In Congress, There's Always A Next Time

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

 When the debate on Capitol Hill gets so heated that agreement seems impossible, it's crucial for both sides to treat each other with respect. That, says former Congressman Lee Hamilton, is because "In Congress, There's Always A Next Time."

In this era of partisan confrontation and party-line votes on Capitol Hill, it's easy to lose sight of why Congress exists. It is our vehicle for finding remedies to the problems that beset us. It does this by bringing people of different beliefs and ideologies together to discuss the issues, argue about their differences, explore possible solutions, and then find common ground. 

In this day and age, though, you have to ask: What if they can't find common ground? What if it is simply not possible to arrive at an accommodation that commands a majority? Unfortunately, this is not uncommon these days. 

To understand the answer, it's important to recognize that in Congress, few things are ever decided for good. An effort that seems dead one day might be resurrected the next — or the following year, or even the following decade, as happened with health-care reform. 

I can remember endless discussions about allowing 18-year-olds to vote, with no resolution in sight, and then suddenly the constitutional amendment was approved. While it seemed impossible to reach a consensus at many moments in that long debate, members of Congress knew how to leave things in the best shape possible for making progress down the road — so when the time was right, they could pick the issue up again and reach a resolution. 

This is why it's not the disagreement itself that matters in Congress, it's how you disagree. Harsh, unyielding, the-other-guy-is-always-wrong discord doesn't leave much room for finding a way forward. But an effort to understand your opponents' point of view, to make it clear that you recognize you merely have a difference of opinion, and to treat them with respect, makes it much more likely that at another time accommodation might be possible. It makes all the difference how the disagreement ends. 

Congress is a very judgmental institution: its members are constantly weighing one another's actions, behavior, and attitudes. So they pay close attention to how their colleagues handle the conflict that is inevitable in a legislative body. 

If an opponent on an issue is unpleasant, demeaning and angry, it's unlikely that a legislator will want to work with him or her in the future. Other members, though, can be just as firm in their opposition but handle the disagreement in a way that makes one willing to go back and work with them on some other issue — or even, if enough time has gone by, on the same issue. 

This is vital. In an institution like the Congress, no member can accomplish things alone; he or she must rely on the collaboration and cooperation of colleagues. Learning how to maintain good relations is crucial, because you never know when you'll need someone's help on an issue of importance to you. This is not easy to do, especially after heated and extended disagreement. 

Yet because the democratic process is, in fact, more about process than any particular legislative product, no conflict is ever final and no question is ever resolved permanently. As circumstances change, the voters' understanding and feelings about an issue evolve, political alignments get shaken up, new information becomes available, or reform becomes more urgent, issues that had been set aside for lack of common ground move back to the forefront. Often, the same players who were involved in them before are still around — but now are working together in a different environment. 

So for a member of Congress, taking the long view is of paramount importance. The plain truth is that every now and again, despite all the consensus-building skills that most politicians — and certainly the effective ones — develop over time, they'll run into a major issue that can't be resolved. What matters then is their perspective. If they recognize that at some point down the road they can come back to it, and treat one another as potential future partners, then progress, once impossible, becomes possible. 

If they demonize one another and behave as though their opponents can only be lifelong enemies, then they'll create their own self-fulfilling prophecy and prove unable to find the remedies they were elected to provide. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)