An Agenda for a Divided Congress

An Agenda for a Divided Congress
AP Photo/J. David Ake
An Agenda for a Divided Congress
AP Photo/J. David Ake
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As we wake up this morning, America knows it will soon have a divided government – a Republican-controlled Senate and a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. That new reality naturally conjures up painful thoughts of two more years of fighting rather than fixing, two more years of partisan acrimony, and two more years of gridlock. But none of that has to be the case.

In fact, Congress has operated well in the past when its power was divided between the two major political parties. After all, checks and balances are what the Founders desired.

The reason may be that a divided Congress forces the parties to work together and share responsibility. Some of the most impactful legislation enacted by Congress in our lifetimes – the Cold War response to the Soviet threat, our federal highway system, civil rights legislation, tax reform, Social Security reform, welfare reform, the post-9/11 response to terror -- came from bipartisan leadership. In fact, one could argue that enduring legislation is unlikely without bipartisan support.

So to those who argue that Congress will inevitably slide down a rut of inaction, remember that inaction/gridlock is a choice – and for Congress, it’s the worst one.

Congress – regardless of who controls it – is today less popular than the flu. The reason is simple: It routinely fails to address the nation’s priorities because it consistently chooses party and ideology over problem-solving. We the people have grown numb to Congress failing to fulfill its basic responsibilities – not passing budgets, not working together on national security and intelligence matters and not discharging its responsibilities in a fair and thoughtful way.

If the 116th Congress wants to succeed, it will have to prove to voters it can do the basic work entrusted to it by the Constitution, and address the intractable problems of the nation.

Where is the agenda that will stimulate and animate a respected, responsible and productive Congress? Look first for areas where there is real agreement between the parties, even though they don’t acknowledge it. For example, our nation’s infrastructure is a mess – roads, bridges, rail, airports and seaports are overstressed and under-capitalized. We need an infrastructure overhaul, and both parties have good reasons to support one.

The incoming Congress could also take on the issue of privacy and technology – an area where most Americans and both parties are right to demand more accountability from big technology companies.

Congress could also produce sensible and bipartisan immigration reform, if the majority of members have the will. For too long, the extremes in both parties have defined the debate over immigration for their political benefit. And yet, majorities in both parties support a balanced package that could pass. The details will matter, and there will be many moments when emotions will rule the day, but this much is clear: Most Americans are tired of our broken immigration and citizenship system and would welcome reform.

None of this is possible without leadership, beginning with the White House. President Trump will have to play a mediating role – tamping down the harsh rhetoric he has deployed against political opponents. Can he do it? That’s up to him. But I’ve never met a president preparing for a tough re-election who didn’t care what the public wants [ -- and if exit polls are to be believed, the independents who sided with Democratic candidates want a softening of his rhetoric at the very least]. If Americans demand a productive, bipartisan Congress, the president can help make it happen.

President Trump is not the only one who has to change. For too long, leaders in both parties have grown accustomed to hyper-partisanship. It can seem from the sound of things that our nation’s political leaders are trained to achieve one goal – to hurt the other side. That’s not what they were chosen to do.

There are whole armies of enablers to this culture of dislike – not just members of Congress, but their staff, single-issue partisans and the many media pundits. There’s good money to be made from Washington’s civil wars, even though it comes at the expense of the entire nation. But I am confident that the president, working with leaders at the top of each party, can build a new culture in Washington, if they want to.

That culture would make room for debate and disagreement, but ultimately would lead to collaboration and coordination on important issues that matter to all Americans. We need a Congress that takes seriously, for example, its Constitutional responsibility to provide for the common defense, to hold committee hearings on judicial nominees that don’t devolve into screaming matches, and to hold discussions of new problems that afflict our nation, such as the opioid epidemic.

The future of America depends on constructive action on these important problems. We can expect differences of opinion but we cannot accept partisan and mutual denigration. Americans have seen Congress function reasonably well in the past, so we know there is a better way to do the people’s business. It’s time for Congress – both parties – to do it.

Joe Lieberman, a former U.S. senator from Connecticut, is national co-chairman of No Labels, an organization working to create a new center in American politics that puts country before party.

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