Will the real Lee Hamiltons and Olympia Snowes please stand up?
Remember Lee Hamilton (D), the Congressman from Indiana who famously championed bipartisanship? How about Olympia Snowe (R), the U.S. senator who was admired for her ability to compromise? If you don’t, you’re not alone. Few current members of Congress seem to remember them either.
Hamilton represented the 9th District of Indiana from 1965 to 1999. He was a master negotiator and a recipient of the Patriot Award from the Bipartisan Policy Center. Snowe served from 1995 to 2013 and was chosen by Time as one of America’s ten best senators, largely for her willingness to see past the partisan divide that eventually spurred her retirement.
In a recent article, Hamilton questioned whether America will ever produce another generation of leaders who possess the qualities of the Founding Fathers. “Above all else,” Hamilton said, “Great leaders of democracies seek to build a consensus. They’re inclusive. They don’t try to shut people out of the process.”
Snowe, for her part, reminded us that “the purpose of public service… is to solve problems for the people you represent” and said, “You can never solve a problem without talking to people with whom you disagree. The United States Senate is predicated… on consensus building.”
That notion of building consensus with other members of Congress has been lost on our current crop of lawmakers, and to some degree, our new president. President Biden delivered a strong inaugural address about unity but hasn’t really followed through — instead passing his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill without any Republican support, plus issuing over 60 executive actions in his first 100 days. To be fair, when Republicans publicly announce they’re going to vote as a block against any bill the Democrats propose, regardless of its merits or public support, there’s not much room for reaching across the aisle.
Past congressional leaders like Hamilton, Snowe, Richard Lugar, Barbara Mikulski, John McCain, Sam Nunn and others were able to pass legislation for the good of the country, an alien concept to many current Congress members. Cooperation is vital in order to avoid government inertia, enable our nation to respond quickly in a crisis, and move our country forward. It’s also important for every American — regardless of political leaning — to feel their voice is heard and to believe they have a stake in their nation. When elected leaders blatantly disregard the will of the people to play party politics, they break their contract with the electorate.
Here are five recommendations for Congress, inspired by the leaders above, that can help promote bipartisanship:
- Build at least one friendship with someone in the other party. Back in 2017, two young congressmen from opposing parties, Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and Will Hurd (R-Texas), took a spontaneous road trip together, which they livestreamed to the public. When they arrived in Washington, they each signed on to the other’s legislation. Today’s political climate calls for the two parties to demonize one another. But it’s hard to demonize someone you know as a person.
- Make a public vow to put “country over party” and encourage your colleagues to do the same. Members of Congress work for the American people, first and foremost, not for a political party. Most Americans want to see the two parties cooperating.
- Bring respect back. Take every opportunity to engage in civil discourse with opposing party members. And never belittle or insult a political opponent. When you insult opponents, you insult the people who voted for them.
- Get out of your echo chamber. Talk to a wide range of others about issues. And actually listen to what they say. Support good ideas, even if they come from members of the opposing party. A good idea is a good idea, no matter who came up with it.
- Embrace compromise. Compromise is not a sign of weakness but a sign of maturity that often leads to forward movement. It’s better to come away with something you want than nothing at all.
Whether our current leaders will do any of these things remains to be seen. We, the voters, must hold our leaders accountable for cooperative leadership in the name of democracy. As Lee Hamilton said, “Representative democracy is not a spectator sport.” On election day, we must reward those members of Congress who worked together for the betterment of the nation and oust those who have proven their loyalty is only to their party and themselves. We hold the power to build a better Congress.
Ritch K. Eich, former chief of public affairs for Blue Shield of California, has published five books on leadership, the latest being “GRIT, GRACE & GRATITUDE: Timeless Lessons for Life.” A retired captain in the naval reserve, he served on congressional committees for Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Dan Coats of Indiana. He holds a Ph.D from the University of Michigan.
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