Knitting Congress and the White House Together

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Sunday, November 12, 2000
It is tempting to look at the results of the recent elections and conclude that we're in trouble. We have an incoming President who by no stretch of the imagination can claim a national mandate for his policies. We have a Congress so closely divided that practically every vote over the next two years has the potential to be a cliffhanger. And we have an electorate that made it plain that it is as unsettled and divided within itself as it has been in recent memory. Talk about a recipe for stalemate in Washington. 

Yet we also know this: Come January, the new President will have to sit down with the new Congress and get about the business of running the country. And they will have to find a way of doing it together, with the cooperation of both parties. Believe it or not, this is eminently doable. 

Begin with the fact that if there was a common element that ran through the polls before Election Day, it was that American voters are fed up with the angry squabbles and standoffishness that have marked relations between the White House and Congress over the past few years. We shouldn't expect a paradise of bipartisanship — not when every significant issue facing the White House and Congress will be scrutinized for its impact on the 2002 congressional elections. But we also shouldn't underestimate public pressure to make progress on reforming Social Security, addressing the growing trade deficit, finding a way to meet the health-care needs of the country's 43 million uninsured citizens, and tackling other urgent issues that will crop up during the next few years, especially if there is an economic downturn. The simple truth is, the President cannot run the country alone. If he wants to make a record for his administration, he has no choice but to find points of accord with Congress. 

In an odd way, the very fact that Congress is so divided may turn out to give the President a chance to heal some of the rifts this election has highlighted. Congress is our most representative branch of government; it articulates the concerns of different segments of the population. So a President who finds a way of forging consensus in Congress by knitting together contrasting views is also a President whose policies have a good chance of generating strong public support. 

How does he develop a working relationship with Congress? To begin with, he has to have a very clear idea of what he wants. Congress is a morass these days, pulled in different directions by talented lobbyists of all stripes and by an astoundingly diverse and vocal population. If the President doesn't lay out a clear and realistic agenda and then stick to it, he'll be buffeted every which way. 

Yet to make progress on his agenda, he must also make a real effort to consult with Congress. I don't mean the sham sort of consultation in which the President calls congressional leaders in, or sends executive branch officials up to Capitol Hill, and says, "Here is our policy, like it or not." Real consultation takes work. It means that Congress and the White House must sit down and talk before decisions are made. It means holding conversations among leaders — congressional leaders of both parties, the President, and his top advisors. And it means a commitment to sustaining the conversation beyond the crisis of the moment; after all, if the administration builds ties in calm periods, it will have a rapport with Members of Congress when the next crisis develops. 

But if the President has to take the lead in working with Congress, Congress, too, has a responsibility to make consultation — both with the President, and across the partisan divide — a high priority. Too often in recent years, calls for bipartisanship have simply been appeals for the opposing party in Congress to approve one's own agenda. Real bipartisanship means engaging the other party in policy formulation. It is too much to expect this on every issue – each party has a legitimate need to highlight issues where there are clear differences between them. But now, more than ever, they also need to do the hard work of finding issues where they can agree. One thing I'm certain about: agreement can be reached on even the difficult issues if the key players are determined to find a consensus approach. 

So I have a small suggestion. Back in 1993, when I was still in Congress, I joined several other Members of the House in introducing a bill to establish a working group made up of the congressional leadership and the chairmen and ranking minority Members of the main congressional committees involved in foreign policy to consult regularly with the President and his key national security advisors. Our effort failed, but it's time to dust it off, expand it to include domestic policy, and try again. I thought it was a good idea seven years ago. I really think it's a good idea now. 

(Lee 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.)