Several years ago, just before he retired, I went to see Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) at the National Press Club. My former boss, Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), was a great fan of Sarbanes and once told me that when he needed expert advice on economic policy, he turned to Sarbanes. Just as many legislators turned to Church on foreign policy or natural resource and energy issues.

Sarbanes opened up quite candidly during that discussion and, I thought, put his finger on one serious change from when he’d first entered Congress three decades earlier. Members of Congress rarely come into office with an open mind anymore, he said. They arrive with issue positions hardened, forged more by ideology than pragmatism, less willing to listen and engage in debate and compromise. Somehow they feel that they have to be knowledgeable and up to speed on every issue, every problem, and they are reluctant to say those wonderful words: “I don’t know — I think I will have to study that issue in more detail. I think I need to listen to more people who know more about it than I do.”

Over the years, I have come to believe that Washington has suffered greatly from the propensity of people on the left and right to put themselves in ideological straitjackets. The current debate on the stimulus package makes me more convinced than ever that the refusal — of Republicans, in particular, but also of Democrats — to break out of the rigidity of the current politics is truly harmful to the country.

The simple fact is that no one has a very good handle on what will work in this economic environment and what won’t. And the bigger problem is that there is a real unwillingness to think outside the box, listen to new and different ideas and get behind a pragmatic plan, tossing off the ideology that so constrains these members.

We are in such a precarious position with the world economy that members of Congress owe it to their country to think differently, to operate differently, to be more thoughtful, more willing to listen than to continuously hit the microphones with platitudes and tired old party-line phrases. To be honest, I am sick of hearing the age-old attacks about “big government,” “class warfare,” “tax and spend” — all those hackneyed liberal or conservative statements.

If ever there were a time to throw off the ideological straitjackets, to jettison the blowhards of the left and the right, that time is now. This is not a time for business as usual or politics as usual. There is far too much at stake to adhere to rigid and outdated economic, and political, theories.