A message for new members of Congress: You can get along. Here’s how.
Almost two years after the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, the 118th Congress will assemble on the House floor, collectively raise their right hands and take their oaths to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. Immediately after completing their oath, members of Congress will be expected by their supporters and the media to revert to their partisan corners and commence battle.
Such battle is a tradition that’s gone through 117 iterations since its debut in 1789. Yet we are reminded every day that partisan warfare has reached a dangerous point, with our nation perhaps more divided than at any point since the Civil War. As gerrymandering, tribalized opinion news and social media draw congressional Republicans and Democrats further to the extremes, the prospects for civilized discourse in Congress seem bleak.
That’s why we, a conservative former Republican congressman from Georgia and a progressive former Democratic congressman from New York, have come together to impart some advice for the men and women who’ve just been elected to Congress for the first time: There are still ways to find common ground on Capitol Hill, even with our ideological adversaries.
The two of us have diametrically opposed views. One is pro-life, the other pro-choice. One supports lower taxes and less regulation, the other supports tax policies that mitigate income inequality and stronger federal protections against the climate crisis. When we served in Congress, our voting records were like day and night. We couldn’t even agree on whose was day and whose was night. Yet still, we found a way to common ground.
When you work with a member of your opposing party, you’ll disagree on about 80 percent of the issues. That’s to be expected — it’s why parties exist. But the remaining 20 percent cries out for bipartisan cooperation. As both of us served on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, our 20 percent focused on strengthening U.S. cyber capabilities against attack from China, North Korea, Russia, Iran and non-state actors. We were able to find issue areas where we could cooperate and cultivate a strong working relationship.
Those working relationships are crucial, and they grow in the small, organic interactions that happen in largely unreported places in the House. As a new member of Congress, you must seek out these places. Here’s a guide to some of them.
Right off the House floor, on the other side of Speaker’s Lobby, is a narrow balcony. It stretches from one end of the House wing, facing the House office buildings. On one side is a view of the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court. On the other, there is a commanding view of the National Mall stretching all the way to the Lincoln Memorial.
It’s America’s front porch — a modest place of cheap patio furniture, where members of Congress can stretch out and, well, talk to each other. You can be bickering on the House floor one minute and conversing casually the next: sports, kids, even the weather. New members, visit that balcony.
Another place where bipartisan relationships form is on CODELs. While often mocked by late-night pundits, those trips abroad are indispensable to a member’s understanding of the impact of their policies, and they’re where some of the strongest bonds between members form. When you’re sitting in a C-130 about to spiral into an airport in a dangerous military theater, it’s hard not to bond with the member sitting next to you.
When you’re on a 14-hour flight to support the troops, it’s hard not to make conversation and find commonality. And when you land in the presence of those troops, partisanship melts away. New members, go on those trips.
You also can visit other congressional districts, even those represented by members of your opposing party. Rep. Graves visited the Long Island district of Rep. Israel, where his slow, Georgia drawl gave new meaning to “South Shore” Long Island. New members, venture to the field of the 20 percent, travel to each other’s districts.
There is a myth that’s taken root in recent years that developing friendships with the other side and working with them will lead you to abandon your principles. Wrong, you can hold your ground while searching for common ground.
Here’s what we learned when we worked together on legislation, chatted on the balcony, traveled on congressional delegations and visited each other’s districts: We’re both Americans trying, often in different ways, to fulfill the promise we made on that first day: to protect and defend the Constitution.
Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now director of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy Institute of Politics and Global Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.
Tom Graves represented Georgia’s 14th Congressional District from 2013 to 2020. He is the CEO of the government relations firm, Ervin Graves Strategy Group, serves on the advisory board for Nuclear Matters and as a political contributor for ABC News Live.