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How do we reduce partisanship

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POSTED: June 26, 2008 5:00 a.m.
There are times when Congress and much of the political class in Washington remind me of a child who can't resist sneaking a handful of cookies from the jar: They know that too much partisanship is getting them in trouble, but they can't help themselves. Politicians want one more maneuver to make the other side look bad; one more hunk of red meat tossed to the party's base; one more legislative standoff to show their partisans they mean what they say. Then they'll reckon with the public's clear preference for political leaders who know how to work together.
I know politics is a contact sport, and hard-hitting partisan competition is unavoidable, even desirable. It offers clear choices and different approaches to solving our problems, and it enhances the accountability of those in power when the other side is willing to point out weaknesses in their thinking or their performance.
Still, the country at large yearns for less polarization these days, and thinks that partisan engagement has gone too far. Even Washington insiders acknowledge the extreme partisanship of recent years has made it more difficult to govern productively, leading more often to stalemate than to policy advances. They go to great oratorical lengths to deplore how partisan the institution has become. Acknowledging the problem, though, is easier than knowing what to do about it.
For it's a tough one. As a nation, we remain closely divided in our political philosophies. The upshot in Congress is that party leaders assess each bill for how it will help or hurt chances to pick up seats; the lens through which they see legislation too often has to do with power, not effective policy making.
So what can we do? The first step, I think, rests with American voters. However slowly, Congress responds to what its members hear back home. A drumbeat of dislike for mean-spirited partisanship and insistence on working through differences will eventually get through. Members of Congress must be held responsible for the kind of institution they inhabit.
There's a tougher nut to crack, too, which has to do with rebuilding the strength of the dormant center in American politics. On this front, there are any number of steps that might make little difference alone, but together could add up to a sea change in how Washington operates.
One of them is already happening: the rise of the Internet for fundraising. The ability to go over the heads of well-heeled special interests and fund a campaign through the small donations of ordinary Americans has the potential to rewrite political candidates' loyalties once they're in office. The less financial influence wielded by groups with a specific cause, the better the chance that our essential moderation as a nation will get reflected in Washington.
Equally important is a growing restlessness with how congressional districts get drawn. For the most part, district maps are designed by state legislatures, which often defer to the wishes of their congressional delegations. Somehow, these maps nearly always produce safe districts for one party or the other, instead of competitive districts that would produce candidates adept at forging coalitions of independents and moderates of both parties. Turning redistricting over to independent commissions charged with crafting districts based on commonality of interest and geographic compactness, rather than partisan affiliation may not be a panacea, but it would make a difference.
There is work to be done on Capitol Hill, too, though it might not seem like work: Legislators need to get to know one another. It is hard to attack someone you know well. Yet the congressional schedule ñ constant travel back home to meet with constituents, the need to raise money, the pressures of campaigning ñ keeps members of Congress and their families out of Washington, away from their colleagues, and far less likely to find time for forging friendships across partisan lines.
It's also important for members of Congress to look deliberately for issues that hold the hope of successful bipartisanship. Our nation's need for investment in its aging infrastructure - its roads, bridges, and transportation networks - offers one such possibility. It's not a partisan issue; it's a good governance issue.
Then, once Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have come together to resolve a few problems like this, they may come to understand what ordinary Americans have known for some time: The only way to solve our really tough problems - health care, energy independence, the rise of terrorism, the challenges posed by globalization - is to work together as a nation. In a nation as closely divided as ours, political leaders who know how to emphasize the common purpose - rather than their own party's monopoly on the truth - will ultimately be the ones to lead us from our current partisan morass.

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.


 

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