A Step-by-Step Guide to Fixing Congress

I testified before Congress on partisan civility. Here was my advice.

Photo: Bloomberg Creative Photos/Getty Images

Last week, I spoke before lawmakers at a hearing held by the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. As a veteran political scientist, my congressional testimony focused on polarization: why Congress is more divided than ever, and how politicians might bridge this partisan gap.

In my academic career, I tend to think of members of Congress like lab mice: subjects to be observed and studied. But at the hearing, I was their subject to be questioned. And boy, did they have questions — namely, how did Congress become so polarized? And how could it ever hope to reverse course?

Answering the first question is easy, sort of: Blame the partisan divide on rising economic inequality, Democrats’ and Republicans’ ideological shifts on issues of racial justice and changes in campaign finance laws. Beyond the usual explanations, there’s also the simple fact that many members of Congress have little social contact with any of their colleagues, let alone their ideological counterparts. People have lamented for years about how members of Congress don’t have the time or wherewithal to get to know one another, a fact that certainly contributes to much of the gridlock we see in Washington.

But, as I explained in my testimony, polarization can’t just be fixed through dinner parties or photo ops. There are, however, a few steps Congress could take to actually improve communication and camaraderie — and, in turn, the fate of the American people:

  • Make bipartisanship natural. A lot of mundane things on Capitol Hill are segregated by party, but they don’t have to be. When new members of Congress come for training sessions at the beginning of their terms, they should be in bipartisan groups, not separated by party. The Democratic and Republican staffers who lead the work on legislative Committees could also work together to produce the Committee’s agenda, rather than separately. Members of Congress can go on short trips to one another’s congressional districts, to help emphasize the similarities between their respective districts.
  • Use caucuses. My own research on congressional caucuses shows that these small voluntary groups can provide fertile ground for making bipartisan connections. There are more than 600 of these casual groups on Capitol Hill now — everything from the Bike Caucus to the Parkinson’s Caucus — and members of Congress can join as many groups as they want. These groups have the potential to connect legislators to one another in ways that defy party conventions.
  • Lean on technology. What if members of Congress had an internal, closed, social media platform, not for public consumption, where they could share ideas and have a private space for discourse? Rather than grandstanding, members might use it to communicate across the aisle with colleagues that they might otherwise not know. It could be like a Congressional Facebook, but without the cat videos.
  • Make them sit next to each other. Research has shown that when legislators sit near one another it can create the conditions for bipartisan agreement. Imagine watching the State of the Union, and instead of party segregated seating, members of Congress were seated in a bipartisan or random pattern. Small changes like these can help set the tone for bipartisan cooperation.

Even if the committee’s members can’t fix all that is broken in U.S. politics, they can at least recommend changes to improve the day-to-day functionality of Congress — and at this point, any little bit helps.

Associate professor political science, Schar School Policy and Government, George Mason Univ.; Congress, parties, campaign finance, networks. Blogger @MisofFact

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