Americans have repeatedly told pollsters about their exhaustion over partisan politics. Seven in 10 independents clamor for compromise over confrontation. Battle-scarred politicians, such as Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who cultivate thicker skins than armadillos, have cited the toxic environment on the Hill as a reason for retiring. Amid the overheated rhetoric, apocalyptic warnings and well-financed attacks, however, are tales of political cooperation, both small and large. Here is one in a series.
From the mail room to the break room, the secretary pool to the executive suite, there's always a place where staffers get together to chat or kvetch. After work, there's always the coffee klatch or a happy-hour hangout for folks to wind down.
But not for staffers working for the legislators making the law of the land—that kind of fraternizing just wasn't done on the Hill. That is, until Across the Aisle Foundation, the cultural arm of the nonpartisan No Labels, decided to host a party, the First 100 Days of the 113th Congress, on Oct. 2.
"It wasn't difficult," says Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist, former media adviser to President George W. Bush, and a co-founder of No Labels. "We were very encouraged to see the kind of positive response we got. It just hadn't been done before, and we discovered when you do it, it's not that hard. People are always looking for free food and drink."
Congressional gridlock to conversational gambit
For a first, the turnout was more than respectable: About 300 congressional staffers of every Republican and Democratic persuasion showed up, to nosh on hors d'oeuvres and dessert. They also listened to a panel on problem-solving that featured the likes of former Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind.; former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va.; RealClearPolitics editor Carl Cannon; Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman; Brookings Institution senior fellow William Galston (a former adviser to President Bill Clinton); MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski; and former Gov. John Engler, R-Mich.
"We've been advocating for a long time to get members of opposing parties to talk to one another," McKinnon tells Yahoo News. "This was an attempt for the staff to get together, an effort to foster an environment of greater cooperation."
In the not-so-distant past, famous enduring friendships like that of Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch crossed political borders. Main Street Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats brokered deals. Senators even got together for Seersucker Thursday, a Trent Lott tradition that harks back to the pre-air-conditioning days of Southern gentility. Sadly, a memo ended the 16-year sartorial habit this summer.
These days, the legitimate need to be all-business, combined with unlimited travel allowances, have cut the social bonds between lawmakers and their families. That has left time only for rancor and finger-pointing, which hasn't exactly improved congressional efficiency.
Going for brokers
No Labels is one of the bipartisan nonprofits aiming to restore functionality in government. The group has gained 600,000 members since its 2010 launch. One of its goals is to get 40 members of the House and Senate to be problem-solvers, then gradually up that number to 100. "In this very partisan environment, there needs to be a go-to group on both sides of the aisle," McKinnon explains. "When they're trying to reach an agreement on an issue, they need a group that has members working together." No Labels hopes to announce this caucus on Jan. 14.
A true cooperative environment should include not just the bosses who get along, but also the staff who does the legwork. The Across the Aisle event worked so well, some staffers wanted to get together again, says No Labels deputy director Margaret Kimbrell, who adds that they'll be having a meeting in December.
And while compromise has the whiff of betrayal for some, working together—and sharing a canape—doesn't mean checking in their respective causes at the coatroom. "We had staffers from the far left, far right and everything in between join us," Kimbrell says. "We are not a centrist organization, and we don't expect lawmakers or staffers to shed their identity. They can be proud liberals, proud conservatives or anything in between as long as they are willing to put problem-solving first."