Milbank also mentioned the persistent efforts of No Labels to create bridges by forming a Problem-Solving Caucus and bringing lawmakers of both parties together for dinners that are a bit like Match.com, pairing ideological opposites to find common ground. They already helped create a broad bipartisan cosponsorship for an infrastructure bank proposed by moderate Democratic Representative John Delaney of Maryland.
I yield to no one in my desire to have Congress and Washington work, to achieve the framers' sense of how policymaking in our constitutional institutions should happen—through debate, deliberation, and coalition building via compromise and finding common ground. I strongly supported the "civility retreats" that Congress held for several years beginning in the late 1990s. I pushed hard for a new congressional schedule that would be three weeks in Washington, one back home every month, with an additional set of incentives to have lawmakers bring their families to Washington to encourage more social interaction across party lines, which should lead to less demonizing. The lack of interpersonal relationships or ties, among and between the party leaders but also among the rank-and-file, especially in the House, does in fact encourage bad behavior, name-calling, and worse.
But we also need a reality check here. The bigger problems with gridlock and dysfunction are not because individuals do not trust each other; they are because of larger factors in the political process and the culture.
What are those larger factors? Let's start with the rise and dominance of the permanent campaign. For decades after I came to Washington, there was a clear separation between a season of campaigning and a season of governing—a move from a zero-sum game to an additive one. There were norms that reinforced the seasons—members did not actively campaign against their colleagues from other districts or states, and they would never go to another district or state to campaign against them. Those on the other side of the aisle were adversaries, not enemies.
But starting in the late 1970s—maybe with the sharply ideological independent campaign in 1978—that began to shift. Campaign consultants and pollsters who used to melt away from Washington after elections to reemerge 18 months later began to stick around for the full two-year cycle. Their emphasis, whispering in their clients' ears, was not on big national issues but on the partisan-driven "wedge" issues that could bring political advantage or create a headache unless neutralized. Fundraising ramped up, and lawmakers spending more time on the phone and pooling efforts against a broader threat to their well-being.
With the Republican takeover in the Senate in 1980 for the first time in 26 years, and then with the Gingrich-driven GOP takeover in the House in 1994 for the first time in 40 years, we saw a sea change in politics that amplified the impact of the permanent campaign. From then on, every election has had within it the seeds of a turnover in party control in one chamber or the other, or both. The stakes became much higher—and were made higher yet by the increasing ideological polarization of the parties in both houses. Suddenly, working with those on the other side of the aisle had potentially larger consequences—it might make voters feel better about the other party, and might reward them for popular policies or just for working together.