Success through cooperation

Our country is facing serious challenges that continue to be left unresolved. Stalemates on issues from energy independence to wholesale tax reform to getting our economy on a sound footing threaten to undercut our nation’s strength, yet Congress has been unable to reach a consensus on legislation to move us forward.

One reason for the gridlock is that members of opposing parties work in completely separate orbits. Lawmakers rarely interact on a bipartisan basis, and instead are locked in competition.

We believe the resulting partisan rancor is holding us back as a nation. It’s why we’re leading an effort to find a way to bridge the divides and work together.

As members of congressional families, we know first-hand that the tone in Washington hasn’t always been so negative. Our fathers both served in the legislative branch — combined, their tenures spanned the Kennedy administration through 9/11 — and it gives us a unique perspective on Congresses past. The Congress they served in was more collegial, which contributed to getting major things done. Civil rights, the space program, the Trans-Alaska pipeline, Medicare and the end of the Cold War are among the many accomplishments reached through bipartisan cooperation.

Then, unlike now, members of opposing parties interacted more often — out of necessity. Our fathers represented far-flung Western states: going home required a long and expensive airplane trip. In their day, lawmakers got to know and understand each other.

One profound reality of present-day Congress is that many members barely know one another, and our routine is structured to keep us divided. Every week, we gather for a partisan lunch with colleagues only from our own party. In these lunches, we plot out our plan of action to defeat the other side over the next seven days. Our senior staffs attend their own partisan meetings with roughly the same agenda.

This partisan dysfunction is broadcast for the American people each year when the president delivers his State of the Union address. By tradition, lawmakers sit divided by party, with one side cheering and applauding the president, while the other sits silent and sullen. 

We believe such “border rivalries” should be limited to the basketball court or the gridiron.

Last year, following the shooting of our House colleague Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others, we led an effort to ask Congress to abandon partisanship for the State of the Union address and sit together. That rare moment of true unity in the chamber changed the conversation from what divides us to what we have in common.  

This year, we’re calling on Congress to permanently end the tradition of divided seating. This idea, originally proposed by the think tank Third Way and now being promoted by the bipartisan group No Labels, will help Congress display a sense of common purpose.  And we’re heartened by the fact that more than 160 of our Congressional colleagues agree.

But we also believe we must go further to build relationships and find ways we can work together. To start, we’re calling on our colleagues to reserve one weekend each year for a bipartisan retreat in which members of both parties take time together to look closely and thoughtfully at the issues and identify opportunities and forums to build on potential areas of policy agreements. 

This, too, is a small step. But it’s an important one. Anyone who works in an office knows that people are more productive when they communicate well and work together. That applies to Congress as well. Consider the so-called “supercommittee” — the bipartisan and bicameral group of 12 members of Congress tasked with finding $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction last year. The members were able and amiable policymakers with decades of experience in Congress. Yet many met for the first time when the committee gathered in September. This endemic division helped set up the committee’s failure to come to an agreement. 

To be clear, party lines can be important identifiers. Democrats and Republicans have different ideas of the role of government and approaches for our country’s future. But party lines aren’t brick walls. While bipartisan seating and policy forums won’t end hyperpartisanship overnight, they’re a step in the right direction. If members of opposing parties can start talking together, we can negotiate together. And if we can negotiate together, then maybe we can actually start dealing with the problems the American people sent us here to solve.

Let’s begin to change the tone and see if it leads to a better outcome for all.

Udall is a Democratic senator from Colorado, and Murkowski is a Republican senator from Alaska.