After Harvey, Americans set Congress an example for unity
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Houston — As Hurricane Harvey’s towering dark cloud bank descended on Houston on August 25, neighbors who rarely shared more than a wave gathered over their back fences, nervously taking stock in the realization that we were now in this together.

We huddled through days of deluge as the flood waters rose and our yards and houses became shrinking islands in the torrent. Along with my neighbors in a Houston suburb I positioned a ladder in preparation for the possible climb to the roof.

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For nearly a week we watched as local, state and federal officials came together not as Republicans and Democrats, but as public servants united by the a common purpose. We were in awe of the tireless rescuers in their ragtag armada of boats. We welcomed President Trump’s visit because it showed leadership, regardless of whether he hugged a survivor or the first lady wore heels.

Along with so much else, Harvey’s rains washed away for a time the partisan petulance that stubbornly clings to our national politics. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, there is nothing like a 1-in-1,000-year flood to concentrate the mind wonderfully.

That clarity of mind recalls what is truly exceptional about the American character: our ability to come together and prevail in times of crisis and national renewal. That strength of a free and self-governed people united by common principles has brought us through wars, economic calamities and natural disasters too numerous to mention. And from the “ground zero” vantage point of Houston, it was also clear how the divisive tribalism that infects Washington, D.C. saps this traditional American strength.

Perpetual campaigns designed to divide us no longer pause for the consensus-building act of bipartisan governance. The resulting political dysfunction means that serious problems fester, whether it’s crumbling national infrastructure, ballooning debt or an overstretched and underfunded military. A society divided against itself becomes steadily weaker with each passing year, less able to rally itself to overcome the mounting challenges that lie ahead.

Politicians returning to Washington from their August recesses this week should thus leverage this hurricane as a teachable moment. They now confront looming deadlines on raising the debt ceiling, passing a budget to avoid a government shutdown, and providing emergency relief to the Gulf Coast. Tax reform and an infrastructure overhaul await.

As they work to find common ground, lawmakers and policymakers should remember the example set by Harvey’s heroes: the nameless volunteers who searched through brackish waters to rescue victims, manned overcrowded shelters and opened their doors to the displaced. With those images fresh in mind it will be easier to do the right thing.

President Trump made a positive gesture by backing off his threat to shut down the government if lawmakers do not fund a wall along the Mexican border. It is time to put away such childish taunts. His deal with Democrats on Wednesday to temporarily raise the debt ceiling, continue funding the government and provide disaster relief funding suggests how bipartisan approaches can be used to shore up the political center.

On the other hand, Trump’s divisive language on immigrants and decision to end certain legal protections for the “Dreamers” bought to the country as children sent exactly the wrong message at a time when so many of Harvey’s victims were immigrants, both legal and undocumented.  Houston and the region will be rebuilt on the backs of immigrant labor.

The single most important step lawmakers can take as an antidote to Washington’s increasingly corrosive political culture would be to heed the pleas of one of their standard bearers. On July 25, Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainRubio asks Army to kick out West Point grad with pro-communist posts The VA's woes cannot be pinned on any singular administration Overnight Defense: Mattis offers support for Iran deal | McCain blocks nominees over Afghanistan strategy | Trump, Tillerson spilt raises new questions about N. Korea policy MORE (R-Ariz.), fresh from the surgeon’s knife and a diagnosis of brain cancer, returned to the Senate floor to entreat his colleagues to recapture the spirit of consensus-building that is the lifeblood of a representative democracy.

“I’ve known and admired men and women of the Senate who played much more than a small role in our history, true statesmen, giants of American politics,” McCain said in what is destined to become a landmark speech by a lion of the Senate. “They knew that however sharp and heartfelt their disputes, however keen their ambitions, they had an obligation to work collaboratively to ensure the Senate discharged its constitutional responsibilities effectively. Our responsibilities are important, vitally important, to the continued success of our Republic.”

As a co-editor of “Triumphs & Tragedies of the Modern Congress,” an anthology of case studies published by the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, I’ve recently examined many of the legislative milestones that helped shape modern America, and the giants of American politics who worked across the political aisle to lay them.

There was overwhelming, bipartisan support in Congress, for instance, for Democratic President Harry Truman’s signature post-World War II achievements such as creating the NATO alliance and establishing the Marshall Plan.

Republican President Dwight Eisenhower worked closely with liberal Democrats such as Rep. Hale Boggs of Louisiana in winning support for the Interstate Highway System, called the biggest public works program since the pyramids.

In order to counter the opposition of Southern Democrats, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson worked closely with Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, R.-Il., to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Republican President Ronald Reagan similarly depended on Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill Jr., D-Mass., to pass major Social Security reform in 1983 and a wide-ranging tax reform in 1986.

Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, Az., and Democratic Rep. Bill Nichols, Ala., teamed together to pass the landmark 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act.

In one of the oddest bipartisan couplings, Democratic President Bill ClintonBill ClintonAll five living former presidents to attend hurricane relief concert The Hill's 12:30 Report The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE and Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia teamed to pass welfare reform in 1996, the most sweeping overhaul of safety net programs in decades.

Republicans’ failure to unilaterally “repeal and replace” ObamCcare despite controlling the White House and Congress offers a clear warning about the limitations of one-party governance, and the legislative train wreck that potentially lies ahead.

Meanwhile, as the Gulf coast begin the years’ long work of recovering from Hurricane Harvey, American flags are sprouting up in yards across the region as a symbol of national unity. They are sending Washington an important message, if their political representatives would only stop shouting at each other long enough to listen.

James Kitfield is a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He is also a contributing editor at Atlantic Media, and author of the new book “Twilight Warriors: The Soldiers, Spies and Special Agents Who Are Revolutionizing the American Way of War” (Basic Books 2016).


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