Trump, America still needs this monument to nonpartisanship
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Rancor. Division. Party lines like barbed wire.

Politics in America are tough these days. The chasm between Republican and Democratic priorities is arguably the widest it has ever been, which is concerning because of its practical impact: reduced chances of getting the work done to keep this country running — let alone moving it forward.

But just as we gather our coziest blanket around us on the dreariest days of winter, so too must we comfort ourselves in this dreary political time by remembering, and nurturing, the successful examples of bipartisanship, and yes, nonpartisanship, that still do thrive.

Many of those examples go overlooked and unreported amid the slamming of office doors on both sides of Capitol Hill’s hallways. As a Democrat and a Republican, with a combined 69 years of service in Congress under our belts, we have a few “good news” stories to tell. The one closest to our hearts is one that stands 50 feet tall, in gray granite, just a few steps from the White House.

It was built as a monument to nonpartisanship in tackling pressing foreign policy challenges. It was built, quite frankly, for moments like this. And yet the Wilson Center has been overlooked, too, in President Trump’s new budget for the coming fiscal year, which would zero out the 30 percent of the Center’s funding that comes from federal appropriations. There could not be a worse moment in America to do so.

The budget has generated plenty of controversy, of course, with most of the headlines taken by planned cuts to Medicaid, the defunding of Planned Parenthood, and the hit that Meals on Wheels would take. Eliminating the modest appropriation for the Wilson Center — $10.5 million a year — won’t garner the same attention. But it should, for both symbolic and purely practical reasons.

First, the symbolism. The Center was established by an act of Congress in 1968 as a memorial to the nation’s 28th president. However, unlike the Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln Memorials, there’s a lot going on inside its stone walls. Indeed, this memorial to the ideals of President Wilson was designed to be a living one, enabling in-depth research and open dialogue on global issues affecting U.S. security — in a setting that is fiercely nonpartisan.

That’s derived from the bipartisanship at its roots: In the Center’s nearly 50 years, Republicans have chaired its board for 30 of them, while public and private appointees to the board have included 75 Republicans and 70 Democrats. Fittingly, the Wilson Center is tucked inside the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, creating a “silent dialogue” between two of the country’s most notable leaders, one a Democrat and one a Republican. Strike at the memorial and you strike at the ideals that it stands for — and the ideals that we so desperately need to reinforce today.

If the symbolism isn’t enough to sway President Trump and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, then the practicalities should. No, Wilson is not just “another D.C. think-tank.” It’s a catalyst for getting Washington working together on pressing security matters, from anti-terrorism to anti-hacking. Here’s proof: The Center’s Foreign Policy Fellowship Program has hosted 450 Congressional staff — almost an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. The Center’s new Cybersecurity Lab has equipped 100 Hill staffers — 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats — with the knowledge and digital policy tools they’ll need to help keep the country safe in cyberspace.

These are investments that are producing dividends, and will continue to, if allowed to mature.

Wilson Center experts, on topics ranging from Russia to Iran, are called on in crisis moments to testify before Congressional committees and brief Congressional staff — free of political constraints while emphasizing nonpartisanship.

In 1984, at the height of the Cold War, President Reagan lauded the Wilson Center for its “timely and important” work in facilitating mutual understanding between the United States and the Soviet Union. But the Center’s work has always started by facilitating mutual understanding right here, at home.

Why dismantle an institution that helps us see eye to eye, and fights to make us stronger in the world for it? As the budget battle continues, the Trump administration should see that as a step the country cannot afford to take.

Lee Hamilton is a former Democratic representative from Indiana, who served as director of the Wilson Center from 1999 to 2010.

Ralph Regula, a former Republican representative from Ohio who served as a fellow at the Wilson Center in 2009, passed away in July 2017.  

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.