A blueprint for fixing Washington

A blueprint for fixing Washington
© Greg Nash

Thanks to the novel coronavirus, our professional vocabularies have been expanded to now let words like “remote” and “distance” roll off our collective tongues. There’s a reason these adjectives describe the new reality of the workplace: We are distant from our colleagues; we work remotely and in isolation. While many organizations are unaffected by this need for a remote and distant workforce, there’s one where the lack of personal interaction will make an already dysfunctional workplace even less effective: the United States Congress.

You need not look any further than the recent back-and-forth regarding additional coronavirus relief funding to see this disconnect on full display and understand that the current state of affairs stymies our elected officials. This breakdown is a symptom of a wider problem within Congress — a serious degradation of personal relationships that is thwarting the creation of critical, productive legislation — and underscores why our national legislative body cannot give up on the notion that face-to-face interaction and dialogue are essential tools of the legislative trade.

Even before the pandemic hit, members of Congress from opposing parties were already isolated from one another while in D.C., rarely talking or socializing or spending any time to build trust and real collegiality. I know this because, over the past two years, the organization I lead (FMC, the association of Former Members of Congress) conducted more than 100 hours of interviews with a bipartisan group of more than 30 former Members to get an insider’s perspective on how Congress works and how to make it better. The resulting report makes clear that the most effective, lasting and consequential legislation often stems from personal relationships and trust among members.

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Former members also made clear how rarely that happens. If staying in power is the sole measure of success, then the other side must be kept win-less. That, in turn, diminishes opportunities for bipartisanship, creates disincentives to find common ground, and ultimately frays bonds of trust. As the recent dysfunction among our elected representatives makes abundantly clear, this set of incentives ultimately comes at the cost of the wellbeing of the American people.

Of the many stories we heard, one member noted that there is no reward for compromise given the polarized state our country is in. Another shared that to get together with a member of the other party, they had to make certain they arrived separately, left separately, and meet where no one could see them. These and countless other insights shared make it abundantly clear that while personal relationships are the cornerstone for any legislative progress, Members are forced to operate in an environment that encourages the exact opposite.

Members told us one of the key reasons they have limited opportunities or occasions to build relationships in Congress is simply the schedule. Members face competing pressures between staying in their districts as much as possible and spending more time in D.C. Often, staying in the district wins out — mostly because they see being rooted in their districts as an imperative, but also because staying in D.C. has become a political liability.

While sharing their concerns, these same members also shared their vision for a better functioning institution. For Congress to better serve our democracy, members must work to rebuild relationships and craft a culture that prioritizes working across party lines on the consequential legislation that will produce lasting systemic change for America.

When restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic begin to lift and Congress returns to more regular business, Members — and leadership especially — should prioritize opportunities like bipartisan Congressional delegations, field hearings, and district visits that allow members to better get to know one another, collaborate, and ultimately deliver solutions that service the needs of the American people. Congressional leadership should give minority party Members more opportunities to offer or amend legislation. Committee chairs should seek to integrate the views, priorities, and suggestions of ranking members in committee business to encourage bipartisanship.

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The moment we are in represents a long-term leadership challenge for all members of Congress. We are in desperate need of a Congress that is willing to put aside hyper-partisanship and work together to help their country in crisis. Let’s allow Congress to actually deliver on what they promise every election: to come together and, through vigorous and partisan debate, arrive at the best ideas that drive the substantial systemic solutions to the momentous challenges we face.

The solutions highlighted in FMC’s report will not solve everything that ails Congress, but isn’t an initial step in the right direction long overdue?

If our conversations with former members have revealed anything, it is that we have elected public servants, eager to move the country forward by working together, but constrained by a system that discourages the very thing needed now more than ever.

Peter M. Weichlein is the CEO of FMC — the association of Former Members of Congress. The nonprofit involves former and current members of Congress in democracy-strengthening projects across the country and overseas. While FMC is chartered by Congress, no taxpayer dollars are expended on FMC programming, and all participating former members donate their time and expertise pro bono.