It’s how meaningful changes are made to public policy.
In short, despite the commitment to civility and collaboration made by all four respondents to my survey, I fear their good intentions will be for naught, if we the people don’t make a similar commitment.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Pete Abel is a public affairs executive. He serves on the boards of Stages St. Louis and the Greater Missouri Chapter of the Tourette Syndrome Association. Previously, he served as managing editor of the political blog “The Moderate Voice.” His career started in 1985, first as a freelance reporter and later as a full-time staff writer for the St. Louis Suburban Journals, covering municipal politics and local businesses.