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Mark Mellman: Socializing and polarizing

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Everybody — members, scholars, pundits and the public — agrees Congress is screwed up. People are, well, polarized about why, however.

Many offer what I call the “socializing hypothesis,” identifying the failure of members to spend time with each other in Washington as the decisive factor in creating dysfunction. Voters could not disagree more; they think members spend too much time in Washington and want them home more.

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Personally, I think both sides in this debate are wrong, but the dispute itself evidences the difficulties inherent in solving the problem.

The socializing hypothesis enjoys something of a royal pedigree, having been advanced by some House members and senators themselves. As former ABC News anchor Charles Gibson reported in a paper for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, “The lack of contact and the lack of familiarity between Members of Congress, particularly between Members of opposite parties, is the most under-reported, and under-studied aspect of polarization. Those with extensive experience working on the Hill or who have served in Congress will say it is one of the most, if not the most, important causes of the problem.”

He marshals members galore to buttress his conclusion. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle opined, “It all comes down to familiarity and a relationship that has a lot more to do with chemistry than issues. If we have chemistry, we can work though the issues. But if we don’t have chemistry, which only comes from a lot of interactive experience, it’s just not going to happen.”

Former Sen. Evan Bayh contrasted his own experience with his fathers’: “I think the greatest difference is the breakdown in personal relationships among the members which used to allow them to transcend ideological or partisan differences. There were bonds of trust and familiarity.”

And of course, President Obama was famously criticized for failure to schmooze. Members of both parties lamented that if only he had spent more time socializing, he would have passed more legislation, more easily.

So what kind of solution does the socializing hypothesis lead to? Spend more time in Washington. Gibson again summarizes his extensive interviews: “What was mentioned often—indeed it was universal—was the need to get members of Congress to move their families to Washington.” With families back at home, members rush out of D.C., precluding the possibility of building the social relationships required to grease the legislative skids and ensure a smoothly functioning Capitol.

Voters come out with exactly the opposite stance. If insiders say, “spend more time in Washington and less at home,” voters say, “spend more time at home, forget Washington and leave your families with us.”

In our poll (with North Star Opinion Research, which bears no responsibility for my errors) on behalf of the Bipartisan Policy Center, 78 percent wanted members of Congress to spend half their time or less in Washington.

Presented with the arguments made by socializers in a separate question, only 27 percent wanted members to “spend more time in Washington, getting to know their colleagues and building the personal relationships that will allow them to break the gridlock and come up with solutions to our nation’s problems.” By contrast, more than two-thirds believed, “Members of Congress should spend more time in their home districts, talking with their constituents so they stay in touch with their values and know how policies passed in Washington are affecting the people back home.”

The key plank in the socializers’ platform is also overwhelmingly rejected by voters. Just 12 percent want members to move their families to Washington, whereas 70 percent want families to remain in the home states and districts.

No segment of the electorate agrees with the socializers.

The end result: polarization between voters and insiders over the causes of, and cure for, polarization.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.