Bipartisan group key to getting things done

Bipartisan group key to getting things done
© Greg Nash

As a newer member of Congress, I’m still growing accustomed to folks back home asking me how I’m doing as though I’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Admittedly, it’s strange joining an organization that, according to recent polling, is held in lower regard than head lice and colonoscopies. A 2016 poll found that less than 10 percent of Americans expressed support for Congress — making me wonder how many times Gallup surveyed my mom. According to Pew, trust in government fell below 30 percent a decade ago and hasn’t recovered.

Those are the kind of approval ratings you get when people don’t expect anything good from their government. 

Individual members of Congress all come to the nation’s capital motivated to make a difference for our constituents. There’s widespread agreement that we should pass a budget, enact spending bills on time, and respond to critical public health threats like the Zika virus. But the last three Congresses have been the least productive since the 1940s, showing that, as an institution, we’ve continued to drop the ball.


A lot of folks who’ve spent their whole careers in Washington think it’s impossible to get things done on a bipartisan basis. But those of us who served in functioning legislative bodies know that’s just not true.

When I served in the Washington state Senate, the last three bills I voted on were a balanced budget, a constitutional amendment to reduce long-term state debt, and a proposal to create 18,000 jobs by investing $1 billion in infrastructure. Each of those three bills passed the state Senate with near unanimous support.

Can you imagine near unanimous support in Congress for tackling big, hairy issues like the budget, debt relief and infrastructure? 

Why shouldn’t we be able to?

The Washington Legislature wasn’t a chamber where every member sang from the same song sheet. Some members believed passionately in limiting the reach of government. Others had the exact opposite philosophy. But everyone understood that we got elected to get something done, not simply to posture.

First, we didn’t just talk about bipartisanship. When it came time to work on issues, we actually sat down across from each other and wrestled with how to solve problems. We intentionally crafted legislation designed to get the largest possible number of votes from both parties. And we recognized that it’s hard to get folks there for the landing if they aren’t there for the takeoff.

We see the exact opposite approach in Washington, D.C. These days in Congress, either side will start with its own solution without any compromise. Bills often seem designed to highlight partisan differences, not forge common ground. While there have been some notable exceptions, we’ve seen negotiation — or even dialogue — delayed until things are on the brink. This approach has led to a perpetual state of governance by crisis. 

Second, legislative time in Olympia was focused primarily on actually solving problems. In Congress, too much time is spent trying to score political points and make the other side look stupid. Imagine if we stopped voting on things designed solely for use in negative campaign ads with no chance of becoming law. If we stopped trying to produce fodder for Twitter and cable news.

If things in Congress are going to improve, it’s going to be because of organizations like the Bipartisan Working Group. This coalition of Democrats and Republicans, led by Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio) and myself, has agreed to set aside the partisan bickering and focus on problem solving. We’re not singing “Kumbaya” around a conference table, but we meet weekly seeking to find some common ground.

Recognizing that many families and small businesses are still struggling, our coalition is focused on initiatives to build an economy that works better for everyone. There aren’t Democratic roads or Republicans schools. We all understand the importance of making it easier to start a small business or invest in aging bridges. We agree that the tax code is broken. We agree on the importance of educational opportunities, the need for workforce training, and the value of providing an affordable path to a college degree or certification for folks who want one.

A majority of Congress agrees on this, too. There’s an opportunity to pass a bipartisan transportation package that brings America’s infrastructure into the 21st century. We can send the president tax reform focused on growth and spreading prosperity to all Americans. But we can’t do that unless both sides actually want to work together, pen in hand, from the very beginning.

Most folks I talk to back home don’t give a rip about whether things move more to the left or more to the right. They just want things to move forward rather than backward. It’s time folks in D.C. worked to move our economy —  and this Congress — forward. 


Kilmer is co-chairmain of the Bipartisan Working Group.