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By Don D. Berglund
From October 1 to October 16, 2013, the federal government was shut down. Congress failed to pass legislation funding fiscal year 2014, or a continuing resolution. Some say gridlock between Republicans and Democrats is nothing new and is to be expected. However, this gridlock is different and more damaging. An overview of why this is the case and what must be done to restore Congressional members’ ability to work together to avoid future shutdowns is discussed below.
America’s democracy is dependent on members of both parties of Congress building relationships with one another, so that despite their differences, they can reach agreement, pass legislation and get things done. Unfortunately, building relationships is no longer an important part of being a member of Congress. For most members of Congress today, it isn’t even a small part of their job.
In 1983, Republicans and Democrats had better working relationships. They came together to enact important legislation to stabilize Social Security. In 1994, they were able to work together to reform welfare, the result being the historic and successful “workfare” legislation. Yet today there is little or no resolve to reach compromise and work successfully with members of the other party. A member of Congress is afraid to have a drink at a restaurant with a member of the opposing party for fear they will be accused of “hanging out” with the other party. It is difficult to build relationships in such an environment.
Factors Contributing To a Decline in Relationship Building
Members of Congress go home too much. You have to be in Washington, D.C. with your colleagues in Congress to build relationships. Members fly back to their home states on Friday and return to Washington on Monday. Ostensibly, they travel to listen to what their constituents have to say. But really it is to raise money. The costs of campaigning for re-election have skyrocketed so much that they must spend an inordinate amount of time raising money. Even when they are back in Washington, their time is spent trying to raise money. It is hard to build relationships across the aisle when you are constantly fundraising for your next campaign.
Moreover, America has become too democratic. Members of Congress act as if they are afraid of their constituents. They know they need their constituents vote at election time. But being a representative doesn’t mean you should not think for yourself. You can’t please all of your constituents anyway. Most people in Congress are good people. They are privy to information about policies that their constituents are not. Do we want the American people to make decisions about matters that they are not familiar? It would help everyone concerned if our representatives devoted more time to building relationships within Congress, than to be so worried about what their constituents are thinking.
Term Limits Are Not the Answer
Some believe that placing term limits will improve the environment in Congress. Members would be free from the constraints of interest group pressure and could act according to their own, and their constituents, best interests. However, term limits would only make matters worse. New members need time on the job to build relationships and to learn about policies. With their terms limited, they would be even less likely to build the necessary relationships with the opposing party, and would feel they do not have the time to learn about policies.
Term limits would also remove people from Congress who have great knowledge and skill. For example, former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn served 25 years in the Senate, from 1972-1997. He was recognized as an expert on national defense. Members from both sides of the aisle sought out Nunn’s ideas and opinions on national defense. Under term limits, Congress and the American people would have been denied his many years of service and expertise.
What must happen for members of Congress to start building relationships with one another? First, we must change one aspect of our campaign finance laws. Today, most candidates receive a majority of all campaign funds directly from individuals and most individual gifts are below the maximum level. That level is $2,500 per election for each candidate. Considering that it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, and sometimes millions of dollars, to finance a congressional campaign, that small maximum individual contribution level is the reason members must spend so much time raising money. The best solution is to allow any citizen to contribute any amount of money they want to any candidate, with clear records kept of who contributed to whom and how much. This would free the candidates from having to spend so much time raising money, giving them time to build relationships.
Second, an attitudinal change in Congress must occur. Most of us learn by age six or eight that we will not always get our way. Congress members seem not to have learned that. Edmund Burke once said, “Preserving my principles unshaken, I reserve my activity for rational endeavors.” Burke meant that it is perfectly fine to believe in a principle, but you must consider the tactics used in advancing that principle. If the consequences of using a tactic are harmful to the cause, then it is not rational to use that tactic. Members of both parties, as well as the tea party, should take Burke’s comment seriously. If so, government shutdowns would be a thing of the past.