Good people with bad incentives

Good people with bad incentives
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How is it possible that the majority of Americans can be simultaneously disgusted with Congress and generally supportive of their own elected representatives? The answer to this seemingly contradictory question holds an important clue about how we can get Congress working again.

In my experience, most of the lawmakers on Capitol Hill are decent and hardworking people who simply want to serve their country and help their constituents. But upon taking the oath of office, these virtues collide with bad incentives and an entrenched culture in Congress that undermines constructive collaboration. These forces pull lawmakers from different parties in opposite directions and starve them of the chances to form personal bonds across the aisle needed for a healthy legislative process.

Long gone are the days when both Republican and Democratic families attended the same social events, when their kids went to school together, or when they took legitimate bipartisan trips to seek common solutions to challenging issues and get to know one another on a stronger personal level. Instead, it is now a badge of honor to sleep on your office couch and take the first flight back home to prove that you are not a swamp dwelling Washington insider. Moreover, the demands of fundraising make it nearly impossible to do anything except dial for dollars during your down time.


So how bad is it today? Even the shuttle busses at the orientation for freshman members of Congress are divided between Republicans and Democrats. Caucus meetings and policy lunches are all conducted along purely partisan lines. All the committees, which traditionally have been engines of democracy and the place where members work together to build bipartisan bridges, have been systematically weakened as party leaders increasingly script and dictate major pieces of legislation.

But the situation is not hopeless. Elected officials want opportunities to get to know one another even when they disagree on policy. When they do, good things happen. Consider a bill earlier this year, which eventually became law, introduced jointly by Republican Jack Bergman of Michigan and Democrat Stephanie Murphy of Florida to help our returning service members reenter the civilian workforce. This collaboration happened after each visited the district of the other during a weekend on a Bipartisan Policy Center program known as the American Congressional Exchange.

Since the launch of this program last year, more than two dozen members have visited the district of a colleague from the opposite side of the aisle, and at least 10 more trips are scheduled this year. Along with the bill from Bergman and Murphy, other trips have also resulted in Republican and Democratic members teaming up to work successfully on criminal justice reform and add amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act.

In a similar vein, we recently held the first bipartisan freshman sophomore class retreat for members of Congress, spearheaded by the presidents of those two classes. The explicit and unsubtle premise of the gathering was discussing how to support and protect the desire of newer members to work across the aisle and fend off pressure to pursue partisan victory over substantive achievement. The pressure to choose party over nation was acknowledged to be increasing as the focus shifts to the 2020 election.

Members of Congress also noted that the disincentive to collaborate was not limited to the culture of Washington, but reinforced by constituents, donors, and the media. As there is always strength in numbers, our goal with these convenings is to enable pragmatists to unite and defend one another from the forces of rigidity and division. Congress would quickly become more competent if party leaders rewarded members for spending time on Capitol Hill, in committee meetings, and out on fact finding trips.


To be sure, there was never a time when lawmakers sat around a bonfire singing folk songs. Within a free and diverse nation, conflict and tumult will always be the norm. The key to the successful American experiment has been a shared sense of purpose and the capacity for reconciling our intense differences. While personal trust between lawmakers is certainly not sufficient to achieve effective consensus, it is nearly impossible to resolve real policy differences and move forward for the nation without it.

Thankfully, we do not need an alien invasion or new Constitution or to recapture a sense of common purpose. But we do need to change the incentives that have made Congress brittle and weakened deliberative capacity. Let us encourage our lawmakers to get to know one another again. It is not disloyal or unpatriotic to spend time with someone you disagree with. It is indeed one of the most American things you can do.

Jason Grumet is the founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.