Problem Solving and Governance: Building Trust to Reduce Congressional Gridlock

Over the six years that Trent Lott and Tom Daschle spent together as the respective leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties in the United States Senate, the two engaged in many heated conflicts with one another. It would have been difficult to predict back then that several years after leaving office, the two would come together to develop a joint set of recommendations for how to make Congress work better in an age of highly polarized politics.

Among the more than 60 consensus recommendations made by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s 2014 Commission on Political Reform – which was chaired by Lott and Daschle along with Senator Olympia Snowe, Secretary Dan Glickman, and Governor Dirk Kempthorne – are a series of measures that would create space for leaders in Washington to spend more time talking with one another across party lines. More dialogue facilitates increased perspective sharing and trust, and with more trust comes stronger relationships and the potential for better governance through productive bipartisan negotiation.

There is not enough interparty member dialogue anymore — either within the working walls of Congress or socially. The result is gridlock. A key ingredient for a functioning legislative body is working venues for cross-aisle communication that lead to trust and cooperation, and ultimately, to enactment of legislation.

Tom Daschle, Co-Chair of BPC’s Commission on Political Reform and Former Senate Majority Leader

Despite the current heightened state of conflict and polarization in Congress, we at the Democracy Fund believe that a more productive and responsive Congress where parties find common ground in an effort to reflect the American public’s will is possible. Although certainly not the sole cure for the current vicious cycle of hyper-partisanship in Congress, building trust and relationships across partisan divides is integral to reducing Congressional paralysis. Further, when political incentives, public pressure, and other circumstances do drive lawmakers to the negotiating table, a minimum level of mutual respect and trust must be present to effectively address the concerns most important to the American people.

Several Democracy Fund grantees have sought to foster greater dialogue among our nation’s leaders to this end. The oldest among these is the Aspen Institute’s Congressional Program. In 2014, Aspen hosted 23 Congressional breakfasts in which 113 Members of Congress learned about and discussed important issues in a bipartisan, bicameral setting. Aspen also hosted three international trips in which 48 Members of Congress had the opportunity to spend significant time with one another as they traveled in Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East.

It’s too easy today to skirt the tough battles rather than to seek compromise. But that’s not how legislating is supposed to work. You need to wade into the issues, especially the difficult ones, and have real meetings between Democrats and Republicans. Otherwise we can never address the most important issues. We are all in this together and there are usually areas for policy agreement if we can at least hear the opposition’s positions.

Trent Lott, Co-Chair of BPC’s Commission on Political Reform and Former Senate Majority Leader

Members themselves have indicated the importance of discussions on these trips and at these breakfasts for deepening their understanding of one another and of the ways in which other leaders approach critical issues. For instance, after a series of Aspen events on Iran policy, Congressman Blumenauer wrote that, “Some minds have been changed, but more important, opinions were better informed and different points of view given more respect. People are being more careful and much more deliberate about the issue.” These sentiments have been supported further by an independent evaluation of the Aspen program, which found that participating in the sessions produced high quality bi-chamber and bi-party relationships, improved Members’ knowledge of key issues, and increased civility among the participants.

A newer organization, the No Labels Foundation, has forged a bipartisan caucus of nearly 100 Members of Congress, equally divided between Democrats and Republicans. It also has organized joint planning sessions, meetings, and social events in order to create space for the Members and their staff to find common ground on a set of national strategic goals. The strategic goals focus on job creation, a balanced federal budget, securing Medicare and Social Security into the future, and energy security, and will provide an important platform for future discussions and legislative engagement.

The goal of civility is a more productive General Assembly. We can do a better job of serving our constituents If we’re civil with one another.

NICD civility training participant, State Senator Frank LaRose, Ohio

Another Democracy Fund grantee, the Faith & Politics Institute, has used the common faith traditions of Members, along with their shared interest in important developments in the history of the United States, to build bridges between the parties. Regular prayer groups among Members and staff are complemented by pilgrimages, like the annual trip to Selma, Alabama with Congressman John Lewis, to forge new bonds outside of the context of partisan disagreements.

Finally, the National Institute for Civil Discourse has sought to influence the behavior and skills of the next generation of national leaders by hosting bipartisan trainings in state legislatures across the country. NICD has convened its “Building Trust through Civil Discourse” training for legislatures in 8 states, with over 200 legislators participating in the workshops so far, and the number of participating state legislatures is expected to grow to over ten in 2015. The strong reception of the trainings, in conjunction with the positive feedback from training participants, indicates the potential for building a more civil democratic system at multiple levels of our government.

Lawmakers’ own words offer a clear statement about the importance of working to strengthen governance through trust building. In a 2013 editorial on the Commission on Political Reform, former Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said this:

Debate over policy and political views should strengthen our government, not paralyze it. So we need to find a way to promote bipartisan cooperation on crucial issues, even while continuing to nurture healthy debate and disagreement….when the strength of our nation is at stake, we have always found a way to come to the table, compromise and move forward as one. Let’s start again today.

We agree that reducing Congressional gridlock is essential for restoring effective governance, and we know that many of our nation’s leaders feel that building trust is an essential part of that process: together, nearly half of the members of Congress have participated in at least one of the projects organized by Democracy Fund grantees.

  • Aspen Institute Congressional Program
  • Bipartisan Policy Center
  • National Institute for Civil Discourse
  • No Labels Foundation
  • The Faith & Politics Institute